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The Early Modern Stage-Jew

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


Saskia Zinsser-Krys

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.

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I. The Historical Jew


This chapter explores the presentation of Jews in medieval and early modern England. After a short summary of Anglo-Jewish history from their settlement to the Expulsion in 1290, it will be shown that there still remained small secret Jewish communities into Elizabeth’s I reign. Furthermore, this chapter will investigate contemporary attitudes the English adopted towards Jews.

1. Anglo-Jewish History: William the Conqueror to Edward I

On a “national level”1 the Anglo-Jewish history of the Middle Ages is well documented.2 Although it had been suspected that Jews lived in Britannia after the year 70, all evidence of a potential Jewish community was erased in the Teutonic invasion, when Britannia became England after the Anglo-Saxon invasion.3 First written reference to Jews is to be found in Theodorus of Canterbury’s Liber poenitentialis (7th century) where regulation for interaction between Christians and Jews are stipulated;4 not long after this the canonical laws by Ecgbrigh, the archbishop of York, prohibited Christians to participate in Jewish banquets.5 It is quite possible, however, that these regulation were adopted from the Continent and therefore do not testify to a Jewish presence at that time.6

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