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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