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The Early Modern Stage-Jew

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

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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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Introduction

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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.

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