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An Obstinate People

Enda O’Doherty

Shakespeare and the Jews, by James Shapiro, Columbia University Press, 320 pp, £17.95, ISBN: 978-0231178679

The English have naturally interwoven in their constitution a peculiar kind of national self-love, and the least attempt to dispense a favour to foreigners alarms their fears, and awakens that jealousy which is natural to their very frame. It is to this we owe the general discontent which has broken out among all ranks of people upon the late occasion ...
Arthur Murphy, 1753

The idea that the Jewish people, dispersed for a millennium and more and scattered over many parts of Europe, North Africa and Asia, might one day be restored to their Middle Eastern homeland long predates modern Zionism. Indeed it was a significant part of the theological thinking of early Protestantism, resting in particular on Bible Christians’ understanding of the prophecies of the books of Daniel, Isaiah and Revelation. Patrick Forbes, an Aberdeen preacher, wondered in 1613 why God would have miraculously kept the Jews racially distinct over so many centuries if He did not intend their return to Israel (and eventual conversion to Christianity) while the Puritan lawyer Sir Henry Finch, in The Worlds Great Restauration of 1621, wrote of his belief that the Jews “shall come to Jerusalem again, be kings and chief monarchs of the earth, sway and govern all, for the glory of Christ that shall shine among them”.

The idea that the kings of the Jews should govern all did not greatly appeal to King James I, who had Finch imprisoned. Another contemporary proposal was designed to kill two birds with one stone, or, in the words of James Shapiro in his newly republished historical study of England’s relationship with Jews and with Jewishness in the early modern period, “eliminate, and at the same time draw a profit from, two unacceptable claimants to national status”. In 1607, two years before the Plantation of Ulster, Sir Thomas Shirley urged King James to settle the Jews in Ireland, thereby simultaneously solving two “problems” and reaping in return considerable taxation revenues from the fruits of the labours of the thrifty Jews.

Shirley’s proposal did not come to anything, but the idea was revived in 1656 in James Harrington’s utopian tract The Commonwealth of Oceana, where it was suggested that the land of Panopea (Ireland), “the soft mother of a slothful and pusillanimous people ... anciently subjected by the arms of Oceana [England]”, yet “rich in the nature of the soil and full of commodious ports for trade” should be made available to the Jews, who, if offered freedom of worship there, would come flocking from all parts of the world. It might be objected that this was a people with little experience of agriculture, but for Harrington this was not a serious obstacle, for “though the Jews be now altogether for merchandise, yet in the land Canaan (since their exile from whence they have not been landlords) they were altogether for agriculture; and there is no cause why many should doubt but, having a fruitful country and good ports too, they would be good at both”. Harrington’s solution, writes Shapiro, was to “imagine a land without a people for a people without a land”, and if Ireland, in spite of significant depopulation as a result of recent war and famine, was not quite yet a land without a people, its becoming one could surely be arranged.

James Shapiro’s book, first published in 1996 and now reissued twenty years later with a new preface, is, in spite of its title, not so much a study of Shakespeare’s ideas or Shakespearean text (or simply of The Merchant of Venice) as an historical analysis of England’s engagement with Jews and the “Jewish Question” (a somewhat different question then, in an age of strong religious faith) from the expulsion of the community by Edward I in 1290 to the controversy over what was called “the Jew Bill” in the 1750s. Since 1996, Shapiro has written three acclaimed books ‑ 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 – which combine deep historical scholarship with sharp critical insight into the themes and preoccupations of particular plays based on close reading. The focus of Shakespeare and the Jews is less on text and more on context. In particular, Shapiro asks why English society was so concerned with Jews and a perceived Jewish problem when, according to most historians, there were no Jews in England, or at most a mere handful, between 1290 and their readmission in 1656. In answering that question he gives us a valuable work of cultural and intellectual history, one of whose great merits is to reemphasise the importance of religious identity, and its relation to burgeoning national identity, in the study of the early modern period.

In his 2016 preface, Shapiro recalls that when he began to research his book any staging of The Merchant of Venice still generated considerable controversy, particularly in New York. A 1962 production in Central Park, with George C Scott giving a deeply sympathetic portrayal of Shylock, had resulted in a letter being sent by the city’s board of rabbis to The New York Times complaining of “a distortion and defamity of our people and our faith” and an unsuccessful campaign by the Jewish War Veterans to block the screening of a televised version. In 1980 a British director taking a production of Merchant to Israel was prevailed upon to omit Shylock’s consent in Act IV to become a Christian while the cultural historian Stephen Greenblatt has referred to the play, in an exchange of letters with Shapiro in the New York Review of Books, as “a bone that cannot be swallowed”.

My own first encounter with The Merchant of Venice came at school at about the age of thirteen. A little later we took it up again more intensively in a speech and drama class, becoming more familiar with the rhythms of its verse and its great set-piece speeches, which for us were not those of Portia but of Shylock, who, in Act III, Scene I, speculates on the reasons he has excited Antonio’s bitter enmity and malevolence:

he hath disgrac’d me and hind’red me half a million, laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, ‑ and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. 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?

For an adolescent susceptible to rhetorical cadence and prone to flights of idealism in a Northern Ireland classroom in the mid-1960s these words inevitably recalled the eloquent and moving speeches of Martin Luther King, while perhaps foreshadowing the imminent stirring of a reawakened hunger for justice somewhat closer to home. And what after all is this story about? A worthless young man (Bassanio), who has dissipated all his money on show (a “swelling port”) and now has nothing left to boast of but his name and “blood”, uses his friendship with an older man to furnish him with enough money to go on a fishing expedition, in which he hopes to ensnare a woman he knows to be wealthy and thus make an advantageous marriage. Meanwhile one of his friends (Lorenzo) insinuates himself into the affections of another rich young woman and abducts her from her home while stealing from her father ... (Michael Radford’s 2004 film version indeed offers such a “modern” reading of the story, with Al Pacino as a sympathetic Shylock, Joseph Fiennes’s Bassanio playing up to Antonio’s (Jeremy Irons) clearly homoerotic interest in him and Bassanio’s crew of friends and cronies a bunch of coarse and unpleasant Hooray Henrys).

But while conceding to directors their freedom to interpret a play as they think fit, to read The Merchant of Venice in a “modern” way is perhaps to misread it, and the sympathy which many modern readers may feel for Shylock is, given what attitudes to the Jews were in Shakespeare’s time (and before it and after it), somewhat unhistorical. Medieval chroniclers tended to offer, with near unanimity and great assurance, very definite figures for the number of Jews expelled from England by King Edward I in 1290: it was 15,060, or 16,511, or 17,511; no indication was given as to how these sums were arrived at. More recent research, based on poll tax returns, suggests the number deported may have been 2,000 to 2,500, at a time when the total English population was between five and six million. There is even doubt about the date of the event, with some authorities suggesting 1260 or 1242. What seems certain is that the final act of expulsion was the culmination of a long history of persecution, punctuated by intermittent massacres and judicial killings. The accusations against the Jews were the standard ones: the abduction and murder of Christian children for use in their rituals, the poisoning of wells, cheating in business and commerce, adulteration of the coinage, and lending money at oppressive rates of interest. But of course, as is normal where scapegoats are found, there was something in it for the authorities too: “King Edward ... banished the Jews out of the realm, on account of their having eaten his people to the bones, not neglecting therein his particular gain.”

A persistent problem in early modern Europe seemed to be identifying exactly who was a Jew, and nothing complicated the issue more than the measures in defence of the faith taken by the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. By 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain decided to expel from their kingdom those who, in spite of extensive efforts to convert them, still clung to Judaism, hundreds of thousands of Jews, probably more than three-quarters of the population, had already become Christians, some willingly and some in forced conversions. Many Spanish conversos, or “New Christians”, belonged to the country’s intellectual and social elite. But how solid was a conversion based on force, or one perhaps entered into merely formally, to secure material advantage? In spite of public displays of repression and the severity of the Inquisition, the spectre of a hidden, underground and possibly subversive Jewish presence continued to haunt Spain and Portugal. The introduction of blood laws, based on the idea of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), distinguishing between “New Christians” and old, seemed to involve an admission that the conversion and assimilation project had not worked, though in Shapiro’s view there was in fact a considerable degree of assimilation (and forgetting of origins): indeed a 2008 DNA survey in Spain found that twenty per cent of those sampled showed results consistent with Jewish ancestry. Blood laws of course also undermined one of the fundamental principles of Christianity, its claim to universality. As St Paul had written:

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

A religion based on brotherhood now seemed to have been replaced by one – like Judaism – based on lineage.

Expulsion of course also meant migration, and many Spanish and Portuguese Jews, now usually known as Marranos, emigrated after 1492 to Italy, the Ottoman empire, North Africa, Flanders and other centres, including England. According to evidence given to the Inquisition in 1540, a Portuguese Marrano, Alves Lopes, ran something like a safe house in London at the time, incorporating a synagogue to which the local Jewish community went on

the Sabbath; and ... on that day there came to Alves’s house other false Christians to the number of about twenty, among whom he saw: Diego della Rogna and his wife, Enrico de Tovar and his wife, Jorge Diez, Goncales de Capra and his wife, Peter, their son, and his wife, Antonio della Rogna, Ana Pinta and Rodrigo Pinto, her brother, and others from London ... and that it is true that whenever any refugee false Christians come from Portugal to go to England and Flanders and thence to Turkey and elsewhere, in order to lead the lives of Hebrews, they come to the house of the said Alves, who helps them to go whither they want to go for this purpose.

Another supposed Jew identified by evidence given to the Inquisition was Dunstan Ames or Anes (originally Añes), who died in 1594 and was buried under his pew at St Olave’s church in London. Ames, who was born into a converso family in Valladolid in Spain and brought to England as a child, was a wealthy merchant, a “purveyor and merchant for the Queen Majesty’s Grocery” and, eventually, a gentleman, having been granted his own coat of arms in 1568. His brother Francisco entered the military, commanded the English garrison at Youghal and later, as Francis Annyas, was three times its mayor. Sarah, the sister of Dunstan and Francisco, was to marry the prosperous doctor Roderigo Lopez (“one, that maketh as great account of himself, as the best: & by a kind of Jewish practis, hath growen to much wealth, & sum reputation”), who became the queen’s physician and who in 1594 was executed for plotting to poison her. He is also believed by many to have been a model for Shakespeare’s Shylock. Lopez maintained his innocence to the end, insisting on the scaffold 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 in the standers-by”.

The plight of Jews – their evident helplessness when they were publicly humiliated, insulted, jeered at or subjected to corporal or even capital punishment ‑ seems, over many centuries indeed, to have often been a source of great amusement to those who looked on. What was it about this people that excited so much hostility and contempt? Didn’t the Jews, in Shylock’s words, have the same eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections and passions as everyone else? Well not quite, apparently. The accumulated lore of early modern England knew of a number of attested ways in which the Jews were not the same.

First, they were recognisably physically different, being dark (“swart”) in complexion and in some cases actually carrying a special mark, which “appears when they are in a passion, which is in some two, in some, three streaks ending in a point upward, joining at bottom to a dash about two inches square, as Cain had a mark on his forehead for killing his brother Abel”. They smelled:

... it seems there is a kind of curse fallen upon their bodies; witness the uncouth looks and odd cast of eye, whereby they are distinguished from other people. As well as that rankish kind of scent no better than a stink, which is observed to be inherent and inseparable from most of them above all nations.

They were prone to “the falling sickness”. It was thought the men as well as the women menstruated, the resultant need to replace lost blood perhaps accounting for their supposed practice of kidnapping, crucifying and bleeding Christian children. The Spanish physician Juan de Quinones wrote a treatise which claimed Jewish men had tails. They also had bad breath, and were thought to be sometimes able to breastfeed. (One wonders, with this ample list of striking physical differences, why they were so often required to wear special coats, or headgear, or cloth badges, to distinguish them from Christians.)

Then there were their deficiencies of mind or character: they had “light, aerial, and fanatical brains, spirited much like our hot apocalypse men [Puritans]”. They were clannish, and kept themselves to themselves. They were prodigiously timid and thus unfit for the noble profession of arms, and yet they were “firebrands of sedition”. They were often cross-dressers. Though their original occupation had been as shepherds, their frequent captivities and the corruption of the Gentiles had turned them into what they now were, “merchants, brokers, and cheaters” unfit for honest agricultural work. And of course they had crucified Christ and since then persisted stubbornly in error, waiting vainly and foolishly for a Messiah who had already come.

It was scarcely surprising that such persons were not made feel welcome. For foreigners more generally, or “strangers” as they were more often called, Elizabethan England could be a haven, particularly for continental European Protestants, but their presence, and their participation in economic life, was often resisted by the populace. In 1517 there had been riots, when London apprentices attacked the alien community. The authorities conducted a census, partly with a view to reassuring natives that there were far fewer foreigners living among them than they imagined. Nevertheless, notices (“libels”) showing gallows hanging strangers continued to appear and it was pointed out to the authorities that spies could easily be insinuated into the country in the guise of foreign workers, while “artisans and mechanical persons might be impoverished by the great multitude of strangers being of their trades and faculties”.

Not everyone in early modern England hated the Jews. Indeed significant sections of Puritan opinion were drawn to not just their religious pedigree but to the exemplary strictness with which they seemed to implement “the Law”, particularly regarding keeping the Sabbath and abstaining from unclean foods. One of these “Judaizers” was the preacher John Traske, born about 1585, “one Trash or Thrash who was first a puritan, then a separatist, and now is become a Jewish Christian ... You will not think what a number of foolish followers he hath in this town and some other parts.” Traske was found guilty of teaching 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”. He was expelled from his ministry and immured in the Fleet prison, where he was “only allowed the ... meats in his opinion supposed to be forbidden”. (The idea – and perhaps sometimes the practice – of forcing Jews to either eat pork or starve remains a remarkably popular one throughout this period; it is frequently regarded as hilariously funny.)

Shapiro persuasively relates hostility to, and fear of, the Jews to the long tradition of antisemitic lore and the authority with which such legends, no matter how absurd, were usually invested. But he also links it to what he sees as a particularly insecure sense of identity in Elizabethan and Jacobean England and a deep-rooted fear that the island was prone to attack from its foreign enemies, some of whom might be dissimulating their real natures under the cover of God-fearing Anglicans. The belief that England “went Protestant” with Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the early 1530s, is, Shapiro argues following Eamon Duffy (The Stripping of the Altars), an oversimplified one. Henry’s only partial erasures of Catholic practice were further advanced during the reign of Edward VI, largely but not completely reversed during that of Mary and then only slowly bedded down again with Elizabeth. It was not, Duffy writes, until the late 1570s that finally “a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believed the Pope to be Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back on the Catholic past as their own, but another country, another world”. In this atmosphere of shifting allegiance and insecure identity (national identity coming to be partly defined by religious identity), Shapiro writes:

The rapid transformations in English religious beliefs ... generated a demand for something that could reground faith in a world filled with challenges and counterchallenges to what had once seemed like infallible doctrine. The demand was met in part by the idea of the stubborn Jew whose conversion not only revealed the truths of Christianity in general but also, many sects hoped, the rightness of their own particular beliefs.

With an eye on contemporary scholarship, Shapiro remarks that it is rather singular that Jews, who were so often identified in the early modern period in terms of their race and its perceived characteristics, should now have vanished from the “discourse of race” in the Anglo-American academic world. In their haste to place identity politics at the centre of intellectual inquiry, the “new historicist” critics have, he argues, almost completely ignored the question of religious identity, one of the most pressing issues in early modern England.

Though the new historicists have rediscovered virtually every marginalized Other that passed through early modern England – including witches, hermaphrodites, Moors, cross-dressers, Turks, sodomites, criminals, prophets, Eskimos, and vagabonds – they have steered carefully around the Other of Others in the Renaissance, the Jews. And this is all the more strange, perhaps, because so many of these scholars are themselves of Jewish descent.

One can only add, in response to these ubiquitous new historicists and postmodernists, who seem to wish us (who are presumably “the Same”) to renounce our supposed “othering” of everyone else, that he whom you regard as the Other is very likely to regard you in the same light: James Shapiro indeed recalls hiding as a child behind racks of coats in a New York department store from a group of nuns he was convinced were there to abduct him.

Shapiro’s narrative continues past the formal readmission of Jews into England during the Commonwealth period to the eighteenth century, a crucial era in the formation of the English national and nationalist self-image. By this time there were voices arguing for openness, tolerance and assimilation, on the grounds of principle but also of (economic) policy. Daniel Defoe had maintained that “no number of foreigners can be prejudicial to England” since its economic health depended on facilitating large-scale immigration. And as for purity of blood,

A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.

Yet many still saw the Jews as a threat and toleration as an evil. Even John Locke did not see them as having any permanent home in England as long as they maintained their religion, while the anonymous author of The Crisis, or An Alarm to Britannia’s True Protestant Sons saw the idea of toleration of Jews as the thin end of the wedge: one might indeed make an easy case for affording them freedom of worship, but then be asked to extend toleration to the Catholics, which would “make the Anglican a second Popish church”. Shapiro quotes Linda Colley (Britons: Forging the Nation: 1707-1837) on the role of France as “Other” in constructing English identity: “They defined themselves against the French as they imagined them to be, superstitious, militaristic, decadent and unfree”, while “increasingly as the wars went on, they defined themselves in contrast to the colonial peoples they conquered”. With this assessment he is in agreement up to a point, but posits “a far more complex set of projections, ones that include first and foremost the Irish as well as the Jews, the French, the Spanish, and the peoples colonized in these early years of the British Empire”.

Reading Shapiro, it is often difficult to know whether to classify him as historian or literary scholar (he is a professor of English and comparative literature). Indeed he seems adept at both disciplines. Shakespeare and the Jews is primarily an historical work, though not without some interesting textual analysis (Shylock wants a pound of flesh from the Gentile Antonio; “flesh”, in Leviticus, is the usual word for penis). In this book he has given us a classic study in mentalités, not exactly the history of what happened, more the equally interesting history of what people thought was happening. In its conclusion he reflects: “In the course of writing this book I have developed a good deal of respect for the vitality of irrationality.” A central event in his text is of course the Protestant Reformation, which saw itself as sweeping away all the accumulated irrationality and “superstition” of Popery. And yet ... We have now moved a little further along and the practice of religion has fallen away dramatically in all the more affluent European societies (though not everywhere else). Militant atheists and “humanists” are of course delighted that the scales have finally fallen from our eyes. Still, it may be a little early to think we have done with irrationality.


Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.