In act 3, scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock has a conversation with his friend Tubal, who Shylock sends to find his daughter, Jessica, who eloped with Lorenzo, a Christian.
SHYLOCK: How now, Tubal? What news from Genoa? Hast thou found my daughter?
TUBAL: I often came where I did hear of her, but cannot find her.
Shylock rants about the loss of a diamond that Jessica stole from him that cost “two thousand ducats in Frankfurt!”
thousand ducats in that, and other
precious, precious jewels. I would my
daughter were dead at my foot and the
jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed
at my foot and the ducats in her coffin!
Shylock learns from Tubal that Antonio, who owes Shylock three thousand ducats, has lost a ship at sea. Antonio might also be in danger of losing “a pound of flesh” to Shylock if he’s unable to pay back the loan.
Tubal alternates between telling Shylock about Antonio’s misfortune and tales about Jessica’s profligate ways with the money and jewels that she stole from Shylock when she eloped. Tubal tells Shylock that he heard that his daughter had spent “fourscore ducats!” While Shylock reacts to that news, Tubal tells Shylock that creditors of his acquaintance to whom Antonio owes money have come to Venice.
TUBAL: One of them showed me a ring, that he had
of your daughter for a monkey.
Shylock is beside himself in grief and anger.
SHYLOCK: Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. 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.
Leah is Shylock’s deceased wife and Jessica’s mother, who gave Shylock what many scholars believe was a betrothal ring. The ring has great emotional significance for Shylock, and Shylock is utterly dismayed that Jessica would show such contempt and betrayal for him, her mother, and their entire family that Jessica would trade the ring for a monkey.
It seems absurd that Jessica would trade away a ring that she knew held such importance for Shylock for something as ridiculous as a monkey. There’s no further mention of a monkey anywhere in the play, not even when Jessica and Lorenzo visit Portia at her home in Belmont. Surely somebody would have noticed and mentioned anything as unusual and interesting as a monkey, if there had there been one.
It might well be that Tubal made up the whole “monkey story” in order to further incense Shylock against the Christians, Antonio and Lorenzo.
Also, Tubal doesn’t mention which of the “precious, precious jewels” that Jessica stole from Shylock that she traded for the monkey. Shylock is caught up in the moment, and he’s caught up in Tubal’s manipulation of him for his own purposes, and Shylock jumps to the conclusion that Jessica traded away the ring that Leah gave him.