The Early Modern Stage-Jew

Heritage, Inspiration, and Concepts – With the first edition of Nathaniel Wiburne’s «Machiavellus»

by Saskia Zinsser-Krys (Author)
©2017 Thesis 539 Pages


This book investigates the contemporary conceptions of the Jewish figure on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. Taking on what has been said about Shakespeare’s Shylock and Marlowe’s Barabas in the last centuries, the author analyses seven other, largely ignored plays to enhance the image we have today of the early modern stage-Jew. In tracing the image of Jewish figures in medieval literature and in early modern travel reports, the foundation of the Elizabethan idea of ‘Jewishness’ is laid out. Further, the author challenges some arguments which have become axiomatic over time, such as the notion of the red-haired, hook-nosed comical villain. The book also contains a first edition of the Latin university play «Machiavellus» by Nathaniel Wiburne, accomplished by Michael Becker and Saskia Zinsser-Krys.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Register of Abbreviations
  • Register of Illustrations
  • Introduction
  • State of Research
  • Research Questions
  • Used Editions
  • Methodology
  • Summary of the Chapters
  • I. The Historical Jew
  • 1. Anglo-Jewish History: William the Conqueror to Edward I
  • a) First Settlement and Flourishing Community
  • b) The Royal Milch-Cow
  • c) Rising Animosity towards Jews
  • d) The Turning Point
  • e) The Expulsion
  • 2. Jewish Individuals in Elizabethan London
  • a) Spanish Inquisition and Marrano-Jews
  • b) Marrano-Jews in England
  • c) Eastern-European Jews in England
  • d) Famous Isolated Cases – Maria Nuñez, Dunstan Ames and Roderigo Lopez
  • e) Secret Religious Practices and the Privy Council
  • f) The False Conversion of Joseph Barnet
  • 3. Elizabethan Attitude towards Jews
  • a) The Confusion on Race vs. Religion
  • b) Judaisers and Millenarians
  • c) Jews as Cut-Throat Usurers
  • d) ‘Jew’ as Term of Abuse
  • e) Missing Emotions, Lying, Malice, Sorcery, Stubbornness, and Simplemindedness
  • f) Ritual Murders – still present in the Elizabethan Mind
  • II. The Imagined Jew
  • 1. The Jew in Medieval Scare Stories
  • a) The Well-Poisoner
  • b) Christ-Murderer
  • c) Child-Murderer
  • d) Ritual Murder in Literature
  • Fabula Ineptissima
  • The Jew’s Daughter
  • Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale
  • 2. The Jew in Mystery Cycles and Miracle Plays
  • a) The Corpus Christi Plays of England
  • York Cycle, Towneley Cycle, N-Town Plays, Chester Cycle
  • Performance Practices
  • b) The Stage-Jew in the Corpus Christi Plays
  • Ridiculous Stage-Jew
  • Cruel and Blood-Thirsty Stage-Jew
  • Greedy Stage-Jew
  • c) Stage-Judas in the Corpus Christi Plays
  • Greedy and Malicious Judas
  • The Remorse and Suicide of Judas
  • d) Costuming, Reception, and Dramaturgical Function of the Stage-Jew
  • e) The Croxton Play of the Blessed Sacrament
  • The Manuscript
  • Introduction of the Jewish Figure – Gold-Loving and Malicious Merchant
  • Curiosity and Cruelty against Christ
  • Conversion
  • f) Summary: The Jew in Corpus Christi Cycles and Miracle Plays
  • 3. The Jew in Travel Literature
  • a) Jewish Living Situations: Ghettos and Garment Rules
  • b) Skilled and Educated Jewish Merchants and Physicians
  • c) Jews as Threat and Allies of Turks
  • d) Jewish Worship and Rituals
  • e) Jewish Reluctance to Acknowledge Christ
  • f) Hospitable and Friendly Jews
  • g) Summary
  • III. The Staged Jew
  • 1. Between Travel Account and Drama: Thomas Nashe’s The Vnfortvnate Traveller
  • a) Zadoch and Zacharie: Greedy, Cunning, and Cruel Jews
  • b) Poison as Weapon
  • c) Zacharie as Evil Physician
  • d) Physiognomy
  • e) The Punishment fits the Crime
  • f) Allusions to Jews in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama
  • 2. The Plays
  • a) Robert Wilson: The Three Ladies of London
  • b) Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta
  • c) Robert Greene: Selimus
  • d) William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice
  • e) Nathaniel Wiburne: Machiavellus
  • f) John Day, George Wilkins, William Rowley: The Travailes of the three English Brothers
  • g) Robert Daborne: A Christian Turn’d Turke
  • h) John Fletcher, Philip Massinger: The Custom of the Country
  • i) Thomas Goffe: The Raging Turke
  • 3. Male Stage-Jews
  • a) The Money-Obsessed Merchant and Usurer
  • Skilled Merchants
  • Pure Money-Obsession
  • Greedy Usurers
  • b) The Relentless Monster
  • True Malice: Wit, Plots and Scheming
  • Jew-Devil and Devil-Jew
  • Blood-Thirst, Cruelty and Joy at Killing
  • c) The Physician armed with Poison
  • Jewish Stage-Physicians
  • Poison as Weapon
  • d) The Family Man
  • The Father-Figure
  • The Jealous Husband-Figure
  • A Novel Motif
  • e) The Gentle Jew
  • Gerontus
  • Mercadore
  • Positive Features of Stage-Jews in their Corrupt Milieus
  • 4. Conversion – The Stage-Jewess
  • a) Abigail: Double Conversion
  • b) Jessica: Conversion through Marriage
  • c) “I’ll be no convertite:” Male Conversion
  • False Conversion
  • Forced Conversion
  • d) Summary
  • IV. The Meta-Jew
  • 1. How Jewish is the Early Modern Stage-Jew?
  • a) Introductions, Stage-Directions, and Speech-Prefixes
  • b) Placing the Stage-Jew
  • c) Stage-Jews without Judaism?
  • Plays Void of Jewish Rituals
  • Devout Ejaculations and Allusions to the Torah
  • Language and Speech Patterns
  • Names
  • d) The Red-Haired, Judas-Bearded, Hook-Nosed Comical Villain: A Justified Axiom?
  • Costumes
  • Foetor Judaicus
  • Jewish Physiognomy
  • Tracing the Origin of the Axiom
  • Red Hair and Judas-Coloured Beard?
  • Bottle-Nose?
  • Dark-Skinned Stage-Jews?
  • Laughing-Stock Figure?
  • e) Summary
  • 2. The Omnipresent Jew – a White Canvas?
  • a) The Eternal Foreigner
  • b) A Jewish Huguenot?
  • c) Summary
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • 1. Illustrations
  • 2. Nathaniel Wiburne’s Machiavellus
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Literature
  • Secondary Literature
  • Index

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This book is based on my doctoral thesis. The work could have not been done without the tremendous help of many people. First and foremost I want to thank my advisor Prof. Dr. Sonja Fielitz. It has been an honour to be her PhD student. I appreciate her valuable guidance, scholarly inputs, consistent encouragement, and the speed with which she got back to me for every problem I encountered. I especially want to thank her for the support she has shown me, which went beyond the scope of a supervisor. She has indeed lived up to the German term ‘Doktormutter’ in every aspect.

I also want to thank Prof. Dr. Martin Kuester for agreeing to be my second supervisor. His letter of recommendation for my application to the University of Oxford was extremely kind and certainly made a difference in the submission.

Many thanks go to Prof. Dr. Simon Palfrey, who acted as my supervisor during my time at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. Our discussions were very fruitful and provided me with many thought-provoking impulses.

I am also indebted to Prof. Dr. Brett D. Hirsch (University of Leeds) for providing me with two of his papers before publication. This sparked a helpful e-mail correspondence in which he kindly suggested the matter of the Christian Kabbalah for my thesis.

My sincere gratitude goes also to Dr. Jeff Linz and especially to Prof. Dr. Carola Daffner (Southern Illinois University). Their feedback has been crucial, yet the probably biggest lesson I learned from them is that self-doubt is part of the process.

I thank the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford for sending me microfilm scans of Nathaniel Wiburne’s Machiavellus (MS. Douce 234) to work on. My time in Oxford has been enriched immensely by the magnificent collections of the libraries, which made the research for me so much easier.

Of invaluable help were both Michael Becker (Ruprecht-Karls-University, Heidelberg) and Daniel Herskowitz (Wolfson College, University of Oxford). I could have not worked on the manuscript of Machiavellus without the great ← 13 | 14 → contribution from Michael. My friend Daniel was a superb Hebrew teacher and endured questions to every hour of the day to the language and Jewish religion.

I would like to thank my family and friends for all their love and encouragement. My parents, Deborah and Harry, have taught me to always give my best and never give up. They have also provided me with means to pursue my academic studies. Both were emotionally invested in my thesis, which is the best gift a PhD student can ask for. My sisters, Jilly and Georgie, and my friends in Germany and England did not just show great interest in my research, but also made sure that I got plenty of distraction when needed. Without them I could have not mastered personal and PhD-related crises; always knowing that there are people who will listen and care so deeply is truly moving.

A special thank-you goes to my late Opa, who was so proud to see me starting this adventure. He was and always will be an academic role model for me.

And last but certainly not least I would like to thank my husband Flo for supporting my dreams and being right next to me at every step. He also managed to lure me out of my ivory tower and was honest enough to tell me to stop talking about work whenever it got out of hand. His patience during these last few years, in which I made him an unwilling expert on the early modern stage-Jew, has been without limits. I love you.

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Register of Abbreviations

BBA The Blinde Beggar of Alexandria

CC Chester Cycle

CfB A Challenge for Beauty

CoC The Custom of the Country

CPBS Croxton Play of the Blessed Sacrament

CtT A Christian turn’d Turke

DLC The Devil’s Law Case

EMM Englishmen for my Money

G A New Song: Shewing the Cruelty of Gernutus a Jew

H Hamlet

IC The Insatiate Countess

IDE Iacke Drums Entertainment

JoM The Jew of Malta

KH4/1 King Henry IV, Part 1

KH4/2 King Henry IV, Part 2

M Machiavellus

MAAN Much Ado About Nothing

MB Macbeth

Mc The Malcontent

MND A Midsummer Night’s Dream

MoV The Merchant of Venice

NTC N-Town Cycle

O Othello

PG Patient Grissill

PT The Prioress’s Tale

RT The Raging Turke

S The First part of the Tragicall raigne of Selimus

SM A Search for Money

ST The Spanish Tragedy

T The Tempest

TC Towneley Cycle

TGoV The Two Gentlemen of Verona

TLL The Three Ladies of London

TLTL Three Lords and Three Ladies of London

TTEB The Travailes of the three English Brothers ← 15 | 16 →

VT The Vnfortunate Traveller

WCG The Weeding of the Covent Garden, or the Middlesex Justice of Peace

WoB The Whore of Babylon

YC York Cycle

| 17 →

Register of Illustrations

Figure 1: “Lopez Compounding to Poison the Queen,” woodcut in George Carleton’s A Thankful Remembrance of Gods Mercy (1627)453

Figure 2: “Hake,” marginal sketch on the King’s Remembrancer Memoranda Roll, No. 47, for the twenty-fourth year of Henry III (1240)454

Figure 3: “Aaron, fil’ Diaboli,” caricature in the margin of an Essex Forest Roll (1277)454

Figure 4: “A Merchant Iewe,” woodcut in Nicholas de Nicolay’s Nauigations into Turkey (1585)455

Figure 5: “A Phisition Iewe,” woodcut in Nicholas de Nicolay’s Nauigations into Turkey (1585)455

Figure 6: “A woman Iewe of Andrinople,” woodcut in Nicholas de Nicolay’s Nauigations into Turkey (1585)455

Figure 7: “A maidan Iewe of Andrinople,” woodcut in Nicholas de Nicolay’s Nauigations into Turkey (1585)455

Figure 8: Frontispiece from John Blaxton’s The English Usurer (1634)456

Figure 9: “The Scourging of Jesus,” Chichester Psalter (ca. 1250)457

Figure 10: “The Beheading of John the Baptist,” Luttrell Psalter (ca. 1325–1335)458

Figure 11: “The Mocking of Jesus,” Luttrell Psalter (ca. 1325–1335)458

Figure 12: “The Scourging of Jesus,” Luttrell Psalter (ca. 1325–1335)459

Figure 13: “The Crucifixion with High Priest as Onlooker,” Luttrell Psalter (ca. 1325–1335)459

All figures can be found in the appendix.

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“Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation”
Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, 2.2.25.

When opening an edition of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, one will most certainly be confronted with the statement of the editor that this particular play is quite problematic to stage in our post-Holocaust times. Nevertheless, the drama has a rich production history, and the eminent Jewish figure is also a most desired character to play in Hollywood productions, bringing Shylock to a whole new audience. Renowned actors from Charles Macklin, Edmund Kean, and Henry Irving to Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino have taken on the challenge of portraying the infamous Jew. Just during the last two seasons, productions of the play were staged in numerous theatres in England and Germany.

I was able to see two of the most recent stagings: Jonathan Munby’s production at the Globe Theatre in London (June 6, 2014) and Nicolas Stemann’s adaptation at the Kammerspiele in Munich (December 1, 2015). The two implementations could not have been more different, and yet they both show the influence of past productions and the notions we have nowadays from the early modern stage-Jew.

Munby’s Shylock, incarnated by Jonathan Pryce, is the Shylock we have come to be familiar with in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: He is the congenial victim of Christian malice. He is also clearly painted as a despised outsider: In public, he wears a Jewish gabardine, a blue long coat with an eye-catching yellow Jew-badge and a red cap; and at home, the first words we hear him speak are angry Yiddish sentences to his daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s real daughter Phoebe Pryce). After he is bereft of his only offspring, he slowly transforms from everlasting victim to bloodthirsty revenger, yet in a way that the audience cannot help but to feel if not with than at least for him.

Nicolas Stemann’s Merchant of Venice deconstructs the play to a level where the spectator needs to ask himself if this is still a Shakespearean play. The Dramatis Personae, consisting of about twenty parts, are all incarnated by alternating six actors. At one moment, one actor is Shylock, in the next, he is Antonio, then suddenly Bassanio. The text is mere text, often projected on up to six screens on stage, repeatedly just read from the monitors without sentiments or deeper meaning. The overall feeling is definitely more Elfriede Jelinek than William Shakespeare.

Shylock’s identity as Jew is opened up to different readings. The most famous speech “Hath not a Jew eyes?” is widened to embrace xenophobia in all its colours, homophobia, and sexism, and even the fear of being disadvantaged for not being ← 19 | 20 → a minority. Yet in this broadly defined reading the Jew in Shylock is not entirely forgotten. There is a bizarre, almost perverse interlude. The actor Niels Bormann comes up to the brink of the stage, suddenly bending over, giving himself a hunchback, wringing his hands, hissing how as a Jew he will come and murder little children. Switching roles, he takes on the part of a Nazi, further piling on the negative stereotypes about Jews. Among these, the cliché of having a ‘nose for money’ is named – a nose that is described to be long and bent.

Interestingly, this somehow resembles a moment in Munby’s production. When Salerio narrates how Shylock reacted to finding out that he lost his daughter and his ducats, he puts on a Venetian wooden mask with a hooked nose, typically associated with Jews, acting out the Jew’s emotion, ridiculing him to no extent. While Salerio only mocks Shylock, Bormann’s little play within the play does not mock Jews at all, but rather derides the prejudices clinging to them for centuries and centuries, which are still present and familiar in our minds today. The actor also has reddish-blond ginger hair, and a stubble beard of the same colour. It might be not intended from the director, but the fact remains that the caricature of the evil Jew also resembles the notions we have of the Marlowe’s Barabas and Shakespeare’s Shylock: A hooked nose and Judas-coloured hair.

Both productions set out with completely different intentions, one priding itself on being more authentic, the other trying out post-modern theatre techniques; yet they both confirm all the same images we have of what we think the early modern stage-Jew had to embody, which is “the very devil incarnation” (MoV, 2.2.25).

With this quotation in mind, my study takes a closer look at the contemporary conception and images of the Jewish figure on the Elizabethan stage. This specific figure has been analysed, scrutinized, and dissected to the point that everything has been said – with one important limitation: The concept of the early modern stage-Jew has primarily been demonstrated on William Shakespeare’s Shylock and Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas, and inquiries into English notions on Jews have largely centred solely on these two figures. Although both are without doubt not just the most famous but also the only main Jewish protagonists, there are seven other plays containing stage-Jews which precede and succeed The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice. By means of Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London (1584), Robert Greene’s1 The First part of the Tragicall raigne ← 20 | 21 → of Selimus (1594), Nathaniel Wiburne’s Machiavellus (1597), The Travailes of the three English Brothers (1607), a collaboration of John Day, George Wilkins, and William Rowley, Robert Daborne’s A Christian turn’d Turke (1610), John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s The Custom of the Country (1622), and last but not least Robert Greene’s The Raging Turke (1627), I would like to confirm and enhance what has been said about Shylock and Barabas, showing that scholarship has restricted itself by only concentrating on two plays. Some defining features which up to now have seemed unimportant and fleeting will in the bigger picture gain more significance. Further, I will go on to investigate what scholars in the last centuries have suggested to be essential for the stage-Jew’s construction, and thus for their behaviour, their attire, and their physiognomy.

State of Research

There is of course a vast amount of literature exploring ideas and topics upon which this thesis touches. Therefore, I am indebted to many studies and surveys which have shaped the different fields my work is based on.

The Anglo-Jewish history, starting when William the Conqueror brought the first Jewish settlers into England (1066) and coming to a first end with the Expulsion ordered by King Edward I (1290), has been researched thoroughly. These studies have first been influenced by Joseph Jacobs’s The Jews of Angevin England (1893)2 and Michael Adler’s Jews of Medieval England (1939).3 These ← 21 | 22 → significant scrutinies were then complemented in 1941 by Cecil Roth’s ground-breaking and trend-setting A History of the Jews in England.4 Roth soon became the leading scholar on this topic; with numerous following publications he illuminated every aspect of the shared history between medieval English society and the English medieval Jewry. For several generations – and also up to today – his first monograph has been considered as authoritative in its field. Yet the past two decades have also produced some voices of scepticism, concerning especially his all too positive attitude towards the readmission of Jews in the seventeenth century, which he had described as “one of optimism, of improvement and eventual arrival at the final destination.”5 One of his main critics was David S. Katz who argued that Roth had to downplay past antisemitic tensions to come to his optimistic conclusion.6 His The Jew in the History of England 1484–1850 (1994) clearly builds on Roth’s work, yet its strengths lies in the “extraordinary diligence with which he collects and scrupulously assembles the myriad scraps and details, which on their own would at first appear to contain little of wider or deeper significance.”7

A whole different matter of research was the question if Jews were residing in England between the Expulsion and the Readmission; as the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras are in between these two historical relevant events, this question has also concerned many scholars of the early modern period. At the turn to the twentieth century, two camps had crystallised arguing for or against a present Jewish community in the so called ‘middle period’ (1290–1656). William Edward Hartpole Lecky,8 John Richard Green,9 Karl Heinrich Schaible,10 und Albert ← 22 | 23 → Montefiore Hyamson,11 all pleading for the complete success of the Expulsion, stood against Sidney Lee12 and Lucien Wolf,13 and also Heinrich Graetz,14 Eduard Eckhardt,15 Walter Reinicke,16 and Wilhelm Creizenach,17 who argued for thriving Jewish communities within the English realm. Both sides quoted many passages of early modern literature, including Elizabethan drama,18 to demonstrate their point. In the twentieth century, most scholars sided with the former group, concluding that there could have been no Jewish residents in England. Although the notion of an England void of any Jews is still to be found in many essays, introductions or fleeting comments, the matter has been settled by James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews (1996)19 to the contrary. He does not suggest that there was a vibrant Jewish culture to be found within English cities, but he found compelling evidence and arguments for Jewish individuals and small groups, especially among the Spanish and Portuguese Marrano immigrants, which were treated as an open secret. He is convinced that archival research makes it more than evident that a very small number of Jews trickled back into England almost ← 23 | 24 → immediately after the Expulsion, and that this number of secret immigrants increased during the Tudor period. He came to this conclusion after reviewing all the evidence gathered around the turn of the century, which was scattered in various locations and buried in numerous journals. This was then interwoven with new insights discovered in the last century.20

Shapiro’s book was in many ways a landmark for scholars both of English literature and of Jewish Studies, and it is still highly valued twenty years after its publication. Aside from his meticulous work regarding actual Jewish people in Elizabethan England, he also challenges assumptions about the significance of real and imagined Jews for early modern English audiences. Beyond that, he explores with great detail how “between 1290 and 1656 the English came to see their country defined in part by the fact that Jews had been banished from it.”21 With almost clinical precision, yet beautifully and lively written, he demonstrates how the complicated and interconnected questions of the definitions of Jew, Christian, and Englishman had taken on new immediacy and urgency in early modern England, where identity crises had to be fought on a religious and also national level. He traces any contemporary English anxiety towards Jews back to emergent notions of ‘racial’ identity, including Jewish ‘racial’ identity as a point of comparison or contrast. Yet even Shapiro for the most part eschews the traditional medieval-early modern period-divide in scholarship, asserting that one

of the things that most distinguishes medieval from early modern conceptions of Jews it that Jewish identity had been unquestioned in medieval Europe - on biological, social, and religious grounds - by both Jews and Christians. The Early modern Jew, in contrast, confounded those who sought more precise definitions in terms suited to emerging notions of nationhood and race.22

While Shapiro is primarily concerned with concepts and attitudes of Jewishness within England, Eva Holmberg set out to a different task: She researched the image of the Jew in English and Continental European travel literature. Her Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination23 follows numerous adventurers into the Mediterranean, the Levant, and the Ottoman Empire, filtering out encounters between Christians and Jews, showing how prejudices prevailed or how these overshadowed every confrontation with Hebrew people, and how centuries-old ← 24 | 25 → preconceptions were confirmed, or, more rarely, debilitated. She demonstrated how Jews were conceived as something exotic and vastly interesting, yet also viewed with much uncertainty and even concern. She approaches English understandings of Jews “from the viewpoint of the travellers,” a viewpoint, as she points out, which varies from the London playhouses.24

From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, writings on Jews proliferated in England, implying a growing interest in Jews and their traditions. From an utterly objective perspective, the reason for more comments upon Jews in foreign realms is that diplomats, merchants, travellers, and adventurers started documenting their ventures and journeys, bringing home more information on diverse cultures and customs, which was reflected “‘in the increased production of ethnographic texts.”25 Such cultural exchanges, diplomacy and travel between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, have been the subject of intense study in the recent decades leading up to Holmberg’s book, yet most of the time scholarship has concerned itself with ideas about Turks, Moors, and other Mediterranean people.26 Holmberg is rightly convinced that these writings greatly influenced the writings on Jews in these strange realms, stressing that it is “important to place Jews in these mental maps and look at English imagination from a more global perspective.”27 Although many literary genres, from sermons and histories over treatises on usury or diseases to ballads, featured notions about Jewishness, the comments of travel writing provide the biggest bulk of data on Jews in the early modern era. Works of clerics, scholars, historians and those of travellers entered a fertile exchange, informing authors and readers alike of the peculiarities of the Jews. One big issue was their existence as a nationless people or ‘scattered nation;’ another matter, which was often linked as cause to the first question, was their ← 25 | 26 → stubbornness and refusal to accept Jesus Christ as saviour and the Messiah. This clashed with their status as God’s ‘chosen people;’ causing a great deal of confusion and different opinions. Travel literature helped to bring some clarity into this mysterious figure: Their costumes were inspected and described and their appearances were depicted, sometimes accompanied by woodcuts or suchlike images. Living conditions and religious practices of foreign people helped the English to decide how to handle them: Can they be trusted as business partners? Accepted as peaceful neighbours? Or should they be strictly rejected or avoided at all costs? In investing an incredible amount of travel literature according to imageries of Jews, Holmberg’s biggest contribution to scholarship may be her demonstrating clearly that the Jews described in travel literature were indeed imagined and not correctly and completely objectively documented. She emphasises that “characteristics, customs, and social status of Jews were often presented in ways that were determined by beliefs about them.”28 Hereby, she does not dwell on questions of whether these notions and conceptions were anti- or philosemitic, but rather focuses on the English images of the contemporary Jew and Jewishness. She points out that in recent studies of cultural exchange, “cross-cultural encounters and contacts seems to have become a search for multiplicity rather than for clear-cut dichotomies.” In following this tendency, she aims to examine “the whole spectrum of early modern English understandings and engagements with the Jews: negative, positive, and those that seem to escape clear-cut definitions.”29

For my second chapter, I have borrowed Holmberg’s term of the ‘Imagined Jew,’ which in my interpretation comes close to Jeremy Cohen’s ‘Hermeneutical Jew,’ that he proposes in his Living letters of the Law. Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (1999).30 He coined this term after examining how Christianity had assigned Jews and Judaism a specific place in a properly ordered Christian society. Earlier, he had used Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, which explores the centrality of categorization to a culture’s fundamental “experience of order and ← 26 | 27 → of its modes of being.” With this in mind, he argues that the figure of the hermeneutical Jew needs to be analysed as part of the “experience of order and of its modes of being”31 in medieval Christendom. Following this prerequisite, he investigates the history of representations of Jews and Judaism in patristic and medieval Christian texts. In such, they were once the chosen people, who had received God’s Old Testament. They were also the murderers of Christ, and they signified hope as the Millenarians believed their conversion would bring forth the second coming of Christ – in all of these parts, they had a distinctive task to fulfil in Christian visions of salvific history.

To manage this successfully, Christians had to cast the Jews in respective roles and not perceive them as they actually were. Cohen quotes Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote in the twelfth century that “the Jews are for us the living letters […] of Scripture, constantly representing the Lord’s passion.”32 Thus, Christian theology created a Jew of their own, a Jew which was doctrinally and hermeneutically constructed to fit any purpose needed at the moment. Therefore, this hermeneutical Jew was in himself a complex, shifting, and not purely negative figure. His interest in this construction lies within medieval writings, although he clarifies that the clerics in the Middle Ages were by no means “the first – or the last – Christians to construct a Jew in accordance with the needs of their theology.”33 Yet he does not stop at examining the medieval texts; he also demonstrates with great care how these different hermeneutical productions beyond theology influenced literature, art, and common knowledge. One must certainly have Cohen’s study in mind when looking at the representation of these ‘fictional’ Jews in medieval histories, theological treatises, ballads, religious drama, and early modern travel literature. Hence, the hermeneutical Jew also plays his part on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage.

Even the attempt to provide a reasonably complete literature review about what has been said so far about Shakespeare’s Shylock and Marlowe’s Barabas would be a rather delirious undertaking. Starting with every introduction of every edition, countless articles, essays, and papers, and more books than one cares to know, these two figures have been written on so extensively that a lifetime of reading would not be enough to plough through all the literature. ← 27 | 28 → Significant and respect-demanding names, such as Stephen Greenblatt,34 G. K. Hunter,35 James Shapiro,36 Jay L. Halio,37 and many others, have enriched academia with individual, surprising, and innovative angles; an endless list of further names has added their thoughts, often producing a no less fruitful contribution to discussions on the two plays. As Cary B. Graham commented on The Merchant of Venice several years ago,

it is obvious that this play is a fruitful source of disagreement. It may be called either comedy or tragedy. Shylock may be regarded as a villain, a comic figure, or a martyr. Bassanio may be either an idealized Renaissance lover or a wastrel who recoups a squandered fortune by risking the life of a dear friend who in turn may be either a good businessman or a fool. Jessica is a charming young Jewess who is justified in leaving an unhappy home to elope with a handsome Christian lover, or she is an ungrateful wench who robs a provident father and who proves a traitor to her own religion. Indeed, […] all of these varied conclusions have been reached.38

Both plays have been exhausted; mere description of the two parts, comparison between the both, interesting readings, and sensible interpretations have led to more dubious theories, such as suggesting Shakespeare or Queen Elizabeth I were Jews.39 Often, and especially of course in post-World-War-II and post-Holocaust times, the two figures were analysed with the so called modern ‘Jewish question’ ← 28 | 29 → in mind, which had the “unfortunate effect on scholarship” that it “tended to push modern reactions to modern anti-Semitism into a past where they do not apply.”40 Time and again it has been argued to and fro if Shakespeare and Marlowe, and all of the rest of early modern England, were antisemitic or philosemitic, and both plays have been dissected to the last comma and period to prove one or the other. Especially Shylock, with his famous monologue on equality, has been either cast in the role of the persecuted hero or of the rough monster with a comic stock. G. K. Hunter definitely falls into the category defending the playwrights; trying to shield Shakespeare and England alike from accusations of racism, he undertook as one of the very first Renaissance scholars the intricate task to determine how Elizabethans viewed Blacks and Jews. Citing Guido Kisch’s study regarding Jews in medieval Germany, he comes to the conclusion that the “whole Elizabethan frame of reference discouraged racial thinking” and that Shakespeare and Marlowe concerned themselves more with “theological and not racial”41 questions. Needless to say, this position was often enough disputed, challenged, and refuted.

Even more current fields in academia, such as New Historicism or Gender Studies, got their share of Shylock and Barabas. The former, for instance, read the plays parallel to Marxist theories; the latter made the most of the fact that both Jewish figures are contrasted with their daughters, provoking new theories, suggestions, and claims, some of them sloshing over into new fields, causing endless chain reactions of notions and interpretations. Of the more recent publications Emma Smiths paper Was Shylock Jewish?42 was invaluable for this thesis. Concentrating on Shylock, she traces back conventions and notions we have of how Shakespeare’s Jew had to be staged in his original context and how we think his Jewishness had to be conceptualised. Although many of these ideas have become axiomatic in scholarship by now, she challenges these traditions by arguing that “recent criticism has used a partial and anecdotal version of theatrical and social history to reify Shylock’s “original” cultural and ethnic Jewishness.”43 The latest publication on the early modern stage-Jew is from Brett. D. Hirsch, who wrote the chapter “Judaism and Jews” for the The Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare.44 In his study, Hirsch sums up the interwoven “web of shifting ← 29 | 30 → cultural, social, theological, and political”45 concepts the early modern audience must have associated with the word ‘Jew.’

So while studies of the two, respective four when counting in Abigail and Jessica, celebrated Jewish protagonists of Elizabethan drama have been illuminated from every possible angle and beyond, the other early modern stage-Jews have only been honoured with a tiny fraction of the attention. The last decades have looked into the portrayal of Jews in English literature, whereat most authors are led to a distinction between the good and bad fictional Jew, “characterizations that in turn reinforced earlier stereotypical notions of what Jews were supposed to have been.”46 Esther L. Panitz tries to avoid such Jewish archetypes in her Alien in their Midst, in which she examines images of Jews in English literature. In a broadly defined arch she traces the Jew-figures from Chaucer over the eighteenth century into the present day. Her study acknowledges the changing Christian perceptions adding to the complexity of the portrayal of Jewish figures throughout the centuries. However, as most scholars did before and after her, she focuses on Shakespeare and Marlowe in the early modern period. Panitz states that the seven other plays remain “mainly as historical material for scholarly investigation, and are therefore not under consideration”47 in her volume. Her work is indebted to the efforts of a few authors looking into the same matter in the previous sixty years.

The two most recent publications dealing with the Jew in English literature were written over twenty years before Panitz and followed each other closely. The first was Harold Fisch in 1959 with his The Dual Image: A Study of the Jew in English Literature.48 This endeavour to describe the Jewish figure throughout English literature produces a surprisingly brief, but nevertheless thought-provoking discourse. In relatively little space – eighty-six pages in total – he looks at medieval depictions of the Jews, and ends his work with writers like Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Grace Aguilar and Israel Zangwill. His second chapter is dedicated to “The Tudor Period and Beyond.” Given that his study is rather brief yet densely composed, it is not surprising that he again ← 30 | 31 → concentrates mainly on Shylock and Barabas. He very transiently mentions some other early modern plays containing Jewish figures, but only in a few sentences.

Fisch’s attempt is succeeded by Edgar Rosenberg’s From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction in 1960, which was published in London a year later.49 Rosenberg’s volume is by far more ambitious and extensive; he includes a large amount of original material, in particular literary and historical documents on Jews living in England from medieval times up to Queen Victoria’s reign. Yet at the same time, he focuses on only a handful of playwrights and novelists to make his points. His main focus hereby lies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and especially on the writings of Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, George Eliott and George Du Maurier. As Elizabethan drama is not in his particular target range, it is needless to say that again only Shakespeare and Marlowe are considered for the early modern period.

To find then a more comprehensive discussion on the Elizabethan Jewish literary figure, one needs to go further back. Four books stand out in the first four decades of the twentieth century. The most recent, Montagu Frank Modder’s The Jew in the Literature of England (1939),50 was pioneering and ground-breaking in researching the fictive Jew in novels and other literary genres of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; both Fisch and Rosenberg heavily relied on his sources. With the outmost patience and consistency, he traces Jewish figures throughout the ages of England, painting an ample picture of the treatment of Jewish characters. However, as his successors twenty years later, he mainly gives attention to Shylock and Barabas from the Elizabethan era.

The previous decade saw two books with more than promising titles discussing Jewish figures: Hijman Michelson’s The Jew in Early English Literature (1926)51 and Myer Jack Landa’s The Jew in Drama (1926).52 As Rosenberg has pointed out, Michelson’s study is unfortunately “spoiled everywhere by the mildly fantastic ill-humor with which the author flays each playwright as he catches him committing a “blunder” in his description,” meaning a blunder “in the sense of his departing ← 31 | 32 → from the observed and experienced reality, whether the playwright experienced the reality or not.”53 He is indeed indignant about all of the literary presentations, constantly pointing out that these are just not authentic enough. Despite this rather significant shortcoming, he dedicates not just a few sentences but a few pages to the early modern stage-Jew aside from Shakespeare and Marlowe; however, his analysis is superficial and inadequate, as he again mainly concentrates on arguing how these presentations are not compatible with real Jews made out of flesh and blood. Myer Jack Landa does not take the bait Michelson has swallowed so readily. His volume is almost encyclopedic, and, “like encyclopedias in general, frequently proves little except the unarguable presence of multiplicity.”54 In line with this assessment, he comments upon the same plays Michelson does, but with hardly any depth.

Both authors obtain their information on early modern dramas from the same book, a volume which has been influential and fundamental for this thesis here as well: Jacob L. Cardozo’s The Contemporary Jew in the Elizabethan Drama (1925).55 Although he primarily tries to prove the at the time still sizzling question of whether or not Jews were living in Elizabethan England, he also made the effort to thoroughly inspect the landscape of early modern drama to distinguish only seemingly Jewish figures, falsely used by Sidney Lee and Lucien Wolfe, from actual stage-Jews. Meticulously, he combs through the dramatic works of the time to determine how much attention the Jew was able to claim on the stage of the Globe Theatre and the other theatre houses. Thus, with great precision and with sound arguments, he carefully precludes figures which are not declared as Jews in the plays, but have been assessed as such from hindsight (John Marston: Jack Drum’s Entertainment, 1601; George Chapman, Ben Jonson, John Marston: Eastward Hoe, 1604; Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher: The Scornful Lady, 1609; Ben Jonson: The Alchemist, 1610; John Fletcher: Women Pleased, 1620).56 Moreover, he also distinguishes between plays with more or less contemporary setting and Old Testament dramas. While the first portray their Jews as some sort of alien in their depicted society, the latter dramatise subject matters of the Pentateuch, meaning that all the Dramatis Personae are indeed Jewish. The latter dramas (Anon: Two Sins of King David, 1561; Anon: Godly Queen Hester, 1561; Anon: Jacob and Esau, 1568; Abraham Golding (transl.): Abraham’s Sacrifice, 1577; Thomas Garter: Suzanna, 1578; George Peele: David and Bethsabe, ← 32 | 33 → 1599; Elizabeth Carey: The Tragedy of Mariam, 1613; William Hemmings: The Jewes Tragedy, 1638)57 and the displayed figures are for one particular reason of no interest to the present study: The portrayed heroes, such as Noah, the Patriarchs, Moses, Daniel, Prophets and others, are not depicted with any interesting or distinguishing Jewish markers and attributes, foremost because they are more demonstrated as forefathers of Christendom than actual Jews. As such, they do not give any indicators as to how Elizabethans thought of Jews or how they might have been staged.58 Cardozo therefore has left me with a precise list of plays which are to be further investigated: “nine authentic extant Jew plays,”59 a vanishingly small portion of the approximately fifteen-hundred early modern plays. He himself took a closer look at three of the plays, whereupon he focuses again on the matter of the presence of the Jews in Renaissance England by studying the playwrights’ body of source material.60

Every once in a while one of the seven plays attracts the attention of a scholar who takes it upon him- or herself to provide a modern edition or to write a paper on it. Most of the time, this happens to the so-called Turk plays, as the figure of the Turk and Moor has experienced a rush of attentiveness in early modern studies. Most of the time, though, the Jew is just an interesting side-element in the multi-cultural setting, pointed out but not further examined as he is not the focus of the exercise. The most recent publication concerning one of the plays is again from Brett D. Hirsch who will put forward a paper in the journal Early Theatre in 2016.61 In the last ninety years, as this literature review has shown, very little has been said or written about the plays Cardozo has so accurately filtered out.

Research Questions

Although cultural Renaissance discourses have recently been explored with more enthusiasm, the “religious minorities are […] difficult to study [since] we ← 33 | 34 → see them largely through a veil of prejudice, through the distorting lenses and tinted spectacles of hostile observers.”62 Despite – or maybe because – of this obstacle and the lack of secondary literature, “there remains the fascinating and, no doubt, rewarding task to further investigate early modern religious, cultural, and theatrical discourses from an European perspective.”63 In my study I will try to shed more light on the early modern discourse on Jews. For this task I will work primarily with the aforementioned, hitherto hardly recognised dramas.

Yet what do I intend to do with these plays? As Rosenberg pointed out, studies such as his or mine have “got to justify [themselves] in one of two ways: it has either to bring light into the dark spaces or to adjust the prevailing angle of vision.” I will try to do justice to both. Although I initially intended to use The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta merely as starting point, I soon realised that this is not possible as such. I therefore decided to treat Shylock and Barabas like the other stage-Jews, yet keep in mind what has been said about them so far. Hence, I have set out to fill out inconsistencies and answer open questions. New insights about the Jewish figures of the seven above-named plays will put more significance on barely noticed details. Thus, I hope to make a contribution to the field of literary imagology regarding the figure of the early modern Jew. On the other hand, I will revisit and prove some arguments which have become axiomatic over time, some with more and some with almost no substantiation; by confuting or confirming these assumptions, the image we have of Shylock and Barabas might be changed in some ways.

Scholarship has time and again insisted that the representation of the Jew on the Elizabethan stage replicates medieval thinking,64 claiming at the same time that there has been no continuity between pre-expulsion Jewry and the Resettlement of the Jews in the time of Cromwell. Barabas and Shylock are said to be modelled after the medieval stage-Jew, chiefly Judas, yet these statements are never accompanied by any ascertainment. It seems to the reader that it must be absolutely clear why the notion is so axiomatic by now that there is no further reason to talk about it. This thesis sets out to fill this gap, bridging the Imagined Jew of the Middle Ages with the Staged Jew of the early modern English period. ← 34 | 35 → To become a fuller and especially more transparent and detailed picture of the Jew which inhabits medieval spine-chilling stories as well as of the Jew being put on the medieval pageant wagon of the Corpus Christi plays, I have looked at an abundance of medieval histories, ballads, and pageant plays, analysing carefully how the Jew was portrayed in every single instance and seeking out similarities and differences. These narratives are all united in their restriction concerning their subject matter, all being tied to religious contents. The four big Mystery Cycles – the York Cycle, the Towneley Cycle, the N-Town-Plays, and the Chester Cycle – strictly stage stories from the Old and New Testament, albeit sometimes with more creativity than accuracy. For the same reasons as the early modern plays dealing with subject matters from the Old Testament, the pageants telling Jesus’s story are the more interesting ones for this study. They clearly show a difference in staging Christ and his disciples and believers in his doctrines – potential and future Christians if one wills – and in the portrayal of the Jews, who are always noticeably marked as such and who are strictly marginalised in the parts of the Pharisees, or a group of people or soldiers, mocking and torturing Jesus. This rather brutal and violent depiction also continues in the medieval legends, songs and poems, which connect the Jew with accusations of ritual murder and blood libels, or allegations of host desecrations. As such, the narratives go beyond the Christian theological canon and create their own concept of the fictional Jew, mainly in hagiographies or other tales of saints. Most times, the Virgin Mary is the adversary to the cruel Jew, helping the murdered child, which will go on to be canonised like Little Hugh of Lincoln or William of Norwich. The former boy was also the inspiration to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales. Fictional medieval accounts of Jews violating the holy wafer are very rare in England, yet one noteworthy example is the miracle play called The Croxton Play of the Blessed Sacrament (þe Play of þe Conuersyon of Ser Jonathas þe Iewe by Myracle of þe Blyssed Sacrament). Here, five Jews experiment with the host in the cruellest manner, until a speaking image of Baby Jesus appears, convincing the sinners that he is the true Messiah, whereupon they convert. In a detailed analysis of both the medieval narratives and religious dramas, the different characteristics of medieval portrayals crystallise. In the Mystery Cycles, it is not just Judas who needs to be examined, but Caiaphas, Annas and the Pharisees as well. Moreoever, Jews are also portrayed as an angry mob or brutal and incapable soldiers, always in contrast to Jesus. The study will again filter out common characteristics, which are then ready to be examined later together with the early modern stage-Jew to give substance to the claim that he is modelled after Judas and his stage-brethren. ← 35 | 36 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
The Travails of the three English Brothers A Christian turn’d Turke Shylock Barabas William Shakespeare Canterbury Tales Christopher Marlowe
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 539 pp., 13 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Saskia Zinsser-Krys (Author)

Saskia Zinsser-Krys studied at the Universities of Munich, Kent, Marburg and Oxford. She was awarded a scholarship of the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes). Her focus of research lies in early modern drama and literature, performing arts, and dramaturgy.


Title: The Early Modern Stage-Jew
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