Shakespeare and the Jews, by James Shapiro. Columbia
University Press, 1996. 317 pp. $29.95.
I am a Jew, and I teach Shakespeare. Ordinarily these two parts of my identity do not have much to do with each other, but they eerily collide during a moment from the film Schindler's List --specifically, when Amon Goeth, the fanatical concentration camp commandant, quotes The Merchant of Venice. Goeth has intruded on Helen Hirsch, his Jewish maid, as she--standing vulnerably over a bucket in her wet blouse--prepares to bathe. He finds her attractive, but is in conflict about his desire because Nazi ideology maintained that sexual contact with a Jew was a kind of bestiality. Goeth launches into a mock dialogue in which he ventriloquizes the silent Helen's responses. "Is this the face of a rat?" he asks. "Are these the eyes of a rat? Hath not a Jew eyes? . . . I feel for you, Helen," he moves to kiss her. Immobile, Helen says nothing. Goeth realizes what he has almost done. "No, I don't think so," he says, stopping himself. "You're a Jewish bitch. You nearly talked me into it, didn't you?" Then, having blamed Helen for his lust, he savagely beats her.
"Hath not a Jew eyes?" is the most famous line from Shylock's most famous and troubling speech in which he argues that Jews are "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 Christians are. It is hard to know quite what to do with this speech because on one hand Shylock's argument fits nicely with our cherished ideas about all men and women being created equal; on the other hand--and looking at these lines out of their original context it can be easy to forget this--the speech forms part of Shylock's justification for murderously seeking a pound of Antonio's flesh after Antonio, Shylock's enemy and the merchant of the play's title, defaults on a loan: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."
Shylock's speech and an audience's response to it make just the kind of ambivalent puzzle that students of Shakespeare enjoy chewing over. But what is "Hath not a Jew eyes?" doing in Schindler's List ? What, to put the question another way, is a line from Shakespeare's complex speech about Jewish difference doing in the mouth of a Nazi, in a movie about the Shoah? It seems crazily out of place--an anachronism, absent from Thomas Keneally's novel and inserted into the film for dramatic effect--but it is not necessarily inaccurate. The Nazis loved Shakespeare even though he was the national poet of their English enemies, and maintained that they alone truly understood his plays. They loved in particular one Shakespearean comedy in which the merciless villain is a Jew: about fifty different productions of The Merchant of Venice saw the German stage between 1933 and 1944. The real Amon Goeth, like his movie analog, might easily have seen the play performed, even if he never quoted it to one of his Jewish victims. But if it is not, strictly speaking, anachronistic for a Nazi to quote Shylock, the moment is still curious: why, in a movie released in 1993, do Steven Spielberg and his screenwriters choose to have Goeth quote Shylock? Why do they imagine an agent of Hitler's Final Solution thinking about the difference between Jews and Gentiles in Shakespearean terms that date from 1596? What, in other words, does Shakespeare have to do with the Jews?
This last question is not new, although since the Shoah increasingly anxious suspicions that Shakespeare was an anti-Semite have lurked in the margins of essays about The Merchant of Venice. Jewish communities have protested productions of the play (most recently in Santa Cruz, California), trying to salvage their vision of a politically progressive Shakespeare, rather than an infinitely malleable one, by silencing the play altogether. Academics, likewise, avoid the troubling possibility of Shakespeare's anti-Semitism when they tell their readers that there were no Jews in England from the time that King Edward I banished them in 1290 until Oliver Cromwell readmitted them in 1656. According to this argument, since no Jew's foot touched English soil during Shakespeare's lifetime we must absolve the bard of prejudice. To Shakespeare, living in a London sans shtetl, the Jews were effectively fictional characters; to arraign him on charges of anti-Semitism, therefore, is logically equivalent to condemning Dr. Seuss for being bigoted against grinches. One easy answer to our question, then, is that Shakespeare has nothing to do with the Jews. But this answer depends on a fairy tale: for more than a century historians have been finding evidence of a tiny clandestine community of Elizabethan Jews in Shakespeare's England. The myth of total Jewish absence, however, has proved strangely tenacious, perhaps in part because Shakespeare's absolution depends on it.
In Shakespeare and the Jews, James Shapiro not only explodes the myth of total Jewish absence (we can only hope once and for all), but also explores "the complex role of literature in transmitting such myths." Shapiro is an English professor at Columbia University, and in many ways his book is a deeply personal attempt to reconcile his professional identity with his Judaism, but it is not a memoir. On the contrary, Shakespeare and the Jews is a monument of research from which I will happily steal whenever I next teach The Merchant of Venice. An academic gumshoe who has sleuthed his way through libraries from Los Angeles to New York, Great Britain to Israel and back again, Shapiro presents a rich collection of unpublished manuscripts as well as hitherto unscrutinized books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all of which he uses to turn the usual story about Jews in Shakespeare's England inside out:
Ultimately it is not the raw number of Jews in early modern England that is of interest as much as the kind of cultural preoccupation they became, that is, the way that Jews came to complicate a great range of social, economic, legal, political, and religious discourses, and turned other questions into Jewish questions as well.
Where earlier historians argued that the citizens of Shakespeare's England would not have recognized Jews as even a topic of conversation, Shapiro contends the opposite: the Jews were a dominant English concern. Not only did "Englishness" come to be "in part defined by its relationship to Jewishness," but "the English were obsessed with Jews in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."
The immensity of these claims does a disservice to Shapiro's otherwise formidable scholarship: he overemphasizes the stability of English Christian identity in order to portray the Jews as a threat to that identity. More importantly, he ignores the other kinds of people whom the English perceived as imperilling "Englishness" as much as, if not more than, the Jews. For example, in both 1596 and 1601 Queen Elizabeth signed proclamations authorizing the immediate deportation of all Africans living in England to Spain. Other threats to English identity were internal: in the last thirty years of her reign Elizabeth's government executed almost 200 people for secretly practising Catholicism. The English were not obsessed with Jews: they were xenophobes, obsessed with controlling or banishing all aliens and dissenters from the state-controlled Church.
Although I am unconvinced by some of Shapiro's larger theoretical fireworks, Shakespeare and the Jews is nonetheless an important book for anyone interested in the history of how Jews have been represented, and how The Merchant of Venice takes part in that history. The book's chapters work separately and as an interdependent whole; in each of them the author links his arguments to case studies, many of which have never before seen print. Methodologically, what distinguishes Shapiro is a fascinating central question: where his predecessors asked simply whether there were any Jews in Shakespeare's England, Shapiro asks who did and who did not count as a Jew.
Take, for example, the issue of Jewish conversion to Christianity, and specifically the notoriously murky history of Dr. Roderigo Lopez-- a Portuguese-born convert who was accused, tried, convicted and executed in 1594 for plotting to poison his patient, Queen Elizabeth. It has long been speculated that Lopez was Shakespeare's model for Shylock; perhaps because of this, among some historians and literary critics the guilt or innocence of Dr. Lopez is as much a test of faith as, in other circles, an opinion regarding whether or not Oswald acted alone. For Shapiro's purposes, the old story gets newly interesting at Lopez's execution. On the scaffold before he was hung, drawn, and quartered Lopez proclaimed--and this is taken from a famous contemporary account--"that he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ; which, coming from a man of the Jewish profession moved no small laughter to the standers-by." Lopez had not, in fact, professed Judaism for many years, at least not in public: he had converted to Protestantism, but was still "suspected to be in sect secretly a Jew."
Shapiro argues that Jewish conversion was a philosophical headache for the English far beyond the Lopez case: rumors circulated throughout Europe that alleged Jewish converts continued to practice Judaism quietly at home while hypocritically attending Church on Sunday. It was impossible, therefore, to tell whether or not a Jew had sincerely converted to Christianity. Moreover, if Jews were racially different (and our own era's volatile definitions of race were just forming in Shakespeare's day), then a further question concerned whether or not it was physically possible for Jews to convert to the Christian race. Some English writers still believed in the foetor judaicus--a legend concerning distinctive Jewish body odor that dated from the middle ages--and argued "that Jewish converts were newly 'aromatized by their conversion' having 'lost their scent with their religion.'" For skeptics, however, the logical unlikelihood of such an aromatization made even the possibility of Jewish conversion doubtful. While to the postmodern mind these may seem peculiar worries, some early modern English Protestants firmly believed that Christ's second coming was just around the corner, and that--as Paul had stated in Romans--the conversion of all Jews to Christianity was a necessary prerequisite to the millennium.
Questions concerning who does and does not count as a Jew were not limited to abstract theological debates. The medieval confidence in a recognizable physical difference between Jew and Gentile had evaporated, replaced in Shakespeare's day by a fear that it was impossible to know that difference, impossible to know who might be a Jew. Since many of the English mistakenly believed that Jews habitually poisoned wells--and that they otherwise kept busy with the abduction and crucifixion of Gentile children in order to make matzoh out of their blood--their fear was genuine. In twentieth century productions of The Merchant of Venice, when Portia, the heroine, walks into a courtroom where Shylock and Antonio are standing next to each other and asks "Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?" her question makes no sense; this is because Shylock wears a distinctive costume that marks him out as visibly different than the other characters. No one knows what costume the actor who originally played Shylock wore on Shakespeare's stage, but for Portia's line to work the possibility of an on-stage, visible and disturbing confusion between Jews and Gentiles must have existed. This possibility shows how hard it was to demarcate what Shapiro calls "all too fluid religious boundaries."
Shapiro's most vivid case studies concern people who crossed these boundaries, among which are "false Jews" and "Judaizing" English Protestants. "False Jews"--con artists often in the pay of Jesuits trying to reclaim Protestant England for the Pope--would testify their ways from town to town serially converting to Christianity in public displays unsurprisingly similar to the hoopla that surrounds tented faith healers today. One such false Jew was "Ramsey the Scot" who--having been circumcised and knowing a bit of Hebrew--successfully convinced the Baptist pastor of the town of Hexham that he was an Italian Jew named Joseph ben Israel, and that he wanted to convert. He was promptly baptized in the River Tyne, only to be exposed as London-born Thomas Ramsey and a Jesuit agent in the next (less gullible) town he visited. Shapiro points out that Ramsey's story is
valuable for what it tells us about the criteria that the congregants in Hexham. . . seized upon in identifying someone as Jewish. It was not Ramsey's physical appearance (other than the mark of circumcision) that compelled belief, but his knowledge of Hebrew and of the Scriptures. . . .
For the xenophobic inhabitants of Shakespeare's England, false Jews personified their worst nightmares of covert invasion by hypocritical Jesuits.
Judaizers, in contrast, were devout Protestants who sincerely embraced Old Testament teachings. John Traske, Shapiro's striking example, wanted the English to follow Jewish dietary laws. Traske, and other Judaizers like him, unwittingly spread the dangerous idea that Christians could convert to Judaism, whereas ordinarily only Jewish conversion was thought possible. Traske, in other words, blurred the lines between Jew and Gentile. Shapiro's account of the overreaction to Traske's teachings shows how seriously the English authorities took such blurring:
Traske was accused of "having a fantastical opinion of himself with ambition to be the father of a Jewish faction." The Star Chamber also found him guilty of "teach[ing] that the law of Moses concerning the differences of meats forbidding the eating of hog's flesh, conies, etc., is to be observed and kept." Traske was summarily expelled from the ministry, fined, and sent to prison in the Fleet for the rest of his life. The punishment did not stop there, however, for he was also sentenced "to be whipped from the prison of the Fleet to the Palace of Westminster with a paper on his head," and "then to be set on the pillory and to have one of his ears nailed to the pillory, and after he hath stood there some convenient time, to be burnt in the forehead with the letter "J" in token that he broaches Jewish opinions." Twelve days later Thomas Lorkin reported that "the sentence against the Jew hath been put into execution." And if this were not enough, insult was added to injury; while in prison Traske was "only allowed [to eat] the. . . meats in his opinion supposed to be forbidden."
Traske's punishment left the lines he blurred between Jews and Gentiles just as blurry as they were before he was sent to the Fleet: the authorities made Traske's invisibly abstract "Jewishness" painfully concrete and visible by branding him with the "J." On the other hand, Traske's pork-only diet in prison violated the very Jewishness the "J" was meant to convey.
I would find it comforting to believe that Traske's punishment could only have taken place during the distant past of the less civilized Renaissance, that the anxiety the English felt concerning what makes a Jew different were particular to Shakespeare and his era, and that their sometimes violent responses to that anxiety could never happen today. Unfortunately, Shakespeare and the Jews shows us that The Merchant of Venice marks the historical transition from a medieval idea of Jews as homicidal bogeymen to a conviction that Jews are different than Gentiles, but that the nature of that difference remains strangely difficult to define. Shakespeare gave this new understanding of Jewish difference its first voice; in movies like Schindler's List we continue to hear the echoes.
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