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Dr. Roderigo Lopez and The Merchant of Venice


by Elizabeth Seaman

Since the 13th century, when King Edward I forced all Jewish men and women to wear a yellow Star of David, Jews have been persecuted in England. In 1290, King Edward’s Edict of Expulsion officially banished Jews from England, and they were not permitted to return until the late 1700s. The strong anti-Semitic sentiment was largely present in the 16th century under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I and came to a peak during the trial and execution of Dr. Roderigo Lopez; the Queen’s head physician who was also a Jew. Lopez was charged with treason as he allegedly tried to poison England’s beloved queen. He was found guilty and in June of 1594, he was hanged. The trial and execution of the Jewish doctor, Roderigo Lopez, largely influenced English literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, most notably William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The portrayal and characteristics of the Jewish usurer Shylock reflect those of Lopez and exemplify society’s views of Jewish people in the late 1500s in England. In addition, the names of Shakespeare’s characters and the plot of the play directly allude to the doctor’s trial and signify effects it had on the public.

Roderigo Lopez was born in London during the early 1500s and was raised as a New Christian, a Jew who converted to Protestantism. He and his family were several of about one hundred Marranos in England, Jews forced to convert to Christianity that still secretly practiced Judaism. Lopez began practicing medicine and in 1586 reached the peak of his career as the head physician to Queen Elizabeth I.

During his time working for the Queen, Roderigo Lopez also served as the translator for Don Antonio. Antonio claimed he was wrongly denied the throne of Portugal by King Philip II and came to England to raise anti-Spanish sentiment in order to win back the throne. He was well received by the English public, and especially the Queen, due to the tension between the British and Spanish Empires. After several years of working together, Antonio began to continuously disrespect Lopez and his other followers, and the doctor quit. Soon after the falling out, Spanish agents hired by King Philip II approached Lopez and several of Antonio’s previous supporters to kill Antonio for 50,000 ducats. King Philip and his agents, however, had an ulterior motive—to kill Queen Elizabeth. Lopez was hesitant to carry out orders against the queen, but did not want to give up the opportunity to get revenge on Antonio. He attempted to warn Queen Elizabeth by dropping hints of the Spanish king’s plan, but Elizabeth did not acknowledge them. They did not, however, go unnoticed by some of the Queen’s council, most notably, the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, who had always been suspicious of Antonio and his dealings. Essex managed to intercept a letter sent from King Philip to one of his Spanish agents. With this letter, Essex had enough information to make arrests.

The leading Spanish agent was staying in London with Lopez at the time and consequently, this brought suspicion onto the doctor. Essex subsequently had the agent and his accomplices arrested and put in prison. The prisoners believed that Lopez was the man who revealed their identities and roles in the King’s plan to Essex and argued Lopez played as large a part in the plan as they, but the queen refused to believed their accusations. Devereux threatened to torture the already accused in order to draw confessions out of them, and they gave him enough information to indict Roderigo Lopez. In those times, “to be indicted was to be convicted” (Meyers 33) and many believed the trial was over before it even started. Lopez continuously denied his involvement in the plot to poison Queen Elizabeth, but finally confessed his knowledge of the plan in order to escape the rack, an excruciatingly painful torture device. Two weeks after his confession, the trial was held. Because of the high level of treason in question, Roderigo Lopez did not receive an average English trial. Instead of twelve qualified judges, the Lord Mayor of London and other advisers to the Queen judged the trial. In addition, the trial was held in Guildhall, the townhall, to give the case maximum exposure. The main prosecutor, Sir Edward Coke strongly stressed that Dr. Lopez was a Jew, calling him a “‘perjured and murdering traitor and Jewish doctor’” who “‘is worse than Judas himself’” (Lee 194). Lopez repeatedly denied his role in the plan and claimed he had only confessed in order to save himself from extreme torture. His statement, however, had no effect on the jury and the doctor was found guilty with “the applause of the world” (Lee 194).

Despite the ruling of the trial, Queen Elizabeth did not believe her physician was guilty and refused to sign the warrant for his death. It was not until one of Devereux’s supporters was made Lord Chief Justice, seven weeks after the trial, that the Queen was prompted to sign off on Lopez’s execution. It is rumored that right before his execution on June 7, 1594, Roderigo Lopez yelled out that he had “loved the Queen even more than Jesus Christ,” to which the mob scoffed and replied, “‘He is a Jew! He is a Jew!’” (Sinsheimer 66).

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s actions and characteristics mirror those of Roderigo Lopez. Both Shylock and Lopez set out to get revenge on their enemies. Antonio wrongs and disrespects Lopez and therefore the doctor agrees to murder him for money. Shylock enters into a bond with the Venetian merchant Antonio, agreeing to lend money to him without interest. If Antonio defaults on his loan, however, Shylock gets to cut off a pound of his flesh from any part of Antonio’s body. The extraction of the pound of flesh would undoubtedly kill him, and Shylock would be able to get revenge on his enemy. In addition, both Lopez and Shylock are portrayed as unreliable. Essex sought out to find the doctor’s papers, but when he could not, he claimed, “’He [Lopez] burned them like the other Jews’” (Sinsheimer 65). In court, the doctor was portrayed as a “murdering traitor” and “‘worse than Judas himself’” (Lee 193) and his statements of innocence were completely disregarded by the judges. Because Lopez was Jewish, he was by default untrustworthy, as untrustworthy as Judas, the man who betrayed God and was damned to Hell. If the prosecutors could not find evidence to pin Lopez to the crime, they argue Lopez had burned it. In the play, after Shylock and Antonio make a deal, Bassanio, Antonio’s friend, says, “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind” (Shakespeare 1.3). Bassanio is uneasy because he does not trust Shylock and believes there must be a catch somewhere in Antonio and Shylock’s agreement. He refers to Shylock as a villain because he is Jewish and adds this odd stipulation to the agreement instead of charging interest. Salanio says, “Here comes another of the tribe: a third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turn Jew” (Shakespeare 3.1). Salanio claims there is no being worse than Shylock unless the devil himself was to turn into a Jew. Lastly, the two Jewish men resemble each other in their devotion to their families. According to Sidney Lee, Lopez 5Seaman knowingly missed a court date to tend to his ill wife (198). The doctor knew that staying home would further turn the judges against him and lower his chances of being found innocent, yet he did it anyway because his wife needed him. Similarly, Shylock has a strong familial tie to his daughter, Jessica, and late wife Leah. Throughout the play, Shylock attempts to protect Jessica from the Christians in Venice and is heartbroken when he learns she has run away to elope with one. The betrayal grows when Tubal tells Shylock Jessica has sold his wife’s ring. Shylock responds. ‘Thou torturest me…it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (Shakespeare 3.2). Shylock is already distressed and upset that Jessica has abandoned him, especially for a Christian whom he automatically detests. His attitude is made worse by the fact that she has taken Shylock’s late wife Leah’s turquoise ring. He tells Tubal that he is torturing him as he continues to relay worse news. Shylock goes on to say that he would not have given the ring away even for a “wilderness of monkeys.” In Venice, it is a rarity to come across a monkey, as they are native of forests. With an entire “wilderness” of monkeys, Shylock would undoubtedly be able to make a large sum of money, and even so, he still would not give the precious ring away. The ring symbolizes the last piece Shylock has of his wife and his daughter stole it from him.

Several of the characters’ names and the relationships between them result from the people and events that lead up to Roderigo Lopez’s execution. Most all of the names in the play are of Christian and Italian descent, with the exception of Antonio, Shylock, and Jessica. Shylock and Jessica are Jewish names and the name Antonio is Portuguese. Antonio was the name of Dr. Lopez’s main accuser and biggest enemy, and the Portuguese name contrasts the setting in Venice. In addition, the tension between Antonio and Shylock parallels that between Antonio and Roderigo Lopez. Antonio takes advantage of Shylock and continuously disrespects him because Shylock is Jewish, not Christian. Don Antonio was equally as rude and unappreciative to Dr. Lopez; however, his actions are a result of his increasing power, not of differing religious beliefs. Both Antonio of Venice and Antonio of Portugal take advantage of their Jewish constituents, yet they demand their help. Antonio needed the doctor as a translator because he could not speak English, and the merchant needs Shylock’s money so he can send his dear friend Bassanio to meet the lovely heiress Portia. Shylock tells Antonio, “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine, and all for the use of that which is mine own” (Shakespeare 1.3). Shylock is surprised that Antonio, after years of constant ridicule, would ask to borrow money. Antonio refers to Shylock as an animal, someone who is lower than him, and criticizes the usurer because he is Jewish. Both Antonio of The Merchant of Venice and Don Antonio of Portugal ridicule and exploit their Jewish partners and ask for favors in return. Additionally, the two situations are similar in that both Jewish men enter into villainous agreements for personal gain. In the case of Shylock, he will be able to humiliate Antonio and, for the first time, assert his power over the merchant. Dr. Lopez would have received 50,000 ducats from King Philip II had he successfully poisoned and killed the Queen of England.

The impact Dr. Lopez’s trial had on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is evident in the trial scene of the play. As in the head-physician’s case, unqualified, biased judges, such as the Duke and Senator of Venice, unfairly judge Shylock’s trial. The appointed judges have already decided that Shylock is guilty, before the trial starts. The Duke tells Antonio, “I am sorry for thee: thou art come to answer a stony adversary, an 7Seaman inhuman wretch uncapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy” (Shakespeare 4.1). The Venetian Duke apologizes to Antonio for having to deal with such a villainous and irrational man; an “inhuman wretch uncapable of pity” who will not deliver mercy to the merchant for the Jew is selfish. The Duke cannot fairly judge the trial because he is a Christian and by default opposes the Jewish usurer, Shylock. He holds “the stony adversary” in contempt for carrying out the inhuman bond. The English people adored their Queen and could not fathom the idea of someone wanting to kill her. The prosecutors and judges in Lopez’s trial referred to him as a “wicked, dangerous, and detestable” Jew (Meyers 33) and declared him guilty with insufficient evidence. Moreover, Portia, disguised as a qualified lawyer, interprets the legality of the bond between Shylock and Antonio. She unfairly analyzes the agreement and forces Shylock to settle for money instead of the pound of flesh. In addition, “Shakespeare denounces the fatality of employing the rack to extort a prisoner’s confession of crime” (Lee 199), the threat of which coerced a false confession out of Lopez. Had Essex not threatened to use the rack on Lopez, the doctor would not have confessed to his knowledge of King Philip’s plan, and Essex would not have had sufficient evidence to execute him. Lastly, Gratiano directly alludes to the trial of Dr. Lopez when he tells Shylock, “Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more, to bring thee to the gallows, no the font” (Shakespeare 4.1). Gratiano states he would have sentenced Shylock to death instead of letting him live. In English courts there were twelve judges present to ensure the defendant was tried fairly. To have more than two judges was a rarity in a Venetian court, and Shakespeare’s inclusion of the English form of discipline forces the reader to make a connection between the trial of Queen Elizabeth's Jewish physician and that of Shylock.

One cannot deny the influence the trial and execution of Dr. Roderigo Lopez in 1594 had on William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare lived in London during the time of the trial and could witness first-hand the injustices faced by the Jewish doctor. It can be safely asserted that Jews lived in England during his lifetime that “opportunities of more or less intimate intercourse with them were for many years open to him [Shakespeare]” (Lee 186). Shakespeare was friends with both the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton, and was “bound to be confronted by the complexity of Jewishness in the conspicuous fate of that Jew Lopez” (Sinsheimer 68). The parallels between the events of Lopez’s life and the plot lines in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice are too evident to deny. Clearly Shakespeare was profoundly impacted by the infamous trial of the Queen’s head-physician, as he models his play around the life and times of the well-known Dr. Roderigo Lopez.

Works Cited

Lee, Sidney. “The Original of Shylock.” Gentleman’s Magazine. Feb. 1880: 185-200. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
Luxon, Thomas. "A Second Daniel: The Jew and the 'True Jew' in The Merchant of Venice." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (Jan. 1999): 3.1-3.37. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michael L. LaBlanc. Vol. 77. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.
Myers, Williams. “Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews.” Commentary Magazine. n.p. 1 Apr. 1996: 32-38. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
Sinsheimer, Hermann. Shylock, the History of a Character. New York: B. Blom, 1963. Print. 24 Nov. 2013.

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