Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why was Shylock named Shylock?

One of the more useful questions of scholarship is, what kind of Jewish name is Shylock? While there doesn't have to have been any specific intention on the part of Shakespeare - no law obligated him to choose a name by any method other than randomness - the question has engaged scholars since the 18th century, at least. 

Richard Farmer (1735-1797) is credited with calling attention to a little pamphlet published in 1607 which may contain a clue. Farmer's suggestion was printed by George Steevens, editor of Shakespeare's plays, and to whom Farmer had been giving some assistance. 

First, here is the first appearance of Shylock, from the first printed edition of the Merchant of Venice (1600):

Farmer told Steevens about a strange little pamphlet called A Iewes Prophecy, or, Newes from Rome. This book indulges in some ominous heeby-jeeby, prophecying a war of a heretofore unknown Jewish army against the Ottoman Turks. It claims to be translated into English from Italian, which is probably as mythical as the prophets mentioned in it.

At the end of the pamphlet there is "Caleb Shilock his prophecie, for the yeere, 1607. In the text we see that he is "a learned Jew." "The Sun shall be couered with the Dragon in the morning  . . . "

Although it was published in 1607 (or so it says on the title page - title pages have been known to lie, or be mistaken) Farmer thought it significant. As far as I know the possibility that "Caleb Shilock's" name came from Shakespeare's Shylock, which had already been performed and printed by 1600, did not occur to him. Of course it is also possible that the pamphlet was first printed prior to 1607. After all, it is a prophecy for 1607. 

Intriguingly, this strange little piece (or its source) seems to have inspired an old ballad. The famous Pepys collection of broadside ballads contains the following:

You can read the transcribed text of it here. It is no additional evidence, since from the text itself it appears that the ballad was printed in 1607. The second verse makes it clear that the present year is 1607:

And first, within this present yeere,
Beeing Sixteene hundreth seau'n:
The Prince of Planets shall appeare,
Like flaming Fire in heau'n,
     Like flaming Fire his radiant rayes
     To all shall seeme (old Shillock sayes.)
     O Lord, Lord in thy mercie,
     Hold thy heavie hand.

In case you want to know how to sing it, the sheet suggests the tune of Bragandarie. While it would be nice to go, of course, "Rabbi Calev Shaliach" or something like that, sadly we can't do that. (Not as far-fetched as it seems; R. Nathan Shapira, author of Megaleh Amukot, spent some time running around Western Europe and spreading various Messianic ideas among European gentiles, who dutifully wrote about them in their periodicals.) 

Another piece of intriguing, but ultimately probably meaningless evidence is the following. In 1645 a fun little thing to read called A New Bloody Almanack For This Insuing Year 1645 appeared in print. Our hero appears on the final page. As you can see, it claims to be a "Prophesy found of the fall of a wall, at St. Denins, written a hundred Yeares agone by Caleb Shilok an auntient Jew." If it wasn't so obvious that this was entirely made up, one would like to suggest that one hundred years prior to 1645 was 1545, a useful date for our purposes.

Other suggestions have been made. For example, in 1844 Joseph Hunter published his New Illustrations on . . . Shakespeare." On pg. 307 he writes "Shylock was a Levantine Jew, and therefore on the stage, if it is intended that strict regard shall be paid to propriety in matters of costume . . . [suggestions about stage dress. We collect that Shylock was a Levantine Jew from the name: Scialac, which is doubtless the same name in a different orthography, being the name of a Maronite of Mount Libanus, who was living in 1614.

His evidence is a library catalog from 1789, referring to the aforementioned Scialac. It appears that he referred (without knowing it) to one Victor Scialac, who was indeed a Maronite scholar, who taught in Rome in the early part of the 17th century, dying in 1635 (for fun, his Arabic name was Nasrallah Shalaq al-'Aquri). I'm not sure what the suggestion is exactly, only that it was an Eastern name? One later writer asked "How the fact that Scialac was the name of a Maronite Christian lends any probability to the supposition that Shylock was an Eastern Jew, we confess we do not clearly see." The same writer considers the Caleb Shillock angle sufficient, since it was contemporaneous enough to prove that the name was known at the time. Again, I ask, how do we know that the name didn't come from the Merchant of Venice itself? 1607 is 1607.

In a 1932 issue of Notes & Queries the great Cecil Roth, having just finished his great work 'History of the Jews in Venice' related that he could relate two points on the question. The first is that no name even vaguely similar to this is found in the Jewish communal records from Venice of this period. The second is that Shylock could not have been Levantine, for those Jews were restricted from money-lending. The Venetian Jewish money-lenders were all of the Nazione Tudesca, i.e., Ashkenazim. So much for Hunter and his Maronite theory. 

There are still other theories. One writer was convinced that the name Shylock just sounded English, and suggested various possibilities, including a corruption of Sherbrook. While those are of no value, he did point out that in some 14th century record a British man named Sylock is to be found. According to this view, there is nothing to unravel. Shakespeare just made up a name. I find this the least compelling theory, since William did make attempts to name foreign and exotic characters with appropriate names. A Venetian Jew named Smith? Not likely.

Acharon acharon chaviv. While utterly unlikely, you have to love this one. Even the writer knew it probably could not be - he calls it a philological fancy - but shared his theory anyway. In the May 9, 1896 issue of Notes & Queries Maurice Brodzky of Melbourne (d. 1919; a former yeshiva bochur, no doubt) wrote the following:

What if, Brodzky asks, the name Shylock comes from the Mishna in the 5th chapter of Pirke Avot, where "the man who says שלי שלי ושלך שלך, the man who stands on the letter of the law" is described; neither evil, nor pious. An average sort of person, who says "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours."  (More intriguing; the Mishnah says that some say that this person is not "average," but displaying the qualities of Sodomites, which according to Jewish tradition was the trait of inhospitality, rather than homosexuality.) Brodzky suggests that Shakespeare may have seen some Latin translation of Pirke Avot, and was struck by the recurring term "Sheloch, in connexion with sayings descriptive of Jewish business men." Brodzky does not implausibly suggest that William read Hebrew, but wonders if he discussed the passage with a learned man. Although he did not know it, his conjecture that there was a Latin version of Pirke Avot is entirely correct.

I refer to the version by Paul Fagius, the Fagius about whom R. Elijah Levita wrote "From Paul to Paul, there has arisen none among the Christians like Paul." His beautiful edition, "Sententiae Vere Elegantes . . . " printed by himself in his printing house in Isny in 1541 could well have been read by Shakespeare, although obviously the suggestion is still very wild. Are we looking at the genesis of the name Shylock?


  1. Fascinating. As a Shakespeare fan (not buff), I appreciate this.

  2. Actually, I believe that it refers to the cormorant. Shakespeare directly mentions the cormorant four times in his plays.

    Richard II, Act II, Scene 1:

    With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
    Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
    Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

    Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I Scene I:

    When, spite of cormorant devouring Time,
    The endeavor of this present breath may buy
    That honour which shall bate his scythe's keen edge
    And make us heirs of all eternity.

    Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene II:

    Wounds, friends, and what else dear that is consumed
    In hot digestion of this cormorant war—

    Coriolanus, Act I, Scene I:

    Should by the cormorant belly be restrain'd,
    Who is the sink o' the body,--

    We see that Shakespeare uses the image of the cormorant as something that is voracious and insatiable.

    In both ויקרא יא,17 and דברים יד,17 the King James Bible translates the word: הַשָּׁלָךְ as “the cormorant.”

    Shylock is an obvious transliteration and fits with Shakespeare's imagery.

  3. That was one of Israel Gollancz's theories. It's possible.

  4. Very interesting post!
    Do you feel like doing a post on the Shakespeare-was-a-Jew theory?

  5. Raz, you might be interested, or at least amused, by the notion that Shakespeake, or a friend of his, helped write the King James Bible, and that he inserted his name into it. In the 46th Psalm, the 46th word is "shake" and the 46th word from the end (maybe excluding the "selah") is "spear."

  6. This is a question that I've wondered about for a long time. If Cecil Roth couldn't solve it, I'm not going to lose any more sleep about it myself. The cormorant theory is interesting, but why or how would "shalach" have turned into "Shylock" rather than something like "Shollock"?

    Has anyone, I wonder, ever suggested a derivation from "shai lach," i.e. "a gift to you"? It would be the closest Hebrew phrase phonetically, but the meaning would be ironic at best and nonsensical at worst, and would also presume a fairly high level of Hebrew on Shakespeare's part. I'm just saying.

  7. Isaac Asimov (independently, as far as I can tell) thought the cormorant was a possibility as well.

  8. What's up with switching out of Gothic / Italics for people's names?

  9. It functions the same way as italics itself does; for emphasis. This used to be very common for all proper nouns. A later iteration of that was to capitalize all nouns, and eventually all proper nouns, as we still do. You find a similar thing in Yiddish or Judeo-German books, which used to be printed in Rashi or another cursive script, but would use the square letters for pure Hebrew words.

  10. Another idea occurred to me: Shylock (or Shilok) from "Shiloh," pronounced in English with a long "i". This derivation would be particularly apt if the name was first used for a Jewish "prophet," since the inventor of such a character might have had in mind the phrase "until Shiloh come" (ad ki yavo Shiloh, Gen. 49:10), a prophecy that was regarded with special significance by Christians.

  11. cf. S.R. Cohen letter of 2007 in the FORWARD:

    ...Shakespeare did not select a biblical or Hebrew-sounding name for the highly identifiably Semitic character of Shylock. How odd.
    However, if you transliterate the word "Shylock" into Hebrew characters and subsequently read the results right to left, you approximately wind up with - depending on whether you employ the letter kaf or qaf for the "ck" sound and whether you use the vowel waw for the "o" sound - either "kl ish," meaning "everyman," or "qol ish," meaning "voice of (a) man."
    As Pete Rose might say, figure the odds. Did Shakespeare, or perhaps one of his close acquaintances, know some Hebrew?
    If this speculation on my part is correct, then this linguistic oddity goes far to remove the taint of antisemitism from Shakespeare's portrait of Shylock.

  12. I appreciate this information - I have done some of this research to present to my own students and we have, in class, brainstormed other ideas. Once we decided that the name had no clear biblical or religious reference point we were left with the question of "why then was the other money lender's name Tubal which IS biblical?" We also tried to figure out why Shylock's daughter would have the name Jessica. Yiscah is biblical but esoteric.

  13. just another note -- I had this made and wear it with pride...

  14. Shakespeare invented "Jessica." Some say it may be from "Jesse." But if Tuval and Yiscah, maybe the source for "Shylock" is the first few chapters of Genesis. Which, I have no idea.

  15. The Hebrew root for "Tuval" is the same as the word (tevel) that means "the world/universe."
    If viewed as a parallel with "Shylock," that would tend to support the SRCohen insight about "kl ish."

  16. When all is said and done I think we have to agree that Caleb Shilock and Shylock is probably the same name.

  17. I favor Jessica coming from Yiscah because in Hamlet, Yiftach becomes Jephthah.

    Interesting that Tuval as a name appears 22 verses before Shelach in Gen 10.

  18. Where does the word "shyster" come from? That has anti-semitic connotations. If it was around in Shakespeare's time, he may have just tried to find a name that sounds similar, and came up with shylock. Maybe it was a derivation of Sherlock, and he just replaced the first part with shy because of the assonance with shyster.

    rank speculation.

  19. Daniel, what's written on the far side of the yarmulke?
    "No {kidding}"?

  20. From Wiki's "shyster" entry: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it is based on the German Scheißer (literally "defecator" but also used to refer to deceivers), but the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as "of obscure origin", possibly deriving from a historical sense of "shy" meaning disreputable. Various false etymologies have proposed an anti-Semitic origin, and some people continue to regard the word as referring particularly to Jews or Jewish lawyers.

    Another website identifies the word as an "Americanism" originating in 1835-45. I think we'll have to look elsewhere for a Shylock connection.

  21. Vid. also the "Dark Lady" theory according to which the Shakespeare writer was a Jewish woman from Italy who was educated in several languages, including Hebrew.

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    which seems to be the origin of this pamphlet, dates to 1561.

    suggested by this catalogue entry:



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