The Upstart Crow Fact Check – Episode 6: The Quality of Mercy


A very affectionate look at the Upstart Crow episodes by @ChasquiPenguin

Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles our aim is to give a little more background to those and the Upstart Crow storyline surrounding it, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms, and the characters involved.

Series 1

Episode 6 – The Quality of Mercy

This episode is based on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In this play the merchant of Venice is the main character Antonio.

The title of this episode is spoken by Portia in a courtroom scene (Act 4, Sc 1) when, dressed as a man to try to carry off the illusion that she is a lawyer representing Antonio, she is asking Shylock to be lenient with him:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

            Upon the place beneath

In this context the word ‘strain’d’ means constrained or not forced.

The first scene in this episode of Upstart Crow is in Lucy’s tavern in London and it is believed that she not only existed but knew Shakespeare. However, there are various theories surrounding this African lady who was called Lucy:

She was a well-known prostitute

She owned an infamous bawdy house in London’s Clerkenwell

She was ‘The Dark Lady’ of 28 of Shakespeare’s sonnets


The tavern scene mainly featuring Lucy, Will, Kit and Robert Greene does have an air of authenticity. Kit and Greene were Cambridge graduates, both having gained BA & MA degrees, though it is unclear if Greene moved to Oxford for his MA studies. In the Elizabethan era, to be accepted by either of these universities a good knowledge of Latin was essential. It is known that Kit was fluent in the language from quite a young age, his school having insisted on Latin being spoken even in the playground, and he later translated Ovid’s Amores into English. Robert Greene is also likely to have had a good knowledge of Latin but Will’s would have fallen short of his playwriting contemporaries’ grasp of the language as, though he studied both Latin and Greek at school, his education ended at the age of 14 due to his father’s bankruptcy.

Ben Jonson wrote a poem for the Preface of Shakespeare’s First Folio (published in 1623) in which he alluded to Will having had ‘small Latin and less Greek’ but it is understood this was not belittling him but praising his literary achievements despite his limited education.

Will’s reference to putting his money into bricks and mortar in the form of Burbage’s new theatre, on the south side of the Thames, is accurate. He was one of the original shareholders of The Globe when this theatre opened in 1599 and the first play believed to have been performed there was either Shakespeare’s Henry V or his Julius Caesar, not Romeo and Juliet which is thought to have been staged by 1597.

Kate Pants

Although The Globe was the idea of James Burbage, he did not live to see it open, as he passed away in 1597. However, his two sons oversaw the building of this theatre and were greatly involved afterwards, with Cuthbert as the manager and Richard the main actor appearing in many of the plays performed there, including Shakespeare’s.

Previously Kate has mentioned that she attended school and, in this episode, states that she taught herself Latin and Greek. However, during the Tudor era schools were for boys only; the few girls who received an education were usually from wealthy families who employed tutors to teach their children at home.

As is known, women were not allowed to act on stage in the Tudor era, in fact not till the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 when Charles II passed a law permitting it. The king benefited from his own law as he enjoyed seeing the actresses both on stage and off! He was also responsible for the re-opening of the theatres, which had been closed from 1642, and Restoration comedies are still famous today.

Equally, in the late 16th century roles such as secretaries were carried out by men; after all women were largely illiterate. Therefore, the Upstart Crow reference to its being unheard of for women to perform such duties is accurate. This is the reason Kate dresses as a boy, pretending to be Will’s secretary Cuthbert, hoping that convincingly passing herself off as a boy will lead her to becoming an actor.

The first page of The Merchant of Venice, printed in Shakespeare’s Second Folio in 1632



The Merchant of Venice was written as a comedy, probably between 1596 and 1598, so later than Upstart Crow is set which, if Ep 6 takes place in the same year as Ep 1, is 1592. The first recorded performance of The Merchant of Venice was in front of King James I at his court on 10th February 1605. However, in his 1598 book Palladis Tamia or Wit’s Treasury, Francis Meres refers to The Merchant of Venice, among other Shakespeare plays, and it was entered on The Stationers’ Register on 22nd July 1598. In the first edition of The Merchant of Venice, published in 1600, there is reference to this play being performed ‘divers times’, so it is assumed there were earlier unrecorded performances (unless the documents have been lost).

As with so many of his plays, Shakespeare has taken an existing story, incorporating changes and additions to make The Merchant of Venice his own. The sources which may have provided his inspiration are considered to be:

Il Pecorone (translation: The Simpleton) by Giovanni Fiorentino, a collection of 50 stories written in the 14th century, but not published till 1558. This book is also regarded as an influence on Shakespeare’s writing of The Merry Wives of Windsor. There is a theory that Shakespeare read these tales in Italian as no English version was published till 1632. Perhaps his Latin was good enough to read and understand the gist of Italian? However, it also seems possible that he learned the stories from contemporaries in London who could read Italian and were acquainted with this book.

Gesta Romanorum, a collection of mediaeval Italian tales, translated into English by Richard Robinson and published in 1577.

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, believed to have been written around 1589–90, and first performed in 1592 at The Rose Theatre.

The title page of the first edition of The Merchant of Venice, published in 1600



This episode from Upstart Crow follows the main theme of The Merchant of Venice, and below in italics is a synopsis of the story, with the Upstart Crow parallels below each point:

Antonio is a nobleman and merchant but his wealth depends upon shipments from overseas and at the start of the play these ships have been delayed.

Keen to invest in Burbage’s new theatre, Will travels to Stratford only to find that his father has purloined £3 of the £4 he and Anne had in savings.

Despite the fact that Antonio intensely dislikes Shylock the moneylender, he borrows cash from him, entering into a contract which includes the clause that if the money is not repaid on time, Shylock will demand a pound of flesh instead from his debtor.

Will borrows £1 from Robert Greene (who reputedly hates Will’s gutlings) to invest £2 in a syndicate organised by Greene, which involves buying a small part of the cargo of a ship returning from America. Will also signs a bond agreeing to a pound of his flesh being taken by Greene if repayment cannot be made in cash.

With the ships still at sea, Antonio is unable to repay the money to Shylock who then demands the pound of flesh, knowing that this will kill Antonio.

Will discovers that his £2 investment is worthless, as he failed to understand the nature of his purchase, due to his poor Latin knowledge, and he cannot repay the £1 he borrowed from Robert Greene as he is now virtually penniless.

The dispute between Antonio and Shylock goes to court.

Robert Greene takes Will to court to demand a pound of his flesh, aware of the consequences of this.

Antonio is represented in court by Portia, wife of his friend Bassanio, for whom he borrowed the money. Portia is dressed as a male lawyer.

Will also has a lawyer: Kate dressed as a man and using the name Cuthbert Capulet.

Portia appeals to Shylock, asking him to be merciful to Antonio, with her monologue which begins ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d’.

Will also addresses part of this monologue to Robert Greene who merely replies that iambic pentameter will not save him! However, in actuality, the first line is not true iambic pentameter, as the stress is on ‘mercy’ but not on ‘strain’d’.

In court Portia points out that Shylock cannot have a pound of Antonio’s flesh without the blood it contains, reasoning that the demand was merely for the flesh, no blood having been stipulated as an added requirement.

Kate/Cuthbert uses this same argument in court.

The judge rules in favour of Antonio on the grounds that the blood was not part of the original demand.

Judge Robert, played by Gabrielle Glaister, has been wavering over the issue. However, Kate/Cuthbert recognises the judge as another woman and agrees to keep this in confidence as long as she finds in favour of Will. Judge Robert (who tells Kate to call her Bob, a flashback to Blackadder in which Gabrielle Glaister played a girl dressed as a boy named Bob) dismisses the case and awards Will £4 in costs to cover his losses.

At the end of the play the delayed ships arrive and Antonio is rich again.

Will is happy to have his £4 savings back and can thus invest this in the new theatre.




The name of the character Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice is extremely similar to Bassano, the married name of Emilia Lanier, who is widely thought to be the Dark Lady to whom Shakespeare wrote 28 sonnets.

Although it is not quoted in this episode of Upstart Crow, the famous saying, ‘All that glitters is not gold’ is a line from The Merchant of Venice (Act 2, Sc 7) but in the original version ‘glitters’ appeared as ‘glisters’, an older version of the word. The line is read by the Prince of Morocco from a scroll he finds inside a gold casket, around which another plot revolves within this play.

Another line from The Merchant of Venice is “If you prick us do we not bleed?”, which forms part of a monologue by Shylock (Act 3, Sc 1). It is also the title of Upstart Crow’s third episode in the third series.


So having covered the first series in these Upstart Crow Facts, we’ll move on to S2, Ep 1 next time and find out if Othello was a real person or a fictional character!


Twitter: @ChasquiPenguin