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A Historical Look at Jews in the Work of Shakespeare

Wednesday, October 01, 2014 | Permalink
Lois Leveen is the author of Juliet's Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Earlier this week, I reflected on being a twenty-first-century Jewish author engaging with Shakespeare. It's a topic that shapes my relationship to my new Shakespeare-themed novel, Juliet's Nurse. But there's another question that I only began to consider after the novel was finished, and I began to speak about it at gatherings of Shakespeare scholars: how did Shakespeare himself engage with ideas of Jewishness?

It might seem like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is the place from which to answer that question, as many critics have done. But the image of the Jew appears in other Shakespeare plays as well, although they include no Jewish characters per se. Instead, Jews are invoked to represent a particular idea of difference.

Launce, a clownish character in Two Gentlemen of Verona, complains his companion Crab, "has no more pity in him than a dog. A Jew / would have wept" when Crab did not. Although it might seem that Launce's hypothetical Jew compares favorably to Crab, the allusion is meant to show that even a Jew would weep, implying that Jews are generally less able to display the full range of human emotions. And if the imagined Jew does better in the human empathy department than Crab, it is only because Crab is literally a dog, and not a person. The belief that Jews possess a less-than-admirable nature is reinforced later in the play, when Launce seeks a human drinking buddy. He implores Speed, a fellow servant, "If thou wilt, go with me to the alehouse; if / not, thou art an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth the name / of a Christian." That's peer pressure late-sixteenth-century style: bottoms up and drink it down, or you're as unworthy as a Jew!

Although Launce is meant to be a laughable character, his characterization of "a Jew" is reiterated by a range of Shakespeare's other characters. In Macbeth, one of the witches describes the contents of their bubbling cauldron in a way that mixes the animal, the supernatural, and the ethnic other:

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witch's mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravined salt sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i'the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips . . .

Taken line by line, the description is significant. Turks and Tartars are also cast as dangerously magical outsiders because they don't fit within normative Christian identity. But it's only the Jew whose errant status is underscored by the description of "blaspheming."

Perhaps because Jews were perceived in terms of blasphemy, to call someone (even yourself) a Jew became a stand-in for an accusation of false oath-taking. Much Ado About Nothing is a sort of Renaissance rom-com in which the two main characters insist they hate each other, until they are tricked by their friends into revealing that all their bickering is actually a cover for mutual adoration. When Benedick finally declares his true feelings for Beatrice, he says, "if I do not love her, I am a Jew."

This use of "Jew" as an indication that someone is swearing falsely is repeated in Henry IV, Part I, when the buffoonish Falstaff exaggerates his bravery and prowess during a recent violent encounter. He claims to have subdued a large number of opponents, contending, "they were bound, every man of / them, or I am a Jew else: an Ebrew Jew." The fact that Falstaff is lying only complicates the strange equation of prevarication with Jewishness. The audience, and even the other characters Falstaff is addressing, know that he didn't perform the amazing feat he insists he did, yet it's also clear that Falstaff is not actually a Jew.

So what are we to make of the way Shakespeare invokes the figure of the Jew across his plays? What does it tell us about how Jewishness was perceived in Renaissance England?

The answer may seem counterintuitive: these references, and ones like them found in the writing of Shakespeare's contemporaries, may tell us less about the author's and the audience's perceptions of Jewishness than about their perceptions of Englishness. (This may be easier to understand if you consider some more recent analogies. Through much of the twentieth century, concerns about "Communists" were voiced in ways that were meant to encourage, or even coerce, certain types of behavior on the part of "red-blooded Americans." Similarly, from the nineteenth century on, representations of "blackness" by white writers and performers in the U.S. often reflected much more about the anxieties of whites than about the reality of blacks.)

James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University and author of Shakespeare and the Jews, asserts that if we examine what Shakespeare and his English contemporaries wrote about Jews, we can discover the cultural anxieties they felt about their own Englishness during a period of "extraordinary social, religious, and political turbulence."

That turbulence was rooted in events occurring decades before Shakespeare was even born, most notably King Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church and the subsequent creation of the Church of England, which demanded a shift in religious affiliation across the nation. The enormity of this change is difficult for us to comprehend. So much of life in the era was defined by religious practice, and that practice was unquestionably Catholic—until suddenly it wasn't. And then, during the reign of Queen Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII's first wife, the practice of Catholicism became acceptable again, and Protestants were subject to persecution. But only until Mary died and was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Queen Elizabeth I (during whose reign a certain young playwright first made a name for himself) were Protestants politically dominant again.

If you're having trouble tracking all those religious switcheroos, imagine how it must have felt to live through them. Particularly when other European countries pursued everything from royal marriages to outright war as they vied for political and religious alliances with England.

But what was happening to Jews themselves, as England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism? That's a more hidden part of the history. Jews were banned from England in 1290, and not officially readmitted until 1656 (and even then, they could reside in England but weren't granted full citizenship). But despite the ban, there was a prevailing uncertainty about whether Jews remained in England. And, as the centuries passed, there was concern about Jews from other parts Europe entering the country, as began to happen in the wake of Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal.

Unlike groups defined by nationality, Jews might shift their geographic presence; but "Jewishness" also implied a different kind of potential instability. In countries under the Inquisition, suspicions persisted regarding whether conversos, Jews forced to convert, were secretly maintaining their Jewish identity and practices. In England, there was a strangely inverse fear that Catholics might be infiltrating the country by disguising themselves as Jews. And throughout Europe, as part of the immense rift begun by the Protestant Reformation, some Catholics accused Protestants of being too like Jews in their practices and beliefs—and some Protestants alleged the same about Catholics.

All of this meant that to be a Jew was to be not English—and vice versa. But at the same time, notes Shapiro, there was no easy way to distinguish Jews from either Protestants or Catholics. Consider all the Shakespeare passages alluding to Jews: they seem to insist that "a Jew" is inherently different from, well, everybody else. But the playwright doth protest too much, methinks—the compulsion to cordon off Jews and insist that they were different might in fact suggest just the opposite. Falstaff, after all, does swear falsely, without being a Jew. If anyone might be a Jew (or become one), what did that mean for Englishness, given that Jews were categorically not English?

Of course, the construction of an imaginary "Jew" in writings by Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have affected attitudes toward real Jews. But exploring the cultural, political, and religious contexts in which Renaissance English representations of Jewishness were formed is important for understanding what was at stake in Shakespeare's writing about Jews.

Read more about Lois Leveen and her work here.

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Romeo and Jewliet, or a Jewish Novelist Walks into a Shakespeare Play

Monday, September 29, 2014 | Permalink

Lois Leveen is the author of Juliet's Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

To be, or not to be, a Jewish author . . .

Okay, maybe Hamlet never pondered that question (what would you expect from a guy who has treyf right in his name?).

But many writers, and literary critics, can't help but wonder what it means to be a Jewish author. In "Funny, You Don't Book Jewish," I explored the question by comparing a novel by Chinese-American author Gish Jen about growing up in Jewish suburbia with my own first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, which is based on the true story of an African American woman who becomes a Union spy during the Civil War by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. I made a nice argument for the "Jewishness" of my book, despite its definitely-not-a-member-of-the-tribe protagonist.

And yet, the question of what it means to be a Jewish author loomed even larger as I wrote my second novel, Juliet's Nurse, which imagines the fourteen years leading up to the events in Romeo and Juliet, as told by one of Shakespeare's most memorable "minor" characters (the nurse actually has the largest number of lines in Shakespeare's play, after the eponymous teens — which makes her a pretty major minor character. She's such a yenta I knew she deserved her own book).

So what's a nice Jewish writer doing re-imagining Shakespeare's best known and most beloved play?

The part of me that earned a Ph.D. in literary studies might argue that the question of identity is already at the heart of Romeo and Juliet. In the most famous scene, when Juliet wonders, "wherefore art thou Romeo?" and then insists "a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet," she's plumbing how much of who Romeo is depends on who his people are – in his case, the Montagues, or as we might say, the whole mishpucha. I could draw some analogy from the question of family identity to the question of Jewish identity, particularly the dynamic combination of culture and ritual that defines what it means to be a Jew in contemporary America.

But in truth, that's not how I think I enter into Juliet's Nurse as a Jewish author. I come to it by way of Passover, and the Talmudic tradition.

Why Passover? It's not like I do some Shakespearean seder, reciting the ten plagues in iambic pentameter (although maybe next year in rhyming couplets . . .). But both as an author and as a reader, I'm drawn to first-person fiction. I like the immediacy of imagining myself in a particular time and place. A reader asked me about this, about how I can take on a character so different from myself and tell her story, and in trying to explain the process, I thought of the Haggadah's instruction that we recount the story of Exodus every year as though each of us ourselves had come out from Egypt.

When you think about it, that's a little weird. Why celebrate a holiday by imagining ourselves living in a different, and difficult, historical moment? I suppose from a ritual perspective, it connects us with a distant Jewish history in a way that's meant to make it truly ours.

From an author's perspective, this kind of telling-as-if-it-happened-to-you is the only way to create a convincing world for your character. To write Juliet's Nurse, I had to imagine what it would be like to experience fourteenth-century Italian life as a woman who, well let's just say the amount she is so-not-Jewish might be measured by her tendency to over-identify with the Virgin Mary. But for me to write in that character, to tell her story as if it happened to me, feels totally Jewish.

Then there's what I'm calling the Talmudic tradition part of writing Juliet's Nurse, which is my Jewish shorthand for encountering a text that is at once authoritative yet often either oblique or opaque about important questions. The Bard may not be the Bible, but in reading and re-reading Romeo and Juliet, I took the Talmudic approach to revering yet questioning the text.

My novel began with questions I thought Romeo and Juliet raised but didn't answer:

  • In Shakespeare's play we learn that the nurse, whose name is Angelica, had her own daughter, born at the same time as Juliet, who didn't live. What would it be like to lose your own infant and immediately be given another baby to nurture in such a physically and emotionally intimate way, yet always be a servant in her household?
  • At one point in the play, Angelica describes Juliet's cousin Tybalt as the best friend she ever had. But Tybalt and Angelica never appear in a scene together in the play, and they are separated by huge differences in age, class, and gender. How would their friendship have started, and what would it have been like?
  • Angelica serves as the go-between in Juliet's secret romance with Romeo, even helping Romeo sneak into the house to consummate their illicit marriage. But when she comes back onstage later in the same scene, Anglica suddenly tells Juliet to forget Romeo and marry another suitor instead. What happens while she's offstage? What does she learn, and why doesn't she tell it to Juliet?
  • And of course, the biggest question of all: Angelica comes to the household as Juliet's wet-nurse. But Juliet is nearly fourteen years old when the play begins, and has been weaned since she was three. Why is Angelica still hanging around the house?

I may not be a rabbinic scholar, but this process gave me the seeds from which my novel grew.

One of the strange things about creative writing is that ideas and themes and characters and scenes emerge in your work from sources you don't consciously realize your drawing on. It's sort of magical and sort of terrifying, because you can't force it, you just need to trust that it will happen. And for me, it's fascinating and reassuring to realize that my Jewishness will always be one of those sources, regardless of what I'm writing about.

So if I were to take on the guise of Hamlet — or maybe Kasha Knishlet — to ponder "To be or not to be a Jewish author," my answer would be, "yes, inevitably!"

Read more about Lois Leveen and her work here.

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Sarah's Key, Mary's Secrets, and Truth That's Stranger Than Fiction

Thursday, June 28, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lois Leveen wrote about what makes a book Jewish. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But it can be hard to tell.

I did an enormous amount of research for my book The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The novel is based on the true story of a woman born into slavery who was freed and educated in the North, and then became a spy for the Union army by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. Historical fiction can be a powerful way to learn about the past. Thanks to Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosenay, readers around the world have learned about the 1942 Vel' d'Hiv Roundup. Bowser's bravery, like the horrors enacted at Vel' d'Hiv, should be more broadly remembered. But for authors, blurring the lines between history and fiction can still feel risky.

Quite a few of the facts that I incorporated into The Secrets of Mary Bowser—particularly the actions of Bet Van Lew, a pro-Union white Richmonder whose wartime escapades including digging up and reburying the body of a Union officer killed by the Confederates—were so bizarre, I feared readers would find them too implausible, even though they were true.

What concerned me most, however, was not that the true parts of the novel wouldn't be believed. It's that the parts I invented would be mistaken for fact. Knowing the historical record provides such scant documentation of Mary Bowser's life that I couldn't possibly write a biography, I authored the novel as a way to commemorate Bowser's achievements and to guide readers' understanding of what slavery was like in urban, industrialized Richmond, and what free black life was like in antebellum Philadelphia.

Despite a detailed historical note included in the book, though, a surprising number of online reviews of The Secrets of Mary Bowser attribute biographical details to the historical Bowser that were entirely my own invention. As I've taken to saying, just because you read something in a book about a real person who played an important role in the Civil War, doesn't mean everything in the book was true.



As it turns out, the first person to fictionalize Bowser's life story was Bowser herself. "The Black Slave in the Confederate White House," an article I wrote for The New York Times, documents her continuing self-reinvention, before, during, and after the Civil War. Bowser likely made a good spy precisely because slaves live lives of surreptition and concealment. The strategies that enabled her to survive enslavement also facilitated her espionage. It shouldn't surprise us that even after the war was over, Bowser continued her cagey—and effective—habit of constructing a series of public identities to serve different purposes.

Like many published authors, I didn't choose my book's final title. But I've come to relish the irony it implies. While "Sarah's Key" suggests that once we find the key we can unlock all of history, "The Secrets of Mary Bowser" entices us to search out what we can learn about the past, while reminding us that there is much that may always remain hidden.

Read more about Lois Leveen here.

Funny, You Don't Book Jewish

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 | Permalink

Lois Leveen's newest novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There's a novel I first read years ago that rang true in deep ways for me: Immigrant parents work hard, and, as a measure of success, move to the suburbs—where their older daughter thrives in school, while the younger daughter struggles socially, especially with her ethnic identity. Introduced to a charismatic, and most certainly unorthodox, rabbi, this younger daughter immerses herself in Jewish learning to steady her passage through the throes of adolescence. Her deepening involvement in the synagogue youth group imbues her with a sense of social justice, and greater confidence about who she is and what she wants. What could be a better example of Jewish-American literature?

Except, the novel in question, Mona in the Promised Land, is about a Chinese-American family. Its author, Gish Jen, is herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Jen grew up in Scarsdale, a community she portrays with an amazing mix of accuracy, acerbity, and affection in Mona. Raised in a similar suburban community and only thirteen or so years younger than Jen and her protagonist, I've joked that I don't need to write a novel about my childhood, because Jen already did it for me.

Jen's novel reminds us that "Jewish" is an identity that is less bound by race or culture than we might initially assume—Mona, after all, converts, making her no less Jewish than any other Jew, even as she integrates Chinese culture with her burgeoning religious identity. But does a book count as Jewish-American literature just because it features Jewish characters? Does it matter if its author (unlike her convert protagonist) isn't Jewish?

Compare Mona in the Promised Land with The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel based on the true story of an African American slave. After being freed and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War, by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. From the first page of this fictionalized telling of her story, Mary's mother regularly converses with Jesus about Mary's future. Although somewhat skeptical about her mother's insistence that Jesus has a plan for her, Mary eagerly attends prayer meetings with her parents, and later, when she moves away from her family, seeks solace both at Philadelphia's Mother Bethel, the founding African Methodist Episcopal church, and at a Quaker meeting. One particularly moving Baptist sermon motivates her to give up her own freedom and return to the South. Later, she articulates her horror at the war's devastation by doubting whether her participation in such wide-scale violence could really be Jesus' plan. Not a very Jewish story.

Unless you define the Jewishness of a novel by who wrote it: me.

There's no doubt I'm a Jew. I've got the name, the nose, and the siddur presented to me by my childhood synagogue on the occasion of my bat mitzvah to prove it. I've even got a string of writing credits for Jewish publications, from Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal to The Jew and The Carrot, where I served as "the Shmethicist," an ethical food advice columnist. Surely I'm a Jewish American writer. But does that mean my novel—about an African American raised as a Christian—is best understood as Jewish American literature?

Maybe it's a sign of my Jewishness that I see the answer as, like so much in Judaism, a matter of textual explication. In creating the character of Mary's mother, I invoked the Christian faith that sustained many enslaved blacks. But when I read the galleys of The Secrets of Mary Bowser I realized that, quite unconsciously, I also invoked my own Jewish sensibility. Mary's trajectory is an exploration of what it means to be chosen, in ways that are directly related to my Jewish understanding of that concept as implying a responsibility to serve some greater good. Mary's relinquishing of her own freedom to serve her community implies a belief in the individual's responsibility to serve the community through tikkum olam. It places her in a tradition of chosen individuals that includes Moses, Daniel, Esther—even the reluctant Jonah. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an adult novel, but it draws as much on the girl-heroes of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or The Endless Steppe, the Jewish-themed books I devoured as a child, as it does on the slave narratives and historical accounts of American slavery I studied as an adult.

When I read from The Secrets of Mary Bowser at Oregon Jewish Voices, a program at the Oregon Jewish Museum, the poet Willa Schneberg compared the novel to Storytelling in Cambodia, her book about the Cambodian genocide. The comparison underscored that for both of us, being Jewish writers doesn't mean writing only about Jewish experience. It means drawing on our Jewish experience to reflect on themes of injustice and social action in myriad contexts.

Read more about Lois Leveen here.