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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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4. Conversion – The Stage-Jewess


The Jewess is rarely mentioned in any here-discussed literary genre. As Victoria Hoyle points out, Jewish women have been almost entirely neglected in the field of Anglo-Jewish historiography; only a few articles focus on Jewesses, and then only on particularly famous ones.301 They are largely omitted in medieval histories, and if they are commented upon, then mostly as someone’s anonymous wife or daughter. The Corpus Christi plays treated them similarly: If a woman is named, she is most likely a potential Christian who will find her way to Jesus and his doctrines; other than that, Jewish women were probably featured in group presentation of Jews, as part of the mob threatening and sneering at Christ. English vernacular literary representation of Jews is also patently void of Jewesses.302

Miri Rubin traces this circumstance back to the fact that a male Jew could be seen as a fully moral agent, whereas a woman was seen as

pliant and impressionable, lacking in reasoning and moral faculties. They were thus more frequently cast as subjects of attempts at conversion and the beneficiaries of instinctive insights into the Christian truth which their fathers, brothers or husbands were barred from sharing.303

In accordance with this statement, most of the medieval myths concerning Jews and ritual murder, host desecration or well-poisoning limit themselves to male Jewish protagonists; yet there are a few exceptions. The aforementioned fable telling the fate of young William, who was snatched from the street by...

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