“Shylock Wrote Shakespeare”

by David P. Gontar (August 2013)

How courtesy would seem to cover sin
When what is done is like an hypocrite,
The which is good in nothing but in sight.

                                   — Pericles


I.  Introduction: Shakespeare's Moral Philosophy

In As You Like It, when young Orlando is about to flee from the homicidal rage of his brother Oliver and usurping Duke Frederick, he realizes that to escape requires financial reserves he doesn't possess. Told of Orlando's plight, and the possibility that he will have to turn to robbery just to survive, the elderly family servant Adam offers to put his entire life savings of five hundred crowns at Orlando's disposal.  


But do not so. I have five hundred crowns,
The thrifty hire I saved under your father,
Which I did store to be foster-nurse
When service should in my old limbs lie lame,
And unregarded age in corners thrown.
Take that, and he that doth the ravens feed,
Yea providently caters for the sparrow,
Be comfort to my age. Here is gold,
All this I give you. Let me be your servant.
(II, iv, 39-47)

Passages such as this catch the distilled essence of Shakespeare. And it should go without saying that words such as these are not known to those unsteeped in his art. Wealth is an instrument allowing us to live, but for Shakespeare, poet and dramatist, the meaning of life lies elsewhere, in our wavering devotion to nobility, grace, beauty, and to those who embody those ideals. The frequent error of taking the means for the end, existing for the sake of gain, is for Shakespeare the perennial perversion of mankind. 

In Act II, Sc. iv, as Rosalind and Celia enter disguised into the forest of Arden, Celia (now Aliena) is exhausted and fainting with hunger. (II, iv, 60-62)  Rosalind immediately stops Corin the shepherd and requests food for her.


I prithee, shepherd, if that love or gold
Can in this desert place buy entertainment,
Bring us where we may rest ourselves, and feed.
Here's a young maid with travel much oppressed,
And faints for succor.
(II, iv, 70-74)

Pitying Aliena, Corin pledges: “I will your very faithful feeder be.” (II, iv, 98)

Further on, in another part of the forest, Orlando must halt because Adam is too weary and famished to take another step. (“O, I die for food.”) With no thought of himself, the youth promises to bring relief.


Why, how now, Adam? No greater heart in
thee? Live a little, comfort a little, cheer thyself a little.
If this uncouth forest yield anything savage I will either
be food for it or bring it for food to thee. Thy conceit
is nearer death than thy powers. For my sake be
comfortable. Hold death awhile at the arm's end. I will
here be with thee presently, and if I bring thee not
something to eat, I will give thee leave to die. But if
thou diest before I come, thou art a mocker of my
labour. Well said. Thou lookest cheerly, and I'll be with
thee quickly. Yet thou liest in the bleak air. Come. I
will bear thee to some shelter, and thou shalt not die
for lack of a dinner if there live anything in this desert.
Cheerly, good Adam!
(II, vi, 4-15)

Suffering from hunger himself, Orlando's only thought is of his old and loyal companion.

In the next scene we witness Orlando's encounter with Duke Senior and his band of men of the forest sitting at their table to feast. Orlando, near crazed with desperation, bursts in, sword drawn.

Once more the magnanimous spirit of Shakespeare unfolds before us.


Forbear, and eat no more!


Why, I have eat none yet.


Nor shalt not till necessity be served.


Of what kind should this cock come of?


Art thou thus boldened, man, by thy distress?
Or else a  rude despiser of good manners,
That in civility thou seem'st so empty?


You touched my vein at first. The thorny point
Of bare distress hath ta'en me from the show
Of smooth civility. Yet am I inland bred,
And know some nurture. But forbear, I say.
He dies that touches any of this fruit
Till I and my affairs are answered.


And you will not be answered with reason, I must die.


What would you have? Your gentleness shall force
More than your force move us to gentleness.


I almost die for food; and let me have it.


Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table.


Speak you so gently? Pardon me, I pray you.
I thought all things had been savage here,
And therefore put I on the countenance
Of stern commandment. But whate'er you are
That in this desert inaccessible,
Under the shade of melancholy boughs,
Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time,
If ever you have looked on better days,
If ever been where bells have knolled to church,
If ever sat at any god man's feast,
If ever from your eyelids wiped a tear,
And know what 'tis to pity, and be pitied,
Let gentleness my strong enforcement be.
In the which hope I blush and hide my sword.


True it is that we have seen better days,
And have with holy bell been knolled to church,
And sat at good men's feasts, and wiped our eyes
Of drops that sacred pity hath engendered.
And therefore sit you down in gentleness,
And take upon command what help we have 
That to your wanting may be ministered.


Then but forebear your food a little while
While's, like a doe, I go to find my fawn
And give it food. There is an old poor man
Who after me hath many a weary step
Limped in pure love. Till he be first sufficed,
Oppressed with two weak evils, age and hunger,
I will not touch a bit.


Go find him out,
And we will nothing waste till you return.


I thank ye; and be blessed for your good comfort!  [exit]


Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy.
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
(II, vii, 88-138)

Throughout these sublime exchanges we cannot avoid being impressed with Shakespeare's desire to illustrate profound compassion and appreciation of the agonies of human want and deprivation. Indeed, in this last stanza cited above, his view of the entire terrestrial realm as one “map of woe” comes into focus. (Titus Andronicus, III, ii, 12) It is in that killing field of universal sorrow that the deed of sympathy takes on the greatest meaning. In such utterances, reiterated throughout his works, we hear above the chatter the authentic voice of Shakespeare, teaching mercy to an inhumane humanity. 

It resonates again in Cymbeline. Imogen, disguised as Fidele, arrives at the cave of Belarius, alone, frightened, and empty of sustenance. Drawing her sword, she enters to forage for food. As she emerges, she walks directly into the presence of Belarius and the two grown sons of Cymbeline, Guiderius and Arviragus. 


Good masters, harm me not.
Before I entered here I called, and thought
To have begged or bought what I took. Good truth,
I have stol'n naught, nor would not, though I had found
Gold strewd i'th'floor. Here's money for my meat.
I would have left it on the board so soon
As I made my meal, and parted
With prayers for the provider.


Money, youth?


All gold and silver rather turn to dirt,
As 'tis no better reckoned but of those
Who worship dirty gods.
(Cymbeline, III, vi, 44-55)

Once more, the primacy of need and our duty to alleviate the pain of want is contrasted with base coin, and those who worship that “dirty god.” Could anything show more clearly where Shakespeare's emphatic sentiments lie? The same theme, over and over, is etched in stone.

II.  A Biographical Variance

It is therefore surprising to learn that not only did Shakespeare not possess the qualities and virtues he extolled in the foregoing selections from his works, he was, in fact, at the very antipodes in relation thereto. Contemporary research by certified scholars has reinforced the traditional view of William Shakespeare as a miser of the most egregious sort, a greedy and sadistic brute who took pleasure in the financial exploitation of helpless individuals. This unsettling story was unveiled April 1, 2013 by no less an authority than the BBC New Mid-Wales in a report entitled “William Shakespeare: Study Sheds Light on the Bard as Food Hoarder.” This was evidently replicated by Ms. Marah Eakin, using a caption so distasteful it is not suitable for scholarly citation. The following quote will do:

Researchers from the Potterian-sounding [the reference is to the authoritative Harry Potter series] Aberstwyth University have discovered that William Shakespeare was a tax-evading grain hoarder. According to Dr. Jayne Archer and Professors Margaret Turley and Howard Thomas, Shakespeare made a lot of his money by buying up large amounts of grain, malt, and barley to store, later selling it for inflated prices when his fellow countrymen were struggling.

They believe the playwright did this for 15 years and faced fines for illegal hoarding, as well as being threatened with jail time for failing to pay his taxes. (Eakin, no page available, emphasis added)

It turns out that, contrary to the ideals for which he is acclaimed, Shakespeare was a loan shark, a manipulator of monies who never hesitated to charge usurious interest and then bring suit to collect against his impecunious victims. He was, to put it bluntly, a financial vampire.

To the list of his unseemly features, including loan shark, usurer, habitual grain hoarder, tax-dodger, law breaker, and exploiter of the downtrodden, we would also add that he was surely the biggest hypocrite that ever lived. The cognitive dissonance created by the discrepancy between what he taught in imperishable verse and the life he actually led is like a knife thrust into the brain of any caring and discerning reader. For Shakespeare the mega-hypocrite was well aware of the vice of hypocrisy and treated it in his plays, in fact, returning to it ten times. Shakespeare excoriates 'hypocrites' in Pericles, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure King Henry VI Parts One and Two, and Hamlet. He scorns 'hypocrisy' in Henry VIII, Love's Labour's Lost, Othello and King Richard II. Condemning the ugliness of hypocrisy in his works, Shakespeare scores a literary first by being the only known writer to be a hypocrite about hypocrisy! 

In assessing his fault, he must be set down as far worse than Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock's conduct reflects custom and the social constraints in the city of St. Mark, and at no time does he condemn the lending of money at interest. In fact, he defends it. Shakespeare, on the other hand, composes a play in which the usurer is the villain, when in fact he himself is a super-usurer who puts down usury and hypocrisy as mischief. Is it plausible to imagine that Shylock could write a play in which the loan shark is the villain?

Let us dwell on the pedagogical implications of this “discovery.” So far as can be ascertained from news accounts, these scholars are arguing that the author of the plays was a financial bloodsucker and grotesque hypocrite. It is thus the author's reputation which is being blackened here. And blackened for whom? Shakespeare is being ruined principally for young people, most sensitive to those who preach high doctrine while indulging in the very things of which they publicly disapprove. In an age of multiculturalism,  shrinking attention spans and text messaging addiction, Shakespeare, the quintessential “dead white male” is hardly a rising star. Quite the contrary. As of this writing, he is rapidly disappearing as required reading for university English majors across the United States. Learners are already disdainful of him, and eager for any excuse to scrap him. Hearing of the poet's unsavory character and behavior can only make this situation worse. Not only was Shakespeare of lowly origins, it turns out he was a crook. Could anything be more discouraging? When a nobody like Marah Eakin can hurl mud at Shakespeare, what does the future hold for young readers today? Have we not indeed seen the best of our time?

III.  A Modest Proposal

It is well known to every scholar in Renaissance studies that there has been for at least a century a furious debate about Shakespeare's identity. Thousands of books and articles have taken up the question of whether the bricoleur from Stratford-Upon-Avon could actually have penned the world-famous material attributed to him. There is no dodging that. How is it, then, that news reports about the findings of Archer, Turley and Thomas never once broach the alternative that, since William of Stratford was an unprincipled hooligan, we might do better by attributing the plays, as has been long proposed, to someone else?

Of course hypocrisy is common. Many a rabble-rousing preacher has fallen into the sins he railed against. But what is apparently alleged now is that the world's most refined artist and eminent educator was in fact a zealous barbarian, the very prototype of Shakespearean monstrosity. It's like finding out that Blaise Pascal was all along the Marquis de Sade. If journalistic accounts are credited, one must wonder what could be in the minds of people like Archer, Turley and Thomas. Have they read Shakespeare – or just confined themselves to relics of the courts? In personal correspondence with Dr. Jayne Archer, April 4 2013, she declined to indicate whether in her forthcoming lecture she intends to distinguish the nefarious activities of William Shakspere from the views of the author of the poems and plays. But as things stand, the tale being set before us of homo stratfordianus is about as congruent with the plays of Shakespeare as two autos in a head-on collision.  



William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, 2d edition, G. Taylor and S. Wells, eds.,  Clarendon, 2005.


“William Shakespeare:  Study Sheds Light on the Bard as Food Hoarder,”  BBC New Mid-Wales 1 April 2013

“New Study Finds That Shakespeare Was a Tax-Evading Grain Hoarding [——-],”  Marah Eakin, 1 April 2013.


David P. Gontar's latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays.


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