When I was flipping through some old Ha’Am newspapers this week while searching for a Historical Ha’Am article, I came across the title “Shakespeare and the Jews,” and my attention was immediately fully devoted to this piece. As an English major, it is always exciting to me to read discourse on a topic concerning a well-known piece of literary achievement; Thus, imagine my delight upon finding an article directly linking literary discourse on Shakespeare with Judaism, which is a major part of identity. However, this article is not relevant only to literary enthusiasts; in fact, it dives more into the history of Jews in England than it discusses the role of Judaism in Shakespeare’s works. So, let us take you back to February of 1996, where Natasha Zwick will take you back to the 17th century in her article, “Shakespeare and the Jews.
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
The Merchant of Venice, III.i.52-8.
“For centuries, literary scholars, particularly Jewish literary scholars, have examined the relationship between Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Jews and the England in which he lived. Though references to the stereotypical “blaspheming Jew” appear in such plays as Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry IV, the focus of this analysis falls largely upon The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock, the greedy, moneylending Jew is routinely mocked as a “misbeliever, cutthroat dog” (I.iii.111), suffers abandonment by his daughter Jessica, who marries a Christian, and endures supreme mortification when forced to convert to Christianity in a famous courtroom scene (IV.i). Yet some scholars maintain that Shakespeare’s tendencies were actually more egalitarian than his contemporaries’, in that Shylock testifies to the similarities between Jew and Christian, and to his own humanness.
Were there were [sic] Jews in Shakespeare’s England? What were Elizabethan notions of Jewish criminality? How did post-Reformation theology shape attitudes toward Jewish national, racial, and political status? These are some of the many probing questions which yeshiva-educated Columbia University Professor James Shapiro seeks to answer in his latest work, Shakespeare and the Jews (Columbia University Press; $29.50).
In part because the Expulsion and Readmission have, according to Shapiro, “taken on mythic dimensions,” “the myth that there were no Jews in Shakespeare’s England remains a powerful one.” Scholars question how many Jews were expelled. The chronicles of medieval counters vary, but recent examination of poll taxes reduces the number of Jews still residing in England at the time of the Expulsion to 2,000-2,500. Shapiro writes that the previous century’s “York Massacre, mass arrests, financial ruin, conversions, emigration, and over three hundred executions preceded this final blow.”
If, as Shapiro writes, “there were Jews in Shakespeare’s England, though probably no more than a couple of hundred at any given time,” why were the English obsessed with the Jews. Patrick Kuhn hypothesizes that in a nation whose State religion changed three times in three decades, “What do you do when you no longer know who you are? You demonize who you are not.” The Jews were always alien.
Though England never subjected her Jews to inquisitorial fires or ceaseless violent pogroms, Jews were neither fully tolerated nor granted citizenship in early modern England. Shapiro draws evidence from “travel diaries, chronicles, sermons, political tracts, confessions of faith, legal textbooks, parliamentary debates and New Testament commentary” to analyze the Elizabethan perceptions of “counterfeit Christians,” whose insincerity was dreaded, and of the threat of “turning” Jew, an “unnerving possibility” about which Ralph Josselin had a nightmare in 1655.
Certainly one may be interested in the prevalence of seemingly absurd conceptions of Jews harbored by the English and what the “early exposure of myths of Jewish villainy had upon the English psyche.” Novelist Maria Edgeworth’s character Harrington is so terrified of Jewish abduction and cannibalization of Christian children that he lay “in an indescribable agony of terror (and) saw faces… grinning, glaring, receding… into the same face of the Jew with the long beard, and the terrible eyes, and that bag in which I fancied were mangled limbs of children.”
In addition to the “familiar categories of the Jew as murderer, poisoner, usurer, and political interloper,” the Jews were blamed for keeping “in readiness the blood of some Christian with which they anoint the body of any that dies among them” (John Donne), for the ritual murder of Christian children to make matzah, for the Black Plague.
Shapiro sheds light on the Elizabethan view of how Jews were physically different from Christians. The abundant beliefs about Jewish physiology held by Elizabethans were much more radical and more widely accepted than we may realize. Of the foetor judaicus, or Jewish stench, James Howell writes: “it seems there is a kind of curse also fallen upon their bodies… a stink which is observed to be inherent and inseparable from most of them above all other nations.”
A most bizarre conception was that Jewish men menstruated. The stench and the Jewish need for Christian blood to replace the loss are therefore “explained,” Shapiro writes. Thomas Calvert believed the Jews to be so shamed that “men as well as females, are punished curso menstruo sanguinis, with a very frequent blood flux.” These beliefs were not monopolized by the uneducated masses.
Spanish physician Juan de Quinones tried to prove that “male Jews have a tail,” and Samuel Purchas believed men were capable of breast-feeding. In 1627, John Donne called the Jews “a whole nation of Cains, fugitives, and vagabonds,” and circumcision was equated to castration. “The feminized male Jew’s leaky body, then, is inescapably bound to shame, dissolution, and crime, in contrast to the shameless, whole, masculine, and divine image of the Christian male.”
As Shapiro asserts, “by the late sixteenth century, Englishness had come to be defined in large measure in terms of racial, religious, and national affiliations.” In Shakespeare’s times, “it proved much easier to identify those were English by pointing to those who were assuredly not–e.g., the Irish or the Jews.” Therefore, he continued, “differences were greatly exaggerated and at times simply invented.”
In order to understand English culture, one must understand “the increasing identification of Shakespeare with English culture,” and The Merchant of Venice’s emergence “as a touchstone of cultural identification,” as well. Shapiro presents and analyzes both well-circulated and extremely rare documentation in his effort to understand the perceptions, historical circumstances, and interactions between Jews and Elizabethan Christians in Shakespeare’s England. In elucidating the sentiments and facts of the era, Shapiro broadens the relevance of Shakespeare’s work for the literary enthusiast and for the modern Jew.”
-Natasha Zwick, February 1996