Diamonds in English Literary Culture – Elizabethan Drama

Love’s Labour’s Lost. William Shakespeare
This play has an unusual ending for a Shakespearean comedy. Instead of every character getting married at the end, news of a death causes each couple to separate for a year. In the case of the King of Navarre and the French Princess, the King gives her a gift of diamonds. At the beginning of the final scene, the ladies enter –

Princess: Sweet hearts, we shall be rich ere we depart,
If fairiings come thus plentifully in:
A lady wall’d about with diamonds!
Look you what I have from the loving king.

Rosaline: Madame, came nothing else along with that?

Princess: Nothing but this! yes, as much love in rhyme
As would be cramm’d up in a sheet of paper,
Writ o’ both sides the leaf, margent and all,
That he was fain to seal on Cupid’s name.

So the Princess values the diamonds as a more important sign of the King’s love than the poem he wrote for her. This play was written in 1597, a hundred years after the first diamond engagement ring was given by Archduke Maximillian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy. So the association of diamonds with the promise of marriage seems to be more than an occasional thing among the European elite.

Cymbeline. William Shakespeare
A play set in Roman Britain, it has a complicated plot and critics either love it or hate it. But a diamond ring is at the centre of the plot. Cymbeline is a British chief. His daughter, Imogen falls in love with a Roman, Posthumus. When Cymbeline hears of this he banishes Posthumus. Before Posthumus is banished, he gives Imogen a bracelet and she gives him a diamond ring.

In Rome, Posthumus brags about how loyal Imogen is, just like the diamond he gave her. Jachimo bets with him that he can seduce her. But Posthumus compares the hardness of his diamond to Imogen’s ability to resist Jachimo.

As it happens, Imogen does reject Jachimo, but he manages to learn enough about her for him to pretend that he did, in fact, seduce her. When he hears that Imogen was unfaithful, Posthumus doesn’t think the diamond is so beautiful anymore –

Posthumus: It is a basilisk unto mine eye,
Kills me to look on’t.

But the diamond is also the item which brings the truth to light. Imogen’s father recognises the ring and Jachimo is made to admit his slander. Both woman and diamond are beautiful to Posthumus again.

For Shakespeare, the ideal woman needs to be beautiful, loyal and chaste. These are qualities which he also associates with diamonds.

The Jew of Malta. Christopher Marlowe
Barabas is the Jew of the title. After the Governor of Malta seizes all Jewish property on the island to pay off the Turks and stop them from attacking, Barabas embarks on a course of bloody revenge against the Christians. He starts by using his daughter Abigail to cause a fight which kills both the Governor’s son, Lodowick, and his friend. Abigail was in love with the Lodowick and she converts to Christianity and becomes a nun. Barabas murders her and a lot of priests.

Next, he helps the Turks to capture the city and they appoint him as governor as a reward. But then he switches to the Christian side and plots to kill the Turkish prince and a whole lot of other people too. But the former governor manages to foil the plot and Barabas ends up boiling alive in a vat, which he intended for the Turkish prince. The Turks and the Christians come to terms and agree not to fight with each other again.

Although all of his assets are seized at the beginning of the play, Barabas doesn’t lose his diamonds because he is able to hide them under a floorboard when the Christians come looking for them.

He also refers to Abigail as a diamond:

Lodowick: Well, Barabas, cans’t help me to a diamond?
Barabas: O, sir, your father had my diamonds.
Yet I have one left that will serve your turn:-
I mean my daughter [aside] but ere he shall have her
I’ll sacrifice her on a pile of wood.

So, although Barabas values his daughter as much as his diamonds, he would kill her rather than have her married to a gentile (a non-jew). In fact, he kills her for converting to Christianity.

The Merchant of Venice. William Shakespeare
Bassanio is spendthrift who has wasted his family’s money and is now bankrupt. He needs money to pursue a wealthy heiress, Portia. Antonio is a merchant who hates Jews so much that he bullies Shylock constantly – breaking contracts, slandering him, doing everything he can to make Shylock lose money and reputation, even though he has nothing to gain from doing so. Antonio also does not charge interest on any money he lends, which also enrages Shylock as it means he has to charge a lower interest rate to attract borrowers. Bassanio asks Antonio for money but Antonio’s ships haven’t returned so he has no spare cash. But he offers to guarantee a loan if Bassanio can find a lender.

Shylock agrees to lend the money on condition that if it is not repaid on the due date he can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As the loan is interest free, and thinking that his ships will return soon, Antonio agrees to the loan. Bassanio succeeds in courting Portia, but Antonio’s ships are reported as lost so he is unable to pay and Shylock calls in his debt. The matter goes to trial and Portia acts as Antonio’s lawyer. Shylock wins the case and demands his pound of flesh. But Portia points out that the contract only entitles Shylock to Antonio’s flesh, not his blood. Shylock will be executed if Antonio loses a drop of blood from the operation.

Unable to perform the operation without losing his own head, Shylock renounces his claim. But the court proceeds to use further legal contrivances to cause him to lose his claim not only to the money he lent, but all of his assets and he is forced to convert to Christianity. Antonio’s ships finally make it back to Venice and he is wealthy again.

The diamonds come up in a sub-plot. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Lorenzo, one of Antonio’s friends and a Christian. Jessica steals Shylock’s best diamond and the turquoise ring that was given to him by his deceased wife. When he hears that his daughter was seen in Genoa and spent eighty ducats and traded the ring for a monkey, he says famously “I would not have traded it for a wilderness of monkeys”. He continues to lament –

Shylock: Why there, there, there, there! A diamond gone, cost me
two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse never fell upon our
nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in
that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter
were dead at my feet, and the jewels in her ear; would she were
hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin! No news of
them? Why, so: and I know not what’s spent in the search. Why,
thou – loss upon loss! The thief gone with so much and so much to
find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge; nor no ill luck
stirring but what lights on my shoulder; no sighs but of my
breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

Tubal: Yes, other men have ill luck too. Antonio, as I heard in
Genoa, –

Shylock: What, what, what? Ill luck, ill luck?

Tubal: -hath an argosy cast away, coming from Tripolis.

Shylock: I thank God! I thank God! Is it true, is it true?

Jessica has rejected her father in the worst possible way, abusing the memory of his wife and destroying his family’s reputation. There is nothing left for him now but his messenger gives him hope of revenge and with nothing left to lose, Shylock latches on to the news of Antonio’s apparent misfortune and the opportunity to take revenge through that.

In both The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, jews are associated with diamonds. As a people who were forbidden to own land and who might need to leave their homes on short notice, they needed to be able to store their wealth in easily transportable assets – gold and gems. This is probably one reason why so many jews are involved in the jewellery trade.

Both jews have daughters who fall in love with gentiles, setting their fathers on a course of self-hurting revenge. Barabas causes his daughter’s death, Shylock wishes it. Both daughters convert to Christianity. Elizabethan audiences would have been delighted by the willing conversion of jews, or the idea of it.


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