The Commonwealth and Government of Venice played a pivotal role in conveying the myth of 16th-century Venice to an English audience. First written in Latin by Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, it was translated into English in 1599 by Lewis Lewkenor. With a string of hyperboles, the book idealises the city as a perfect example of justice, tolerance, trade and imperial power.
Justice and humanity towards strangers
In his letter ‘To the Reader’, Lewkenor describes how travellers talk of Venice as the thing ‘most infinitely remarkable, that they had seen in the whole course of their travels’ (sig. A1v–A2r). Some people celebrate ‘the greatnes of their Empire’ and their ‘zeale in religion’ (sig. A2r). Others praise the justice system as ‘pure and uncorrupted’ (sig. A2v).
However, Lewkenor also notes the ‘monstrously strange’ geography of this ‘glorious’ city. It is seated ‘in the middle of the sea’ with its ‘pallaces, monasteries, temples’ founded on marshy ‘Quagmires’ (sig. A3r).
Lewkenor says many young travellers are particularly impressed by the Venetians’ ‘humanitie towards strangers’ (A1v). He describes the ‘unmeasurable quantity’ of merchandise coming from ‘all realms and countries’, but he is also struck by its multinational mixture of people. The ‘wonderful concourse of strange and forraine people … of the farthest and remotest nations’ makes Venice a ‘generall market to the whole world’ (p. 1).
Lewkenor and Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice and Othello
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare seems to confront and complicate this idea of a tolerant, cosmopolitan city. The relationship between Shylock, the Jewish moneylender and the Christians of Venice is not defined by ‘humanitie’. The trial in Act 4, Scene 1 also raises questions about the Venetian reputation for exemplary legal justice.
Kenneth Muir has argued that Shakespeare must have consulted Lewkenor’s book when he was writing Othello – another play exploring the complex role of a ‘stranger’ in Venice. Muir highlights Lewkenor’s pleasure in hearing travellers’ tales of ‘paineful inconveniences’ (sig. A1v). He sees parallels in the way Desdemona listens ‘with a greedy ear’ to the painful ‘story of [Othello’s] life’ (1.3.149; 129).