Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Merchant of Venice and Hercules

In The Merchant of Venice today I read the following, spoken by Morocco (Act II, Scene I, 32-8):

If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand:
So is Alcides beaten by his rage,
And so may I, blind Fortune leading me,
Miss that which one unworthier may attain,
And die with grieving.

In the 'Arden Shakespeare' edition of the play, edited by John Russell Brown, the note for 'Lichas' in line 32 reads:
'the attendant who brought Hercules the poisoned shirt of Nessus (see Ovid, Met., IX); no story of a game at dice is known [my emphasis].'

Is this correct? Has anyone ever come across an ancient reference to a game of dice?


Kyrelle said...

I'm not sure if you're referring specifically to Grekk dice games, or dice games between these two specific characters, but as far as ancient dice games...

Sir Leonard Wooley found two boards from a baord game in teh Roal Tombs of Ur, dating to about 2600 B.C.E. These games seem to have invovled pyramid shaped dice.

The Egyptian board game of Senet seems to have invovled the throwing of numbered sticks, or possibly knuckle bones to determined moves, and objects that more closely resemble what we think of as dice have been found in Eygptian tombs.

The web-site Dice-play says "Sophocles (496 - 406 BC), the Greek poet and tragedian, claimed that dice were invented by the Greek, Palamedes, during the siege of Troy. Herodotus (b. 484 BC?), historian and acquaintance of Sophocles, said they were invented by the Lydians of Asia Minor."

Unfortunately, the author of the article doesn't give specific references, but they might have more info if you contacted them.

Anonymous said...

Um...I think your commentor is just being unclear. It seems more likely he means no story about these two playing dice exists. I doubt someone editing Shakespeare would have taken the time to investigate any more than that.

eric said...

Yes, that's what the commentator is referring to--a game between these two figures. Sorry, my ending question was not clear. It should have read: 'Has anyone ever come across an ancient reference to Hercules and Lichas in a game of dice?'

And thanks, Kyrelle, for all of the information on ancient gaming!

Ecclesiastes said...

I shouldn't look for a classical reference. Shakespeare's langauge is speculative, not referential, here: "If", not "when". Hercules is chosen as symbolic of greatness, his servant Lichas as representing a lowly state; the game of dice stands for the element of chance in life which can sometimes cause great men to fare worse than their inferiors.

dennis said...


That was my conclusion in the follow-up to Eric's post, but I think the choice of principals served another purpose.