Venice. Two faithful friends are pitted against a vengeful moneylender who is out for blood. In a climactic trial scene they proclaim their willingness to die for each other; the moneylender’s revenge rebounds against him when a woman outwits him, and in a further twist of the knife his daughter ends up married to a man he despises.
That sounds a lot like The Merchant of Venice, but the play I have in mind is A Knack to Know an Honest Man, first staged by the Admiral’s Men on 22 October 1594 and printed in 1596. Though not exactly a source of Shakespeare’s play, the anonymous Knack strikingly anticipates it in its setting, its treatment of the friendship theme, its trial scene, and the usurer’s betrayal by his daughter, suggesting that Shakespeare was aware of it when writing his own comedy (thought to have appeared in 1596). He certainly knew Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, a drama more familiar to most modern readers and playgoers than A Knack to Know an Honest Man and a fixture in the Admiral’s repertory in this period. The Admiral’s had another play presumably set in Venice, The Venetian Comedy (now lost), and staged it a dozen times between 24 August 1594 and 8 May 1595; The Merchant of Emden (staged 30 July 1594) was probably unlike Shakespeare’s in terms of plot, judging by its probable narrative source, but its title, at least, follows a similar formula.
All this is to say that The Merchant of Venice is a play very much of its theatrical moment. Source studies like Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare tend to privilege the prose works from which it takes its plot: Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il pecorone (1558), Richard Robinson’s translation of the Gesta Romanorum (1595), and Il novellino by Masuccio Salernitano (1575). Attempts to link it to contemporary drama typically begin and end with The Jew of Malta, a play perhaps seven years old by the time Merchant appeared (albeit still going strong at the Rose). But a vision of theatrical history that restricts itself to major figures such as Shakespeare and Marlowe obscures the day-to-day theatrical commerce of which Merchant was a product: lost plays like The Venetian Comedy, forgotten plays like A Knack to Know an Honest Man, not to speak of earlier treatments of the ‘faithful friends’ theme such as Richard Edwards’s Damon and Pythias of 1564.
And Merchant went on to influence other products of that context in turn: witness Englishmen for My Money, which the Admiral’s bought from William Haughton in 1598. There, the moneylender is transplanted to London; although referred to as a Portuguese migrant, he is given stereotypically Jewish attributes such as a nose ‘able to shadow Paul’s, it is so great’. Like Shylock’s, his house is ‘hell’ for his daughters; when he invites his enemies (and debtors) to dinner, one observes that he has ‘grown kind’ (compare Merchant, 2.3.2 and 1.3.171). Haughton evidently knew Shakespeare’s play, and presumably expected his audience to as well. More generally, the ongoing currency of the friendship theme is suggested by the fact that the Admiral’s would go on to purchase a play on Damon and Pythias from Henry Chettle in 1600.
A Knack to Know an Honest Man is literally ‘before Shakespeare’ in that it was a successful play that used settings, themes and formulae that would go on to influence Shakespeare in his own dramaturgy. But to think about the English theatre before Shakespeare can also mean recreating a world in which Shakespeare was not yet the dominant, iconic figure he would go on to become: it’s worth remembering that when The Merchant of Venice was first staged, Shakespeare’s name had yet to appear on the title page of a printed play (the first editions of plays such as Richard III, Richard II and Romeo and Juliet gave only the name of his playing company). In this theatrical context, we can see Shakespeare as a working actor and dramatist, drawing on the successful plays and new trends of his time and providing material that other dramatists would recall when producing their own successes, setting their own trends.
Tom Rutter is Lecturer in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama at the University of Sheffield. Shakespeare and the Admiral’s Men: Reading across Repertories on the London Stage, 1594–1600 is published by Cambridge this month.