Was Shakespeare an Anti-Semite?

Culture Watch


Glenn Speer is a freelance writer who received his PhD in American history from the City University of New York.

Sometimes history and culture offer the best means to understanding literature—as James Shapiro proves in his superb book Shakespeare and the Jews.

Long overdue for review in these pages, Shapiro’s work shook up Shakespearean studies when it first appeared in 1996. It wasn’t just the subject matter but the intriguingly creative and innovative approach that were of particular note. Rather than an exclusively literary analysis, Shapiro has written an illuminating cultural and theological history to render a much desired and, indeed, essential context to The Merchant of Venice. He accomplishes this by examining English attitudes towards Jews from the thirteenth century of Edward I with the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 (although Shapiro convincingly argues that many Jews actually stayed in England), Elizabethan (and obviously Shakespearean) times and up through the [English] Civil War, Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the Restoration.  He then covers the passage of the so-called “Jew Bill”—formally entitled the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753—which allowed Jews to finally become English naturalized citizens. But Shapiro even goes beyond these earlier periods to examine attitudes among Shakespearean scholars not only towards Jews but specifically Shakespearean scholars who happened to be Jewish. He describes how Jewish academics in Britain have been subjected to virulent anti-Semitic slurs by supposed colleagues especially, but hardly only, during the tricentennial of Shakespeare’s death in 1916; they were considered as “usurpers” in daring to enter any scholarly discussion of Shakespeare.  This was a not-so-veiled manner of suggesting that they Jews simply weren’t suited to write about England’s National Poet, the true embodiment of all great English things, as they weren’t English or at the very least, English “enough.” But now, despite such prejudice, such names as Shapiro, himself, Greenblatt, and Urkowitz lead the way in the field.

Shapiro’s research is absolutely prodigious and impeccable—it seems that there is nothing that he did not read on the topic. In addition to all of the secondary literature—which really takes a back seat—he quotes from all sorts of tracts over centuries, e.g., sermons denouncing the Jews (John Donne could have earned the title for most virulent Anti-Semitic pastor with his diatribes against the Hebrews delivered from the pulpit of St. Paul’s—one wishes he had stuck to poetry) as well as Hebrophilic, so to speak, writings of Puritan ministers of the Cromwellian and Commonwealth period. Shapiro also turns to primary as well as secondary sources on Sephardic Jews who were in exile from Spain and Portugal and found their way—with no welcome mat—to England. This inevitably leads to a discussion of the “Maranos,” or “secret Jews” also known as “Conversos.” These were Jews who, as the name suggests, converted but often practiced their religion in secret. Yet, any hope of such a conversion allowing for full assimilation was squashed by the de riguer anti-Semitic view that “once a Jews, always a Jew.”

This is effectively a prelude to Shapiro’s explication of Pauline theology regarding conversion—much of which centers on the rite of circumcision which Shapiro brilliantly relates to Merchant and Shylock’s demands for Antonio’s “pound of flesh.” By displaying such a comprehensive grasp of these matters, Shapiro further reveals the depths of such irrational—one can say sociopathological—anti-Semitism in England during the period. But no one lacking background in such arcane points of theology should be intimidated as Shapiro’s treatment can be understood by any scholarly reader, albeit one with some sophistication. It is so intriguing, in fact, that many may well be inspired to go out and read even more theology as Shapiro presents it not merely as philosophy or creed but as the very stuff that created and formed historical attitudes in England towards the Jews.

In his subsequent A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare—1599 (HarperCollins, 2005), Shapiro depicts Shakespeare as a man (though not like any other…) and writer of his own times, rejecting the legendary remark by Ben Jonson that Shakespeare was “not of an age but for all time.” He equally refutes Samuel Coleridge, who said more than a century after Jonson that Shakespeare wrote “as if on another planet”—more or less as if he was not in this world…or even of it. In both works, Shapiro successfully makes the case to bring Shakespeare back to Earth and understand him as a man of flesh, blood and bones who lived squarely in his own times, in the heart of a culture replete with ignorant prejudice. Shakespeare is a product of his own era and place—Elizabethan England—no matter what exotic locale he may have chosen to set his plays—Shylock’s Venice, Elsinore, Ancient Athens, or any magical, far distant isle. Shapiro does the same in Shakespeare and the Jews, placing The Merchant of Venice in the context of these very peculiarly English attitudes towards Jews.

Those expecting a discourse on Shakespeare’s own feelings towards Jews may be disappointed although that was hardly Shapiro’s main intent. However, readers will discover an enlightening, revealing, and highly inspirational take on cultural as well as theological history. Of course, this sets the stage, if you will, for a cogent analysis of Merchant, not purely on literary terms but again, on how Shylock reflected prevailing perceptions of Jews.

Shapiro is just as concerned with the very notion of what an Englishman (and Englishwoman as we would rightly say today) actually is, and he illustrates how trying to define the criteria for that is most slippery and uncertain. Although many English historians and other commentators in their early and then modern history liked to consider the race “pure”—virtually in the Aryan sense—the English people were a mixed lot from the earliest times—Anglos, Jutes, Saxons, Normans just to name a few of the “blood lines.” Was “Englishness” a race, ethnicity, a nation, a culture based on the theology of Protestantism and the established Church post-Henry VIII? This leads to the parallel question, of what a “Jew” actually is. In this one of many “Jewish questions” that Shapiro delves into, he asks, was Judaism merely a religion, or do Jews comprise an ethnic group, a race, or a people and could a Jew—one whose family had lived in England for generations—be considered English by the…English, as it were?  Is there such a thing as a Jewish Englishman or is the very concept outside of the realm of “Englishhood” in the eyes of those who might bestow the designation?

Of course, anti-Semitism has historically led to violence long before the Holocaust—that is a given—and England was no exception. So much of the fuel of anti-Semitism in England and throughout European history stemmed from the “blood libel” where Jews were accused of the ritual murder of Christian children in order to use their blood in making Matzah for Passover. Shapiro describes the origins and expression of this most pernicious aspect of prejudice against Jews in copious detail, devoting an entire chapter to it. He recounts attacks on Jews—more accurately riots, an English version of the pogroms of Russia—in the thirteenth century and even in the 1590s, the decade in which Shakespeare wrote Merchant. In fact, in 1595, the year Merchant was first performed, London saw widespread attacks on Jews in just such a riot. These were an intrinsic part of the cultural backdrop which molded Shakespeare—the scenery, so to speak. Shapiro poignantly analyzes the origins and expression of this particular aspect of prejudice against Jews in copious detail, devoting an entire chapter to it. He relates this to Shylock’s demand for a “pound of flesh” from Antonio which falls in line with Shapiro’s earlier discussion of circumcision.

Shapiro has written a brilliant, bitingly incisive cultural history—showing how culture is not only linked to literature but how all art is created in the wider historical world. This is so true in Shakespeare, especially Merchant, as no play is an island… No writer, rightly argued by Shapiro, lives apart; no work, no matter what “universals” might be contained within it, is ever isolated from History and the very ideas, theology, politics and prejudices of any time—the stuff that history, not merely dreams, is made of. So be it with “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare’s most controversial play.

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