This broadside ballad relating the ‘crueltie of Gernutus a Jew’ has clear parallels with the tale of Antonio, Bassanio and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
What happens in the ballad?
A Venetian merchant approaches Gernutus, a Jewish moneylender, to borrow 100 crowns for his friend. But the Jew devises a bond or ‘merry jest’ stating that the merchant should forfeit ‘a pound of his Flesh’ if he can’t repay the money.
When the merchant’s ships fail to come in, Gernutus calls for ‘judgement’ and demands his pound of flesh. In a bid to save the merchant’s life, others offer 10,000 crowns, but Gernutus rejects the money. A merciful judge saves the day by insisting that Gernutus should ‘shed no drop of blood’ or he will be hanged. Sensing defeat, the Jew agrees to take the 10,000 crowns but is sent away with nothing.
Click here for an easy-to-read transcription of the ballad.
An attack on usury: an attack on the Jews
Like a number of other early modern texts, the ballad attacks usury – the practice of lending money at interest – by scapegoating the Jewish moneylender. Gernutus is dehumanised using prejudiced language to suggest his greed and cruelty: ‘His mouth is almost ful of mucke, / yet still he gapes for more’.
Gernutus and The Merchant of Venice
There is some debate over when the ballad was first published – before or after The Merchant of Venice – and which might have influenced the other. Those who see the ballad as one of the sources for Shakespeare point to verbal parallels between Gernutus’s ‘merry jest’ and Shylock’s ‘merry sport’ (1.3.145), or between Gernutus with ‘whetted blade in hand’ and Shylock who ‘whet[s his] knife so earnestly’ (4.1.121).
What is a broadside ballad?
Broadside ballads are lively narrative verses or songs, printed cheaply on single sheets and often illustrated with woodcuts, which circulated widely in early modern Britain. They were recited and sung to familiar melodies in alehouses and public places. This one, for example, was sung to a tune called ‘Blacke and Yellow’.