Monday, February 12, 2007

"Shakespeare and the Jews" by James Shapiro

The early chapters of Shapiro’s book Shakespeare and the Jews establish a method for understanding Shakespeare’s knowledge of, interaction with, and views of Jews. This is a much more technical history than the author’s book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which I read recently.

If you want to know the history of the Jews in England, Shapiro says, you first must evaluate the sources of information. This was news to me: all the Jewish history I had read seemed to rely on official records of events. Shapiro details the biases in the historical record, and the biases among scholars.

The author points out that often the historians’ views were not merely biased, but bigoted. Thus, they can’t be cited without careful analysis of what they wanted to prove. Writers were often trying to define what it meant to be English. The expulsion of the Jews in 1290 was an important moment in purifying the English Nation in the eyes of some writers, who also expressed partisan views about the readmission of Jews under Cromwell. He goes into the many extreme cases, as well as trying to separate later prejudices from those that were active in Shakespeare’s own time.

The most confusing myth about Shakespeare’s time is the claim that there were no Jewish people in England between 1290 and Cromwell half a century after him. Shapiro gives an overview of the various Portuguese Jews, Jews from Amsterdam, and visitors or would-be residents from Eastern Europe who were present in Shakespeare’s London. Though the total was only a few hundered people, their presence is significant.

The iconic status of Shakespeare from the eighteenth century onward makes it more difficult to separate later views of social and racial issues from Shakespeare’s own views, and Shapiro’s approach of looking at a broad cultural history addresses these challenges. So far, I have read only the chapters establishing these issues, and will continue with the more Shakespeare-intensive chapters now.

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