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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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IV. The Meta-Jew


This chapter examines the earlier described Jewish figures with their regard to ‘Jewishness,’ analyzing speech prefixes, names, religious rituals, costumes, and physiognomic markers on stage. Consequently, it will be argued that the lack of ‘Jewishness’ suggests a more metaphorical usage of the figures, and that these readings were also understood by an early modern audience.

1. How Jewish is the Early Modern Stage-Jew?

The early modern stage-Jew shows a variety of different roles in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, always presented through three or more Jewish figures. It has been demonstrated that most of these images are indeed either somewhat inherited from medieval narratives and religious drama. This holds especially true to all vile character traits which can be traced back to the Jew as Christ murderer or the ritual murder and host desecration accusations. Also, the medieval connection between Jews and poison was rediscovered in early modern drama. The more realistic streaks, such as his mercantile and medical talents or loyalty, were probably inspired by travel accounts, reaching the playwrights in oral or written form. Especially the different depictions of conversion mirror the contemporary thoughts and anxieties about Jews. Only the image of the family man does not find its roots in any other prevailing discourses about the Jew.

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