This ducat – a coin made almost entirely of pure gold – was minted in Venice between 1523 and 1538. The word ‘ducat’ echoes repeatedly throughout Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, revealing interesting tensions surrounding attitudes to money in the early modern era.
Two sides of the same coin
The name ‘ducat’ comes from the Latin word for duke, and this coin bears the image and name of Andrea Gritti, the duke or Doge of Venice who issued it. He is shown kneeling before St Mark, the patron saint of Venice. On the other side is Christ in a field of stars, with a Latin text meaning ‘Christ, let this duchy, ruled by you rule, be dedicated to you’.
This seems to suggest that spiritual, human and financial values are intricately bound together. The political, religious and mercantile worlds of the republic of Venice are used to validate one another. Yet in The Merchant of Venice, these relationships are shown to be much more problematic.
‘Three thousand ducats’: money in The Merchant of Venice
The sum of ‘Three thousand ducats’ (1.3.10) is first introduced as a loan requested by Antonio, the Venetian merchant, from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Antonio has asked for the money on behalf of his friend, Bassanio, who needs it to woo Portia. As part of a ‘bond’ sealed between them, Antonio promises to repay the ducats in the space of three months or let Shylock cut out a pound of his flesh.
Critics have hotly debated the anti-Semitic link between Shylock and money. It seems significant that Shylock’s first words are ‘three thousand ducats’, and he speaks of the coins not just once but eight times in Act 1, Scene 3. But one could argue that the Jew is made to take the blame for Christian materialism, since the money is borrowed for their use. The others make repeated use of monetary metaphors – ‘counterfeit’ (3.2.115), ‘rich’ (3.2.154), ‘account’ (3.2.155) – but suggest that these are a means to express love, rather than interest in money.
This perhaps reflects early modern concerns about the immorality of commerce, ‘trade and profit’ (3.3.30), and the greed involved in lending money at interest. Though the Christians rely on Shylock’s capital (1.3.114), they take pains to distance themselves morally from where the ready ‘money is’ (1.1.184).