Queen Elizabeth’s Dr. Roderigo Lopez versus Shakespeare’s Shylock:
Similarities, Differences, and Their Influences on Elizabethan England

Lauren Sanders

        In his article detailing the treatment of Jews, Spainards, and Portingales in Elizabethan England, Edmund Valentine Campos poses the question: “Could Elizabethan playgoers attend a performance of The Merchant of Venice (1596-1597) without recalling the bloody execution of the Queen’s Jewish physician Roderigo Lopez?” (Campos, 599). Born in Portugal, Roderigo Lopez arrived in London in 1559. He “practiced medicine thee in the highest circles, and by 1586 was given the post of chief physician to Queen Elizabeth.” (Dr. Lopez and Shylock). In 1594, though, Lopez was convicted of conspiring to poison the queen, and publically executed (Campos, 599). Campos’s question is one that has been debated since the arrival of Shakespeare’s Shylock on the Elizabethan stage. Comparisons have long been made between Shylock and Lopez, and there are some who feel that the character of Shylock was based on the life and actions of the Queen’s physician, especially in light of the anti-Semitic sentiments coursing through England at the time The Merchant of Venice was written.  However, there are others who cite their Jewish backgrounds as the only similarity between Shylock and Lopez. The question of Lopez’s guilt or innocence, too, goes hand-in-hand with the debate of Shylock’s origin. Neither question, however, seems to come with a conclusive answer, and examining both sides of the arguments showcases the reasons for the ambiguity surrounding both disputes.

         In order to study the effect Roderigo Lopez’s trial and execution may have had on Shakespeare’s characterization of Shylock and his writing of The Merchant of Venice, we must first delve into the Lopez case itself.  As previously stated, Lopez was born in Portugal, and, after arriving in London, he became the chief physician to Queen Elizabeth. Though Jews were driven out of England in 1290 and not permitted to return until 1656, there was a colony of about one hundred Marranos, or Jews posing as Christians, living in England during Queen Elizabeth’s reign (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez). Lopez, as both a foreigner and a Jewish man, did well for himself in London. His downfall, though, came about when he chose to tamper with politics instead of sticking to medicine. Lopez was a strong supporter of Don Antonio, the “bastard pretender to the Portuguese throne.” (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez). Lopez ended up as Antonio’s translator and creditor, and his close proximity to Don Antonio made him a perfect candidate for the Spanish, when they were in search of someone to betray Antonio (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez). The Spanish were looking for someone to poison Antonio in March of 1587, and by April, Lopez was a Spanish spy feigning loyalty to Don Antonio (Dr. Lopez and Shylock). By 1593, Lopez was negotiating with the Spanish regarding payment for poisoning the Queen (Dr. Lopez and Shylock). The English in general were fascinated by poison and its ability to kill undetected. Jews and Italians were thought to be particularly dexterous at using poison, and Jewish doctors were considered especially adept (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez). Lopez was arrested in 1594, when a letter he wrote to a Spanish agent was intercepted. Once Lopez was indicted, he confessed to the conspiracy to poison the Queen. William Meyers takes issue with this confession, however, in his Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews article, stating that “although the common law denied the use of torture , an exception was made for cases, like his, of high treason. Richard Topcliffe, the rackmaster, ‘avaunted he could stretch a man one foot longer than ever God intended.’ So how much can Lopez’s confession have been worth?” In fact, Queen Elizabeth was reluctant to sign Lopez’s death warrant, believing the man to be innocent (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez).  In his letter to the editor disagreeing with Meyers’s article, however, David Katz claims that “even apart from Lopez’s signed confession, the evidence was overwhelming, and still survives.” Whether Lopez’s confession was genuine or influenced by the threat of torture, though, Lopez was found guilty on the first day of his trial (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez). Elizabeth did sign the death warrant, and Dr. Lopez was publically executed on June 7th, 1954. According to William Camden, a historian, “Lopez affirm[ed] that he loved the Queen as he loved Jesus Christ, which from a man of the Jewish profession was heard not without laughter.” John Stow, a diarist, claims that Lopez and the men executed with him were “hanged, cut downe alive, holden down by strength of men, dismembered, bowelled, headed and quartered, there [sic] quarters set on the gates of the citie.” (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez).

       Dr. Lopez has been found in The Merchant of Venice footnotes since his execution (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez). Meyers lists three specific incidents of Lopez’s mention: John Gross’s Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (1993), James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews, and a feature article in the New York Times about the play. In Lee Lady’s analysis of Shylock and the play in general, she states that, above all things, Shakespeare was in the business of entertainment, and his primary goal was to please his audience. A play about Jews at the time of Lopez’s execution would be attractive to an Elizabethan audience, and a play about Jews as evil would be a likely success (Shylock). The Lopez scandal was public and widespread, and it is unlikely that Shakespeare would have been unaware of it and the anti-Semitism it fueled, especially since several other dramas dealing with Jewish characters were inspired by the case (To Prove a Villian). Meyers takes his conviction even further, stating that “Shakespeare did great harm to the Jewish people through the creation of his character Shylock, based as he is on centuries of prejudice and on Dr. Roderigo Lopez, whom I believe to have been innocent. And I say, because I know Shakespeare is a great writer, that he intended it.” (Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez). Shylock and Lopez were both successful Jewish men – successful in a society that tried its hardest to hold them down. They were also both scorned by the public, and the question of the character of both men is one that has been debated since Lopez’s execution and The Merchant of Venice’s appearance on stage. Are those similarities enough, however, to conclusively state that Shakespeare created Shylock as a character based on Dr. Roderigo Lopez?

Campos doesn’t think so. He doesn’t believe there is enough “textual evidence to definitively map Lopez onto Shylock.” (Campos, 599). The most common argument against Lopez as influencing Shakespeare’s Shylock is the fact that there were many other facets of Dr. Lopez that would make him different, exotic, and threatening in the eyes of Elizabethans besides his religious affiliation. Most importantly, Lopez was a Portuguese outsider, and in the middle of an Anglo-Spanish conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth (Campos, 600). The fact also remains that Shylock was severely looked down upon by the other characters in The Merchant of Venice not because of his religion, but because he was a moneylender, and usury was considered immoral to Elizabethans. Lopez’s profession, though, as the Queen’s chief physician, was respected, and probably even coveted by other members of Elizabethan society.

A definitive conclusion to the argument of Shylock versus Dr. Roderigo Lopez seems unattainable. One cannot jump into Shakespeare’s mind and conclusively deduce whether or not he purposefully created Shylock in the image of Dr. Lopez. The similarities are evident: both men were of the Jewish religion, at a time in Elizabethan England when Jews were heavily discriminated. Both men were successful despite this, and both men, in the end, were despised by their peers. They both inspired strong anti-Semitic feelings in those around them. However, Dr. Roderigo Lopez was also a foreigner, a spy for the Spanish, and had a close relationship with the Queen of England. Shylock was a moneylender, which was a profession scorned by most Elizabethans. When examined in this light, it seems that the only thing Shylock and Lopez have in common is their Jewish affiliation. There does not appear to be enough evidence to support either side of the argument. Whether the Elizabethans saw Dr. Lopez reflected in the character of Shylock is one thing; however, whether this was Shakespeare’s intention or not has yet to be proven.


Works Cited


Campos, Edmund V. “Jews, Spaniards, and Portingales: Ambiguous Identities of Portuguese Marranos in Elizabethan England.” English Literary History. 2002: 599-606. 2 November 2005.

Harris, Craig. “To Prove a Villian - The Elizabethan Villian as Revenger.” Craig’sWeb. 1994-2005. 6 November 2005.

Katz, David S. “Dr. Lopez and Shylock.” Commentary v. 102. July 1996. 8 November 2005.  http://newfirstsearch.oclc.org/images/WSPL/wsppdf1/HTML/03809/L8TK6/4ST.HTM

Lady, Lee. “Shylock.” Thoughts on Shakespeare. October 2002. 4 November 2005.

Meyers, William. “Shakespeare, Shylock, and Dr. Lopez.” Commentary v. 101. April 1996. 6 November 2005. http://newfirstsearch.oclc.org/images/WSPL/wsppdf1/HTML/03809/L8EAR/YSH.HTM;

Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Necessary Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago P. 74-112.