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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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II. The Imagined Jew


This chapter retraces representations of Jewish figures in medieval scare stories and ballads, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Prioress’ Tale. Moreover, it closely investigates how Jews were staged in medieval Corpus Christi and miracle plays. Subsequently, early modern travel literature will be analysed, bridging the two eras and showing fairly continuous images.

The term ‘imagined Jew,’ which gives this chapter its name, is borrowed from Eva Holmberg. In her Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination, she uses this phrase to investigate how “English people inhabited their culture creatively when they interpreted the Jews and wrote about them.”1 She took the “process of ‘imagining the Jews’ to mean the production of culturally shaped and conditioned ideas about Jews in England. Even if culturally shaped, imagining is a personal practice, an effort in interpretation, of conception, even empathy.”2 Imagination therefore becomes “a perspective for investigating early modern English minds at work.”3

Holmberg’s impressive study focuses on early modern travel literature. Here, the term of the ‘imagined Jew’ will be stretched to include ideas from the Middle Ages, as these were part of the preconceptions which the English travellers took with them on their voyages. When they encountered and interacted with Jews in foreign countries, notions of medieval spine-chillers about murderous Jews and the faint memory of the medieval stage-Jew lingered in the back of their heads as a cultural imprint. In a way, the medieval conceptions of the Jew were indeed...

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