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Nothing happens on stage in the Venice of the play that could not have happened in London; indeed, a number of events could have happened only in London. Most of the legal aspects are uniquely English: Shylock's bond; Antonio's arrest; Judge Portia's fear of precedent; Antonio's requirement of a use; and Gratiano's wish for a jury.
By mid–sixteenth century, London had surpassed Venice as a maritime commercial power. The play does contain a few references to events that happen off stage at identifiably Venetian locales: the Ryalto and a Gondilo. London had its own equivalent of the Rialto—the Royal Exchange; in fact, Londoners in Shakespeare’s time considered it to be superior to the Rialto.

In 1565, Sir Thomas Gresham built at his own expense a bourse or Exchange, modeled on the Antwerp Bourse. Elizabeth visited the Exchange in 1571, and bestowed upon it the name “Royal.”

The Royal Exchange

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The Royal Exchange was the background for Thomas Heywood’s play, The second part of, If you know not me, you know no bodie, With the building of the Royall Exchange: and the famous victorie of Queene Elizabeth, in the yeare 1588 (first published in 1606). The first three acts of this play relate to the building of the Royal Exchange. When asked if he had ever seen a “goodlier frame,” a Lord answers:
"Not in my life; yet I have been in Venice,
In the Rialto there, called Saint Mark’s;
‘Tis but a bauble, if compared to this.
The nearest, that which most resembles this,
Is the great Burse in Antwerp, yet no comparable
Either in height or wildeness, the fair cellarage,
Or goodly shops above. Oh my Lord Mayor,
This Gresham hath much graced your city of London;
His fame will long outlive him."


London also had the equivalent of gondolas: wherries (water taxis). Recall the scene in Shakespeare In Love when Will hails a wherry and follows Lady Viola to her father’s mansion.


As for merchants made wealthy by international shipping, London even had its own Merchant Adventurers, complete with Royal Charters. Recall that the Duke referred to Antonio as a royal Merchant .


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London's Charter

When Shylock told the Duke, If you deny [the due and forfeit of his bond], let the danger light/ Upon your Charter and your City’s freedom, he was referring to the various Charters that English monarchs—notably William the Conqueror and John—had granted to the City of London, guaranteeing its freedom from direct control by the monarch. Venice had been a republic for centuries, and had no such Charters.

The Duke was not the Doge

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The image at the right is of Doge Leonardo Loredano, wearing the corno ducale.

Shakespeare invented the Duke of Venice; no character similar to the Duke appears in any of his sources. Beginning in the eighth century, the titular head of the Republic of Venice had always been called the Doge. Although that title derives from the Latin duc, the position of the Doge did not correspond with that of an English Duke. For example, it did not descend by primogeniture. Rather, the Doge was elected for a life term by a committee formed by descendants of the wealthy families that constituted the Venetian oligarchy, from whose ranks the man they elected to this largely ceremonial position would have come. By Shakespeare’s time, the Doge had virtually no power of his own; any significant matters had to be approved by one or more of the various committees set up by the members of the business–oriented oligarchy

The Doge was not a Judge

For centuries before Shakespeare’s time, Venice had an established system for administering justice. The Doge did not act as a judge; rather, members of the oligarchy periodically organized themselves into several different committees to decide legal issues. There was one group of forty judges to decide civil disputes, and a separate group of forty judges to handle criminal matters. Under this system, it was impossible for one person or family to decide anyone’s fate—economic, penal, or capital—without several layers of appeal to various groups of deciders.

Any alien who statute that Judge Portia pulled out of her hat near the end of the trial scene provided that ...the offender’s life lies in the mercy/ Of the Duke only, gainst all other voice. The Venetian oligarchy distrusted centralized authority, and any such statute would have been anathema to them.

The remainder of this analysis will treat the trial scene as if it occurred in an English common law court, circa 1597. Shakespeare had Gratiano wish for a jury, and had Judge Portia express concern that her decision would be recorded for a precedent; the concepts of a jury, and of creating a precedent by a judicial ruling taken down by a reporter, apply only to common law courts.

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