This collection of 50 short stories is called Il Pecorone, the Italian for ‘The Simpleton’. It was written by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino around the end of the 14th century and first printed in this 1558 edition.
It seems to have served as a key source for The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Merchant of Venice. One tale has many striking details of the ‘pound of flesh’ story: an Italian merchant, a Jewish moneylender and a lady of Belmonte.
Shakespeare probably read the tales in Italian, since no English version was printed until 1632. Indeed, this copy has detailed handwritten notes summarising the story in English, suggesting that it was definitely read and translated by an English person.
However, some critics have argued that Shakespeare might have found similar ideas in a lost English drama called The Jew, described in Stephen Gosson’s The School of Abuse (1579).
What happens in the story?
In Il Pecorone (day 4, story 1), Ansaldo the merchant of Venice borrows money to give his ‘godson’ Giannetto, who says he wants to try his luck at sea. The Jew demands a pound of flesh if the bond is not repaid on time.
Without telling his godfather, Gianetto woos ‘the Lady of Belmonte’ using Ansaldo’s money. She is a ruthless widow who cheats her lovers by drugging them, but agrees to marry Giannetto on his third attempt.
Completely forgetting about the bond, Gianetto comes back to Venice to find the Jew calling for his pound of flesh. But Gianetto’s wife has secretly disguised herself as a lawyer, and she foils the Jew’s plans by insisting that he sheds no drop of blood beyond the pound he asked for. The wife, in the guise of a lawyer, asks Giannetto for his ring in payment and then accuses him of giving it to his mistress. Finally, the confusion is resolved and the couple is reconciled happily.
How did Shakespeare adapt Il Pecorone?
Bassanio’s romantic suit to Portia is, of course, very different from this Italian version. The love test involving the caskets seems to have come from another ancient folk tale.