Tuesday, February 13, 2007

More on Shapiro’s Book

Continuing to range broadly in order to gain a perspective on The Merchant of Venice, Shapiro reviews the history of antisemitism. Stereotypes of Jews were numerous, involving both physical and personal characteristics – virtually all ugly! These stereotypes naturally played a role in the depiction of Jewish converts and Jews living as Christians in England in Elizabethan times. “Catalogues of Jewish villainy” appeared in plays in Elizabethan times, Shapiro points out. A Jew could often be depicted as a “murderer, poisoner, usurer, and political interloper.” (p. 92)

Shapiro describes the history of popular English attitudes towards conversion from Judaism to Chritianity. The faith of converted Jews was always in doubt: “When a mouse shall catch a cat, then a Jew converted to be a Christian will remain a firm Christian.” So said Thomas Calvert in 1648. (p. 131)

Jews in Elizabethan England were always aliens without citizenship, though there were ways for them to become more naturalized. Jewish immigrants had both economic and social incentives and disincentives for conversion – in many cases these were more important than religious motives. Women (like Shylock’s daughter Jessica) were often supposed in fiction or popular impressions to convert for love. Shapiro points out that the conventional view of a Jewish woman who converted was that she was young, and that marriage to a Christian movivated her, while male converts were usually depicted as old, unmarried, and undesireable.

“There is no way of knowing whether Elizabethans witnessing a performance of The Merchant of Venice left the theater doubting the sincerity of either Jessica’s or Shylock’s conversion,” says Shapiro. “For some, perhaps, instances of Jewish apostasy they had read or heard about or seen onstage left open the possibility that these ‘Christian Jews’ would turn once again; no doubt, for others, the conversion of Jessica and her father were irreversible and confirmed the rightness of the Christian faith.” (p. 165)

This book is full of interesting detail all adding up to the purpose of showing a cultural history and how Shakespeare’s play fits into it. The Merchant drew on existing ideas of what Jews were and how they fit into English society and self-concept. Then as time went on, The Merchant made a huge contribution to how the English saw the Jews and saw their relationship to society. I can only mention what Shapiro does, not reproduce it.

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