Jews in Shakespearean England
Much has been argued regarding the extent of anti-Semitism and the general disdain for Jewry supposedly apparent in the plays of William Shakespeare and in particular, his play “The Merchant of Venice.” Time and again his work is held up as representative of that which we – with our 21st century sensibilities – have been educated to abhor and disavow. The hatred of man because of race, color or creed has, within the collective conscience, been largely rejected thanks to the fostering of a self-regulating society that has engrained contemporary sensibilities through the policy of political correctness: a body politic of public consciousness that wasn’t apparent in 16th century England or anywhere else in the western world for that matter. All were liable to open ridicule via the medium of theatre, be they king or pauper, man or woman, Moore or Jew as evidenced by the writing of the period. Everybody and everything – much to the delight of the paying public and the disdain of the censor – was fair game. The subject – Jew, Moore etc. – is irrelevant, as the subjects themselves are simply the masks upon which the foil of disdain is played. Whether xenophobic, racist, misogynist or anti-Semitic – or any other form of depredation – Shakespeare’s writing, rather than guilty of one, is representative of all. Shakespeare uses the Jew as a representation rather than as an example and therefore, can be forgiven for what we today would class as anti-Semitism. The dearth of Jewry at this particular period of history in England supports this and acquits Shakespeare of that which we consider most heinous.
Shakespeare’s plays mirrored Elizabethan society, reflecting that which would’ve been familiar to a theatre audience. This suggests that his characters were symbolic of those traits, particular to 16th century awareness. This can be understood by the pervasive notion during the period, that being English was a matter of divine anointment, culminating in a very real sense of national superiority that was apparent in the writings of the time. One book in particular that was explicit is this view was, “The Misery of Flanders, the Calamity of France, Misfortune of Portugal, Unquietness of Ireland, the Troubles of Scotland and the Blessed state of England. (Chute.p.61) The sense of superiority – as its text suggests – was such that an Englishman, “didn’t have to be rude to a foreigner or denigrate him as there was simply no need,” (Chute.p.61) being English as they were. As one Englishman put it, “the English contrary to all, to the custom of all nations, give the higher place to women…gives honor and support to weakness … and strangers” (Chute.p.62) Visitors to the country during the period complained bitterly that the highest compliment that could be paid to a foreigner by the “smug… islanders,” (Chute.p.62) who truly believed their country to be the center of the known world was that, “it was pity they weren’t English. (Chute.p.62) Given this level of nationalistic hubris – something which modern society is equally familiar with – it’s hardly surprising that although flagrant, when viewed through a modern lens, was nothing less than justifiable by the Elizabethans.
This chauvinism – based both on their Roman affiliation and memorable defeats at the hands of the English at Agincourt and Crecy – is exemplified in particular, in the unbounded hatred for the Catholic French. Despite this glaring xenophobia we don’t despise the Elizabethans, nor question their morality, for disliking their Gallic neighbors: a persistent stereotype that modern America still chooses to ignore regarding their questionable moral fortitude, cuisine and supposed awkward social graces! In stark contrast to this and predominantly due to the reported atrocities and body count of the Second World War, it’s become an understandable trend to protect one specific people and one specific religion. Despite the fact that modern audiences are over faced with the dogmatism of anti-Islamic rhetoric, Judaism goes unadulterated and free of any stain. Protected as they are by august political bodies, the Jew in modern society is immune from criticism and beyond reproach. This juxtaposes the Elizabethan approach to Jewry and the universal condemnation of the Jew, so overwhelmingly apparent in the theatre of the period. Therefore, one might assume, given the precedence in 16th Century England for the theatrical Jew, that anti-Semitism was rife. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth!
It’s unlikely that Shakespeare ever came into contact with a practicing Jew during his lifetime and yet his portrayal of them seems to be – as with most things he described – gleaned from some vestige of personal experience. The Christ killing, knife wielding, zealots of biblical refute simply didn’t exist in England during this period and so the imagery from which he created them wasn’t from quotidian contact but from contemporary imagination. Just as there were few Blacks in England during the 1500’s – a fact that remained true until the late 1940’s – so there were even less people of the chosen tribe. It’s recorded that Catherine of Aragon had a trumpet ensemble in 1501 consisting of six Black musicians (womenshistory.gov) – such was their peculiarity – and that a few lascars were seen occasionally around the docks, but the Black man really didn’t arrive in England until the seventeenth century with the onset of the salve trade. Other races were also uncommon in the extreme and it wasn’t until Sir Walter Raleigh returned with a few disconsolate Indians from the Americas (Encyclopedia Britannica) that the public began to realize that there was more between heaven and earth than just the white Christian faces that surrounded them on a daily basis. This interest seized the imagination to the point that people would pay a penny to see Raleigh’s American natives alive or dead, paraded as they were either in rude health or propped up in coffins. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Likewise the children of Abraham didn’t run through the streets of London nor did they ply Shylock’s trade in the allotted quarters – the ghettos – of the city. Shakespeare was writing from an imaginary perception rather than personal conscience. Although the Jew was a desperate figure in the plays of the period – especially in their stereotypical representation – they as a people didn’t exist in England at the time of the Shakespeare’s authorship. The only Jews present in England at this time would’ve been those few who’d converted to Christianity: forbidden as it was to practice Judaism under national law.
The Jews were initially invited to England by William the Conqueror after his successful invasion in 1066. Due to their financial success in France the Jews were appreciated as being adept in commercial enterprise and prized for their innate intelligence. Although this made them attractive as courtly advisors, it was their aptitude to usury – as is showcased in “The Merchant of Venice” – that was of greatest benefit to the newly installed monarchy. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Usury, or the making of money from money, was forbidden by the Christian church, although in Shakespeare’s time it was undoubtedly practiced among Christians. Without this financial maneuvering, business could simply not have taken place and both Shakespeare and his father – as proven by contemporary documentation – lent money for profit and therefore, not dissimilar to the Jewish stereotype portrayed on the Elizabethan stage, were usurers themselves. There wouldn’t have been a person in the Elizabethan audience that wasn’t either aware of, or who didn’t participate in the practice of usury and so, the allusion, pertaining to the breeding of base metal in “The Merchant of Venice” being a uniquely Jewish sin, would’ve been regarded as ridiculous.
Although the Jews had lived among the English Christians for centuries the relationship wasn’t always cordial. The religion of the Jew was anathema to Christian doctrine and consequently heinous crimes where perpetrated against them. Pogroms were not unusual in Europe or England, especially during the periods of the crusades and in 1190 five hundred Jews were murdered in the city of York for allegedly causing an outbreak of the plague. (Fordham) Pre-Shakespearian hatred wasn’t just based on the religious conflicts of the period but also on the apparent crimes – of which there are many accounts – perpetrated by Jews on Gentiles and in particular the ritualistic murder of Christian children. The most infamous of these was that of “Hugh of Lincoln.” In 1255, he was kidnapped by Jews and crucified and tortured in apparent hatred of Jesus Christ. The boy’s mother found his body in a well – similar to Chaucer’s “Story of the Prioress” – on the premises of a Jew. The Jew was later executed for the crime along with eighteen of his supposed confederates. King Henry III personally ordered the investigation of the case and ultimately refused to allow mercy to be shown to the Jew, who was executed for his crime.”(Fordham) This and other so-called Jewish atrocities persisted, creating an endemic loathing for the Jews and their faith.
Upon Edward 1st return from the crusades, England was found to be in a state of corruption and neglect thanks to the ineptitude of the royal representatives who’d remained behind. The blame for the economic and social disaster eventually fell on the head of the Jewish administrators who in the edict of 1290 were banished in their totality from English shores and their religion outlawed upon pain of death. Only allowed to carry what they could on their backs, the Jews were repulsed back to the continent and out of England until their eventual return in the 1620’s. (Fordham) Jewish contempt persisted as evidenced in the 14th century in “The Prioress Tale” in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” where a song of Christian martyrdom is related. The story is of a young boy who walked through the Jewish quarter praising the Mother Mary and who was eventually murdered by the Jews for his blasphemy. Tales like this were not uncommon and featured regularly in the Christian psyche of the period. One only has to study the character of Barabbas in Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” – from which “The Merchant of Venice” is heavily lifted – to understand the abhorrence for the Jew.
Given the prevalence of stories and rhymes associated with the hatred for Jewry, it’s small wonder that the Jew became a stock figure on the Elizabethan stage as a molester of children, a malevolent pagan and a foul handler of money. The unavoidable paradox of this practice was that the Jew simply didn’t exist in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Greenblatt is his book “Will in the World” uses the analogy of the wolf as similarly representative of the Jewish question. For centuries English children have been ushered to bed with tales of wolves. Bed time tales such as “Peter and the Wolf”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” are hoary staples that generations of parents have scared their children witless with in order to press them into conformity. Darkened forests where a salivating beast is hidden behind every shadow, where little girls on their way to visit itinerant grandmas start at every sound. Wolves haven’t existed on the British mainland since prehistoric times, when the land mass of Europe was connected via what is now the English Channel, when wild animals were free to roam at leisure. Not only have they not existed, but they have not been hunted, eaten or otherwise seen and so the vision of the wolf is very much a figment of the imagination. Therefore, just as the wolf hasn’t existed on the British mainland neither had the Shakespearian Jew. The analogy speaks to the fact that the Jew is a representation rather than a figure of hatred. The Jew is the wolf and the wolf is the Jew. The stories are circulated In order to prevent children from disappearing with strangers or roaming too far from home. Therefore, the Jew of Shakespearian experience is pure imagery, just as the Moore is, just as the drab is, just as the ubiquitous brainless Welshman is. Shakespeare was concerned with portrayal, not with facts, and this is why his characters are so contentious.
The scandal of the Jew turned Christian – one Rodrigo Lopez, a former physician to Elizabeth 1st – who was tried and hanged for treason, would’ve busied the pamphleteers and excited the readers of Elizabethan London. (Harvard) The popularity of Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta” would similarly have reignited the latent anti-Semitism towards the non-existent Jew in the same way McCarthy scared the world with his allusion to, “a red under every bed.” Shakespeare as a business man would’ve reacted eagerly to a trending, money-making venture and bent his pen accordingly to the disparagement of the Jew. At the very least, Shakespeare held Jewry up to his audience to compare and contrast what little differences really exist between cultural archetypes. Shakespeare used the Jew as a representation rather than as an example and therefore, can be forgiven for what we today would class as anti-Semitism. The dearth of Jewry in England at this particular point in history supports this and acquits Shakespeare of that which we consider most heinous.