A very affectionate look by @ChasquiPenguin at the Upstart Crow episodes, all of which were written by Ben Elton.
Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles the aim is to give a little more background to those and the surrounding Upstart Crow storylines, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms and the characters involved.
Episode 3 – If You Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed?
The title of this episode is a line from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, a comedy believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598.
The first recorded performance of The Merchant of Venice was on 10th February 1605, which was Shrove Tuesday that year. It took place at the court of King James I, though it is likely to have been performed earlier, possibly in the late 1590s, at The Theatre, owned by James Burbage. His son Richard Burbage was cast as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, a man despised by many, including Antonio, the title-role character.
The episode title is from Act 3, Scene 1 and is spoken by Shylock who lives in the city of Venice, where the play is set. The words form part of his speech and he is pointing out the fact that despite differences, all humans are the same under the surface, including Christians and Jews. A longer extract from Shylock’s speech will be included later in this Facts List. However, the name of this Jewish character is not mentioned in Upstart Crow.
Synopsis of The Merchant of Venice
The play revolves around a love match for Portia, a rich young lady who has many suitors. In his will her father has left three caskets, one of gold, one of silver and one of lead. Inside one of these he has left his written permission for the opener of that casket to marry Portia. Only Bassanio, whom Portia loves, chooses the correct casket – lead – but as he is not wealthy cannot marry her. He asks his friend, Antonio – the merchant of Venice in this play – for a loan but he is unable to oblige as his money is tied up in the cargo on ships which are late arriving in Venice. Antonio sends Bassano to moneylender Shylock for a loan, in Antonio’s name. Despite knowing of Antonio’s prejudice against himself, and Jews in general, Shylock agrees to lend the money but insists on its being paid back within three months or he will take a pound of flesh from Antonio. The deal is agreed but news arrives that all of Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, making him bankrupt. Therefore, he is unable to repay the loan to Shylock who threatens to take the pound of flesh. The case goes to court. By this time, Portia and Bassanio are married, and she dresses as a male lawyer to argue the case. Her servant Balthazar points out that no mention is made of taking blood with the pound of flesh and when she cites this, the case is dismissed, and Shylock shamed.
This episode opens in Will’s room in London. He is writing a new comedy, at the request of Burbage, and has decided to set it in Venice, with a romantic theme, and with a moneylender as a focal character.
Kit Marlowe, having faked his own death, is in hiding in Will’s lodgings, taking full advantage of his friend’s hospitality, without paying him a penny. He is pleased to see Will writing another play which will earn him some money to pay for the food and drink, though Kit does rather sarcastically wonder whether Will is writing another Henry play, in fact Henry the Nineteenth, Part 12! In reality, Christopher Marlowe is recorded as having died on 30th May 1593 during an altercation with Ingram Frizer over the payment of a bill, but there is a school of thought which believes his death was faked and he lived on to write Shakespeare’s plays. This has led to the Shakespeare Authorship Question which seeks to find the true author of the famous dramas. A fuller account of the facts/speculations can be found in my previous Facts List: https://adoseofdavidmitchell.wordpress.com/2022/06/
Will outlines the plot of his new comedy to Kit and Bottom, insisting it is his own original idea. However, Kit refutes Will’s claim, accusing him of “pinching it from a collection of Medieval stories called Gesta Romanorum, a book Kate is reading and has left in the privy”. Will then admits he may have glanced at it but concluded that it was a coincidence that he and the Medieval author had had the same idea!
It is likely that this tome was written and published in Latin, as the first English version was not printed until the early 18th century. While Kate is fluent in the language, the Upstart Crow Will struggles to understand Latin, though the real Shakespeare is likely to have been more au fait with the ancient language than his sitcom version and could well have been familiar with the original tale.
It is thought by many academics that Shakespeare based The Merchant of Venice on an Italian story by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino entitled Il Percone. Written in the late fourteenth century, it was published in1558, almost certainly in Latin, as one of a collection of tales. Although there is no proof, there is speculation that Shakespeare based the character of Shylock on Rodrigo Lopes. He was a Portuguese doctor, a Christian of Jewish descent, who became Queen Elizabeth I’s physician-in-chief.
There are a few other contenders which may have influenced Shakespeare’s writing of this play, including The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe which was first performed around 1589. The title role was probably played at the debut by Edward Alleyn at the Rose Playhouse, but no details have survived to confirm these suppositions.
Will makes a reference to the popularity of his plays, claiming his Richard III title has inspired London costermongers to use it as part of their Cockney Rhyming slang. Although Richard III has been incorporated into rhyming slang, it would have been much later than the 16th century as it wasn’t till the 1840s that East End Londoners started to develop their unique method of communication. It is said to have originated among the less honest citizens, so the police and other more upstanding members of the city couldn’t understand their conversations. There is also a theory that the servants in the households of the wealthy used it so their masters were unable to comprehend any overhead chats “below stairs”. There is possibly an element of truth in both, and a likelihood that some were part of both groups of rhyming slang speakers. Usually only the first half of a rhyming slang phrase is used, but it is the latter part which contains the rhyme, so it was often difficult for outsiders to understand. An example of this is, ‘use your loaf’, the latter word being the first part of the full phrase ‘loaf of bread’ which translates as “head”. It should also be said that not all rhyming slang is as mild as this example; many are crude, with ‘Richard III’ is in this category!
The term ‘cockney’ has existed for centuries and was used by Chaucer. It is thought to have originated from the Norman word ‘cocaigne’ meaning a sugar cake. It may also have stemmed from a word for an oddly shaped egg. The word later came to be used by rural communities to describe city dwellers as weaklings. However, during the 17th century, the word ‘Cockney’ was applied exclusively to Londoners, who were still regarded as weaklings! Although anyone from the East End of London is regarded as a Cockney these days, a true Cockney is defined as one born within earshot of Bow Bells. Nevertheless, the radius over which these church bells could be heard, must often have been determined by wind direction!
The word ‘costermonger’ dates from the early 16th century and describes a fruit and vegetable seller. It is s a combination of the words ‘costard’, the name of a type of apple eaten in the Middle Ages, and ‘monger’ meaning seller. In fact, the term was used by Samuel Pepys in his diary written in the 17th century.
Returning to the outline of his play, Will refers to Portia’s suitor Bassanio, and it has been speculated that Shakespeare’s inspiration for this name (and variations on it in other plays) came from Emilia Lanier’s maiden name, Bassano. It is thought that they knew each other, but whether she was the Dark Lady of his sonnets remains a subject for debate.
Back at Will’s lodgings, Kate returns home, having taken part in a counter-riot supporting the rights of Dutch and French Protestants to remain in England. These immigrants had fled their homelands to escape religious persecution. She refers to the Dutch Church Riots of 1593, but this must be very soon after, if not in the same year, as Upstart Crow Kit had recently faked his death.
Will has an appointment with his actor friends at the theatre and asks Kate to accompany him for a female opinion. They are to audition an actor for Will’s new play. Burbage and colleagues agree that the successful applicant needs to have the qualities of shouting and strutting. The actor arrives and introduces himself in the third person, ‘I am the actor Wolf Hall’, an amusing trend which runs throughout his dealings with the theatre company. He is quietly spoken and apprises them of the fact that the actor Wolf Hall does not shout and does not strut but has ‘developed a revolutionary new style, subtle, nuanced, emoting from within, by means of long sad-eyed stares, pregnant with weary wisdom and penetrating perception’, and he goes on to demonstrate this in his audition. This fictional Upstart Crow character, played by Ben Miller, seems to have been inspired by Sir Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Sir Thomas Cromwell in the televised historical drama Wolf Hall. It is also interesting to note that Sir Mark Rylance is President of the Marlowe Society and supporter of the Shakespeare Authorship Question – did Shakespeare actually write the plays attributed to him?
While Burbage is initially unimpressed by Wolf Hall’s acting, Condell, Kempe and Kate see promise in it. She is convinced that ‘brainy girls will go wibbly, wobbly over an actor like that’. Will is also in favour of this new, slow approach to acting, delighted at the thought that Wolf Hall could double the length of his Richard III to eight or nine hours! Burbage agrees to take him on but in smaller roles only. However, the actor Wolf Hall has other ideas, stating, ‘There are no small roles for Wolf Hall’. He then turns and walks to the door with the words, ‘The actor Wolf Hall bids you good day’.
Meanwhile, Robert Greene has been secretly listening to the audition and, fearing that Wolf Hall’s acting may enhance Will’s fame as a playwright, comes up with a plan to thwart such an outcome, which will be revealed in a later scene.
After the audition, Will and colleagues adjourn to Lucy’s Tavern to discuss the forthcoming charity event for the Dutch and French immigrants – a venture they all seem keen to embrace as it will promote their careers. They have chosen to call it Inflated Pig’s Bladder Day, a parody of Red Nose Day, as participants in a visual joke hit an opponent in the face with a pig’s bladder and the victim’s nose turns red! On the night of the show, which features the pig’s bladder slap-stick routine, the merriment of the entertainment is then replaced by a serious speech by Burbage and Condell on the plight of the immigrants and then the amount of money donated is revealed: £4.18.6d (four pounds, eighteen shillings and sixpence), but as Lucy pointed out earlier actual help, accompanied by laws, would be the better option for the immigrants, but in the absence of those, a bunch of lovey-kissies showing off will have to suffice. Kate feels that such a timeless issue brought to public attention would be a good way to help the immigrants and this gives Will an idea.
In the next scene Robert Greene is in his office with Wolf Hall, convincing him that Shakespeare does not have the education to have written the plays credited to him, and wonders if some ‘educated posh boy’ had written them in secret, suggesting university men such as Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford – or even Christopher Marlowe, adding ‘They say he’s dead, but is he?’ This gets Wolf Hall thinking, as he comments “The actor Wolf Hall is intrigued”.
Back in Stratford, Susannah has a job at the local school helping the children with their reading and writing. However, after her first day she is angered and disillusioned to find one boy being picked on by his classmates and would like to make her class realise that this boy ‘has exactly the same feelings and exactly the same human value as they do’. Anne suggests to her daughter that she speaks to her father as he ‘can be astute in matters of human nature’, while Mary (Will’s mother) agrees as ‘he knows a bit about being bullied too. He started to go bald when he was seven’!
In his London lodgings, Will has concluded that at the centre of his new play there needs to be an outsider who is ‘despised and belittled’. He then goes on to say, ‘I’ll make him the moneylender and create an iconic figure who will stand for all time as an affront to prejudice and bigotry’. Influenced by Kate’s words about the anti-immigrant riots, he announces that he will make this character a Dutchman. However, Kate informs Will that the Dutch are not hated in Venice; in fact, the Venetians and Dutch are trading partners. Kit then points out that, aside from recent events, the Dutch have long been our allies. After some thought, Will decides to make his moneylender a Jew and to make him a character which will partly bring out audience sympatheties.
In the next scene a rehearsal of The Merchant of Venice is taking place, with Burbage playing the Jewish moneylender, not very sympathetically. Wolf Hall is sitting at the side watching and during a pause, walks towards the stage with the script in his hand and begins to recite a lengthy speech by the Jew, with much feeling:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
Moved by the portrayal, Will declares that Wolf Hall must play this part of the moneylender. Burbage, however, reminds him that he always plays the title role. Will agrees, stating that he still can, as the Jew is not the merchant of Venice, but Antonio. Despite landing the role of the Jewish moneylender, Wolf Hall has his own ideas and accuses Will of not writing his plays, suggesting that the author is a posh boy. Will is astounded and incensed, especially as none of the actors backs him. Will bans Wolf Hall from appearing in his plays and receives the reply, ‘How very rude. I was only expressing reasonable doubt.” He then walks out, having uttered his last words in that theatre, “The actor Wolf Hall bids you goodbye”.
This year sees the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio. This consists of 36 of the Bard’s plays, collated by his acting friends Henry Condell and John Hemminges, under the title Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. Published according to the true originall copies. The British Library houses one of 235 extant copies, featuring the original engraving of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout, before improvements to the artwork were made. However, as the engraver was only 15 when Shakespeare died in 1616, it is unlikely that they ever met, and it is thought that the engraving was achieved by copying a portrait. Ben Jonson, who was one of Shakespeare’s friends, declared it a good likeness and so from this we can picture William Shakespeare in his later years.
Back to The Merchant of Venice, and the first performance sees Burbage on stage, portraying the Jew as a nasty character, the villain of the play. Therefore, he is being booed by the audience. Will’s plans to promote tolerance and understanding, have backfired but he has another use for the speech.
In the real world of Elizabethan theatre, although it is not certain, it is thought that Richard Burbage (son of James, owner of The Theatre) played Shylock when it was first performed. From his earliest days as an actor, Richard had taken many important roles in Shakespeare’s plays and so this is likely to have been among them.
In the next scene Susannah is seen in the classroom of the Stratford school and tells the boys that she is going to choose one of them to speak the lines of one of her father’s plays at the village Gladsome Gadabout. Much to the amusement of his classmates, she chooses Rodney, the bullied boy, and asks him to read a few of the lines, in fact most of those read by Wolf Hall. As Rodney concludes the reading of the lines, the pupils appear more sympathetic towards him, seeing the error of their ways in their treatment of him, and so Will’s words have been effective for someone. We then see Will and Anne standing at the back and joining in the round of applause.
The final scene focuses on Anne and Will chatting late at night in their Stratford parlour. She is impressed by those lines her husband has written, but he goes one further and thinks they will change the world. Anne then tells him that she doesn’t think his hair is receding – his head has just got bigger! On that note the episode ends.
The Merchant of Venice is certainly one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, with Shylock among the most famous characters. Although written with a partly sympathetic slant, the actions of this man cannot be condoned even though he has been wronged repeatedly, and so the question of Will’s true feelings about this character remains.
The next Facts List will concentrate on the Upstart Crow episode Sigh No More (S3, Ep 4), with Adrian Edmondson playing one of Shakespeare’s well-known comedy characters.