"When shall we laugh? Say, when?":

Francis Bacon and the Merchant of Venice


Simon Miles



Launcelot : "This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs; 
if we grow all to be pork eaters we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money."
Act III Sc 5
The Merchant of Venice

rasher: Late 16th century [Origin unknown] A thin slice of bacon or ham.
- Oxford Dictionary

What difference does it make that Francis Bacon wrote the works of "Shakespeare"? Well for one thing, it helps makes sense of some of the best jokes in the plays. One of these jests not only resolves a nagging question at the heart of The Merchant of Venice, but does so with such biting wit and apt metaphor as to leave no other conclusion than: Bacon wrote this play.

The Merchant of Venice tells the story of Antonio, (the merchant of the title), and his friend Bassanio. For reasons not explicitly spelled out in the play, Bassanio has run up debts. As he needs more money urgently, Antonio kindly agrees to provide security on a loan from the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. The condition of forfeit of the loan on which Shylock insists is the "pound of flesh" which provides the striking image at the core of the play's action:

Shylock "...let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut-off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me"

For all its gruesome fascination, Shylock's choice of this particular forfeit for the loan of a "pound of flesh" is never really explained in the play. With the opportunity to strike any terms that met his heart's desire, why would he, indeed why would anyone, want such a reward? It's apparent cruelty is matched only by its seeming pointlessness.

When Antonio's ventures fail, and the forfeit inevitably falls due, the matter comes to trial in Act IV. Even when questioned here, Shylock himself seems unwilling or unable to quite put his finger on why he wants it.  The Duke tells Shylock he expects him to change his mind at the last-minute, rather than go through with such a "strange" idea:

Duke: "I think...thou'lt show thy mercy and remorse, more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty"

In response, Shylock shows he can understand that they are itching to know why he demands this particular forfeit, but equally makes clear that he need not, nor will not, satisfy their curiousity in order to collect his right and due.

Shylock: "You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
Three thousand Ducats: I'll not answer that"

A little later, he asks the question again:

Shylock: "Pray you tell me this;
If he should break his day, what should I gain
By the exaction of this forfeiture?
A pound of man's flesh, taken from a man,
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats."

For the citizens of Venice, not to mention audiences, Shylock's motivation for his strange request remains unpursued and the answer left hanging. The author is inviting us to figure it out: why the pound of flesh? 

One suggestion of commentators is that Shylock is referring to circumcision; that perhaps the Jew is talking about Antonio's foreskin. For all it's ingenuity, this solution falls short. It might account for the "flesh", but hardly for the "pound". Without further information, it would seem that the question resists a straightforward answer. For example, if one could know that the play was based on the author's own experience, perhaps there might be a clue there. For unyielding adherents to the quaint doctrine that the actor Shaxper from Stratford wrote the plays, no such possibility exists and the question remains not only unanswered, but unasked.

Indeed, orthodox scholar Harold Bloom writing about The Merchant of Venice in his recent book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, laments that we cannot know such biographical details, and yet acknowledges an intuition that this play might be based on experience:

"Leslie Fiedler once wrote that Antonio was a "projection of the author's private distress" which counts as interesting guesswork, but no more."

By recognising that the core action of the play reflects an incident from the life of Francis Bacon, we shall be able to leave behind "interesting guesswork".

At the time the play is generally accepted to have been written (1600), Francis Bacon was constantly in and out of debt. Left virtually penniless by his omission from his father Sir Nicholas Bacon's will, he was, for all intents and purposes, a briefless barrister with no visible means of support. Nevertheless, he managed to maintain and employ a group of writers he refers to as as his "scrivenery", or "company of good pens", throughout this period. This enterprise, literally creating from the ground up the English literary rennaissance by translating, writing, collating and printing all manner of books, undoubtedly soaked up considerable funds. This was in addition to his living expenses, maintenance of Twickenham Lodge, and his chambers and lodgings at Grays Inn. Throughout this period, even his orthodox biographers agree: he was without apparent means.

The hidden source of funds which kept him afloat came from Queen Elizabeth, his unacknowledged mother, as Alfred Dodd conclusively demonstrates in Francis Bacon's Personal Life Story. However, he was also frequently obliged to resort to borrowing money to keep his enterprises afloat. On one occasion, he narrowly avoided going to debtors prison for a small sum (300 Pounds) he owed to a Jewish moneylender named Sympson. It was his dearly loved brother Anthony who rescued him on that occasion, and who frequently came to his financial assistance throughout this period of his life. The details of the incident with the moneylender are described in two letters which have come down to us .(Spedding, Vol IX, 106 to 108).

The play is based around Francis and Anthony Bacon's experience at that time. This is confirmed by the names of the characters. The helpful brother is Antonio, standing for Anthony, while Bassanio represents the Francis Bacon figure.  As Virginia Fellows points out:

"Even more obviously directed to Antony is Francis's loyalty in friendship as enacted in The Merchant of Venice, the friendship between Antonio (Antony) and Bassanio (Bacon - in French and Italian a single "c" is pronounced "s")"
The Shakespeare Code

Virginia Fellows 

In other words, if one were to read the name "Bacon" in Italian, the letter "c" would take the soft pronunciation, and one would pronounce it "Basson". Hence: Bassanio!

The Merchant of Venice gives therefore both the names and the circumstances of Francis and his brother Anthony Bacon at the time the play was written. With this in mind, much of the emotional landscape of the play springs into focus. For example, commentators have puzzled over the exact nature of Antonio and Bassanio's close relationship. The real reason Antonio is perfectly willing to help his "dear friend" Bassanio is not because they are homosexual lovers, as some Stratfordian wits would have it, but because they are brothers.

The identification of Bassanio as Francis Bacon also sheds light on the reason, not given explicitly within the play, for his outstanding debts.  The funds have been spent on the maintenance of the "company of good pens", that is, on the heavy expenses of printing and publishing the endless stream of books being made available in English. Anthony Bacon was an intimate co-worker with Francis in this project, so that he can assume that Antonio knows what he is referring to when he describes his financial situation in Act 1: 

Bassanio: "Tis not unknown to you, Antonio, 
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance"

In other words, Bassanio is saying: "Antonio: you know that all my resources have gone into funding a certain 'something' which costs much more than the means I have". That 'something' was the making of books, and making books costs money. 

If it's true then that identifying Bacon as the author of Merchant of Venice sheds light on some of the questions left unanswered in the play, what about the "pound of flesh" riddle? Keeping in mind that Shylock's forfeit is due from the brothers Bacon, the question answers itself:

Why did Shylock the Jew want a pound of Antonio's flesh?
Because it was a pound of Bacon!

This pun must have been all but irresistible to Francis, who as a contemporary described him "could never pass up the oppportunity for a jest". Aside from providing such an arresting image around which to arrange the plot furniture, it is also a penetrating observation on the strength of the taboo-breaking urge. The "pound of flesh" represents that thing, in Shylock, or in any of us, that we unconsciously desire more than anything else. Often, this is the same as the very thing we are forbidden to have. For a Jew, it's the old joke of "kosher bacon". Steven Spielberg tells in an interview of dreaming of eating a bacon sandwich, something he has taken great pains to avoid all his (waking) life.

Shylock is unconsciously revealing his attraction for the very thing which he has denied and suppressed. This then is the answer which Shylock himself could not give, precisely because it was the expression of his unspoken unconscious desire. 

Rereading the play with this joke in mind enlivens the frequent metaphors revolving around eating: for example, dining seems to be on everyone's mind in Act One:

Lorenzo: My Lord Bassanio, since you have found Antonio,
We two will leave you, but at dinner-time
I pray you have in mind where we must meet.

...and then later in the same scene: 

: I'll end my exhortation after dinner.

Food is also the first topic of conversation between Shylock and Bassanio, when the moneylender rejects out-of-hand any possibility of eating with the gentile:

Shylock: May I speak with Antonio?
Bassanio: If it please you to dine with us.
Shylock: Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet, the Nazarite, conjured the devil into.; I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.

Curiously, a little later in the play, he relents, and decides to share a meal with the brothers. The words he uses provide confirmation that the author is indeed playing with the pun of "flesh" being "bacon", by stating plainly that he will "feed upon" his rival:

Shylock: I am bid forth for supper, Jessica...But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon the prodigal Christian

If indeed Bacon did make a joke about his name in The Merchant of Venice, it certainly would not be the first or only time he made such a pun. Francis employed the image of the boar in his heraldic coat of arms. It also turns up frequently in other symbolic devices appearing in the outpouring of Rosicrucian and other books of the time. Then there is the line in Merry Wives of Windsor "hang-hog is Latin for Bacon". Alfred Dodd discusses Bacon's use of exactly this joke, in the context of another of the names under which he masks his identity:

"If we take the last syllable of the name as an open hint, "Ham", we may not be far wrong in assuming the identity of the writer as Bacon, for is not Bacon, "Ham"? And if we remember that the word "lean" was sounded like the first syllable, "Lane", we get the anonymous letter writer jesting at the name of Bacon. He is a "Lean Ham", i.e. Laneham. This idea of playing with words to convey other meanings was quite characteristic of Francis Bacon's humour."
Francis Bacon's Personal Life Story, p76
Alfred Dodd

Macauley called Bacons Apopthegms the "finest jest-book in the language", so we can be certain Francis loved to do comedy. The Merchant of Venice was a gift to his brother Anthony in thanks for helping him in this part of this life. Something very similar appears to be also going on within the play itself. One could even say that the action of the play comes down to Bassanio's attempt to cheer Antonio up. At least, this is the conceit of the opening scene of the play. In the very first speech, Antonio/Anthony tells his companions Salararino and Solarino that he is feeling sad, for reasons he can't quite figure out...

Antonio: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself."

His companions fail to cheer him up, nor are they any help him to him in understanding the cause of his "want-wit sadness". This is Antonio's real predicament. Then Bassanio takes the stage, and signals immediately his intention to provide the antidote to Antonio's blue mood: a good laugh.

Bassanio: "Good signors all, when shall we laugh? Say, when?"

If The Merchant of Venice is Francis Bacon's "thank you" gift to his brother, Anthony, it's also a joke to cheer him up. And now that we too are in on the gag, perhaps, some 400 years later, we can finally make a reply to Bassanio's opening question : when shall we laugh? Say, when? Ok, now we get it. The "pound of flesh" is a "pound of Bacon"! Nice one, Francis, nice one!



See Francis Bacon's Signature's in the Shakespeare Works