Jews: A Shakespearean History

OK, let’s get going on this whole antisemitic angle of The Merchant of Venice … or at least the whole Jewish Question.

Shylock is a Jew. He is the antagonist of the play, and thus a major character.

But what did Shakespeare know of Jews?

Not a whole lot.

There weren’t many Jews in Elizabethan England, since they had been kicked out of England in 1290 under the effects of the Edict of Expulsion.

and who signed this order? Why, King Edward I… who, by the way, was the grandson of last month’s titular King John

And this order was not overturned until 1656 when Oliver Cromwell began to court Jewish trade interests. So, of course, Shakespeare lived during this “No Jews Allowed” period, albeit toward the end.

This is NOT to say, however, that there were no Jews in the popular imagination. Some six to nine years before the composition of The Merchant of Venice, Christopher Marlowe wrote and produced his “Jew piece” The Jew of Malta. This play’s anti-hero, Barabas, is one of almost relentless evil, even murdering Christians himself.

Then, as we mentioned earlier as we mentioned earlier, there is the story of Roderigo Lopez.

Lopez was a born in Portugal as an Iberian Jew. He fled the country during the Portuguese Inquisition (yep, they had one, too… the Spanish didn’t have all the “fun”), and converted to Christianity (usually Roman Catholicism), becoming a New Christian (convert, as opposed to Old Christians).

Lopez settled in London around 1559, and was able to continue his medical practice, growing that business until he became the physician-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth in 1586 (at this point, he was known as a practicing Protestant).

In 1593, however, he was arrested for conspiring to poison the Queen. Much was made of his Jewish roots, and he was convicted, then hanged, drawn and quartered, in January of the next year. That scandal and execution is said to have spurred a revival of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta… which, in turn, is said to have inspired Shakespeare’s own Jew, Shylock.

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