A patron recently brought to our attention a story printed in Jacob R. Marcus’ The Jew in the Medieval World that illuminates one of Shakespeare’s possible sources for The Merchant of Venice. Marcus reprints a section from the 1693 edition of Gregorio Leti’s Vita di Sisto V (“Life of Sixtus V,” 1585-1590) that describes a Christian Merchant making a wager with his Jewish creditor—the stakes are a pound of flesh from the Jew’s body, not the Merchant’s.
As Marcus notes, most scholars agree that the incident Leti documents is not factual but rather a version of a tale commonly told in Italy during the 17th century. Check out some excerpts below:
“It was currently reported in Rome that Drake  had taken and plundered St. Domingo, in Hispaniola, and carried off an immense booty. This account came in a private letter to Paul Secchi, a very considerable merchant in the city, who had large concerns in those parts, which he had insured. Upon receiving this news, he sent for the insurer, Sampson Ceneda, a Jew, and acquainted him with it. The Jew…gave many reasons why it could not possibly be true; and, at last…said: ‘I’ll lay you a pound of my flesh it is a lie.’….Secchi, who was of a fiery hot temper, replied: ‘If you like it, I’ll lay you 1000 crowns against a pound of your flesh, that it’s true.’
“….Unfortunately for the Jew, the truth of the account was soon after confirmed by other advices from the West Indies….Upon this, he went to the Governor of Rome, and begged he would interpose in the affair and use his authority to prevail with Secchi to accept of 1000 pistoles as an equivalent for the pound of flesh. But the Governor, not daring to take upon him to determine a case of so uncommon a nature, made a report of it to the Pope, who sent for them both, and…said: