Shakespeare the Travel Writer Part II: Venice and the Merchant

October 14, 2015

In the Merchant of Venice William Shakespeare was a social critic and travel writer.  The location is certain.  The play is set in the present, the 16th century.  It was written and performed in the closing years of the 16th century, describing characters living in the first half of the 16th century under conditions well known in Italy and England.  Jews had been expelled from England since the 13th century and the expulsion was in effect long after the death of Shakespeare.

Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal came to live, among other places, in Venice.  Initially welcomed or tolerated in the city, in 1516 they were sequestered in a section of the city under guard.  The section of the city chosen for Jewish containment was the Cannaregio, an area made unattractive for residence by years of industrial use.

The name Ghetto began use in Venice in 1516, to describe a place of contained residence.  In 2016, Venice will take away the stigma of place and celebrate a diversity of residents, when it celebrates 500 years of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, the main character of Shakespeare’s play.

The Play

The Merchant of Venice begins, as do many of Shakespeare’s plays, with a dilemma arising from love.  In this instance a young man of noble standing, without the bank account to sustain his lifestyle, desires to obtain the hand of a beautiful and wealthy woman of his social standing, Portia.  The young man’s friend, a merchant of Venice, agrees to fund the courtship.  To obtain the funds the merchant seeks the services of a Jewish moneylender named Shylock.

The merchant’s derogatory comments and overt anti-Semitism have often abused Shylock.  The moneylender is also angry over the recent marriage and conversion to Christianity of his daughter, Jessica.  He agrees to provide the loan, without interest, secured only by a pound of flesh of the merchant, should he default on the loan.  Although the young lovers are joined in marriage, the merchant’s ships are lost at sea causing him to default on the loan.  Shylock demands his pound of flesh.

Portia secretly offers payment of the loan, which is refused.  She then takes center stage to argue that the pound of flesh may contain no blood.  That is, the contract was for flesh, not the life of the debtor.  Portia argues that removal of a pound of flesh will cause the death of the merchant.  Defeated, Shylock relents.  The royal magistrate agrees not to prosecute Shylock and to release state interest in assets of the moneylender, if he will leave his estate to Jessica and become a Christian.

For theatergoers of the 16th and 17th century, the conversion of Shylock was a happy ending.  The Shylock character served as caricature of anti-Semitic views.  In more recent performances of the play, Shylock is portrayed as a sympathetic character, a victim of restrictive social rules.  Of recent performances the most notable may be that of Dustin Hoffman as Shylock in the 1990 performance on the New York stage.

The Ghetto of Venice

Jews finding a safe haven in Venice did not also find themselves welcome.  They were precluded from professions, except medicine, money lending and sale of used clothing and from owning property as they were elsewhere in Europe.  In 1516, Venetian Jews were required to live in a section of the city previously used for a foundry, that which would be considered an environmental toxic zone today.  The Italian word ghèto means slag, or foundry waste.  Synagogues were in residences.

Synagogue in Ghetto Vecchio

Synagogue in Ghetto Vecchio

Today the northern area of Venice, farthest from the Grand Canal, is known as Cannaregio, the place of the Ghetto.  Ironically, the Gheto Nuovo is actually the older section of the ghetto.  The city section was walled and gated.  Jews could not be outside of the ghetto at night.  They were sequestered by religion, not by culture or ethnicity.  Within the Ghetto Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Levantine (Turkey and the East), people lived in separate groups, feeling separate by culture and language, even though they were squeezed into a small area as if unified.

Bridge between Ghetto Nuovo and Ghetto Vecchio

Bridge between Ghetto Nuovo and Ghetto Vecchio

As the population of the Ghetto pushed outward, and Venice desired to compete in commerce with Ancona a neighboring city to the south, Ghetto Vecchio was established.  Across the slim canal to the south of Ghetto Nuovo, connected by a bridge, are the narrow, wandering streets of small shops and a large synagogue.  Families of Ghetto Vecchio that achieved substantial financial status moved from the Ghetto to rent homes near the Grand Canal.  In the 19th century sequestration abated by force of financial ability, not by official policy.

The Ghetto Nuovo Today

In 2016, Venice will celebrate 500 years of the Ghetto as part of the heritage of Venice.  Religious objects hidden and thought lost during the Nazi era have been found and are being restored.  Centuries old buildings are being renovated to preserve the neighborhoods of Jewish lives.  Leading the anniversary efforts are the Venetian Heritage Council, founded and largely by fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg.

The Ghetto Nuovo opens today to a central square as it did 500 years ago.  Present are evidence of fresh water wells and a central fountain from which locals still drink the water.  The porticos fronting buildings on the square are rare in Venice.  They were built to hide the banking activities taking place in the buildings under them.     

Ghetto Square

Ghetto Square

Found on the square of Ghetto Nuovo today are signs of Jewish history beyond the Ghetto.  There is a memorial to the Holocaust, in chilling scenes cast in bronze, and another memorial across the square listing the names of 243 Venetian Jews deported to German death camps during World War II.  The constant police presence in a kiosk on the square is testament to an ongoing need for security.

Locando del Ghetto Hotel view from room 19

Locando del Ghetto Hotel view from room 19

For visitors to Venice today the Ghetto Nuovo is an enchanting place to stay, away from the crowded San Marco Square, whether or not the traveler seeks connection to Jewish history.  From the Marco Polo Airport (VCE) take the Alilaguna orange water taxi to the Guglie stop.  From there it is a short walk, even when dragging luggage, through the Ghetto Vecchio to the open square of Ghetto Nuovo.  The delightful hotel on the square is the Locanda del Ghetto.  CTH recommends room 19, with the balcony overlooking the square.  Several wonderful restaurants are in close proximity.  Shop the streets where the locals go to experience Venice in a new way.

Shop like a local

Shop like a local

Locanda Del Ghetto:

For more on the Jews of Venice see: Cruise through History, Itinerary II – Rome to Venice, Port: Dubrovnik, Where Jewish Doctors Made Housecalls.

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