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Shakespeare and the Jews

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    Available in PDF - DJVU Format | Shakespeare and the Jews.pdf | Language: ENGLISH
    James Shapiro(Author)

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Most educated readers are familiar with the sinister figure of Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", an anti-Semitic stereotype of the cunning, greedy, and ruthless Jewish man. But how did a stereotype like Shylock enter the literature at all, given that there were so few Jews in Shakespeare's England? A lucid account of the cultural anxieties that plagued Elizabethan England, this work goes against the grain of the dominant scholarship on the period, which generally ignores the impact of Jewish questions in early modern England. The author shows how Elizabethans imagined Jews to be utterly different - in terms of religion, race, nationality and even sexuality. Drawing upon an extensive range of literature from the day-travel diaries, chronicles, sermons, political tracts, confessionals of faith, and parliamentary debates, to name a few - the book explores the questions that writers and readers of Shakespearean England had about Jews. In what ways were Jews racially and physically different? Did those who converted lose all trace of their Jewishness? Was it true that Jews habitually took the knife to Christians, circumcizing and then murdering their victims? These, argues Shapiro, were only several of the many questions that occupied the thinking of non-Jews in Elizabethan England. It shows how the various writings reveal more than simply negative attitudes about Jews - they uncover a broader set of English anxieties about their own identities. In this work, Shapiro sheds light on the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and opens new questions about culture and identity in Elizabethan England.

"What Shapiro shows convincingly is how deeply Shakespeare's play dug into the fantasies, anxieties and pleasures of its audience." -- "New York Times Book Review""Shapiro not only explodes the myth of the absent Jew but, more significantly, explores how literature conveys such notions." -- "Tikkun""A groundbreaking study of Elizabethan anti-Semitism that offers a shockingly long pedigree for Shakespeare's Shylock." -- "Kirkus Reviews""Shapiro not only explodes the myth of the absent Jew but, more significantly, explores how literature conveys such notions." -- Tikkun"A groundbreaking study of Elizabethan anti-Semitism that offers a shockingly long pedigree for Shakespeare's Shylock." -- Kirkus Reviews"What Shapiro shows convincingly is how deeply Shakespeare's play dug into the fantasies, anxieties and pleasures of its audience." -- New York Times Book Review

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Book details

  • PDF | 332 pages
  • James Shapiro(Author)
  • Columbia University Press (8 Jan. 1996)
  • English
  • 7
  • Society, Politics & Philosophy

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Review Text

  • By Jane on 2 June 2017

    This was the only one of James Shapiro's books which I had not read. I thought it a lovely piece of scholarship - thorough, wide-ranging and clear. He sets the Elizabethan period's attitudes towards Jewish people in deep context, both back and forward in time. I think that the reviewer who thought the book too ethnocentric, and criticised it for omitting much relevant to the Merchant of Venice was unfair: the title is NOT "Shakespeare and the Merchant of Venice", but "Shakespeare and the Jews" - a topic to which the play is wholly relevant but does not constitute the whole. As it is, I learned a great deal about the Merchant of Venice, and much else besides, including the rectification of some commonly held historical myths or over-simplifications. I was interested in the comment on the image from the frontispiece to Thomas Coryate's "Coryate's Crudities" since Coryate had tried to convert a rabbi, according to his own account, and nearly fallen into the canal as a result; he was rescued by the English ambassador who thought he had been an idiot.Another excellent book by Shapiro ( besides the recent 1599 and 1606) is "Who wrote Shakespeare?" .

  • By O. McGonagle on 24 February 2009

    Shapiro calls himself a cultural historian. He attempts an examination of the conception and representation of Jews, as revealing features of early modern England (1550-1750). Our myths and stories are as important as historical "facts" about others, telling us much about ourselves. Questions about Jewish identity are not fixed, changing in terms of religion, nationality and race. He is interested in evidence that Jews lived in England during the 366 years from 1290 when they had been, "historically speaking" expelled and readmitted: while historians show little interest in the Jewish presence, a fascination with Shakespeare and the Jews is seen to have a political as well as a literary dimension. For some, Shakespeare became, not only the idealised Englishman, but also a committed Jew? This is proven, apparently, by the language of toleration in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. We learn that the "otherness" of the Jews has been a problem for writers such as G.K.Hunter in his acceptance of the mistaken ideas of Guido Kisch and for contemporary historian Stephen Goldblatt. Shapiro has created a tour de force of academic research and his detailed approach to prejudice and exclusion (warts and all) produces a powerful text. His method could be useful in other situations, re-reading ULYSSES, for example. Read the notes!

  • By Ms. Susan Shearman on 25 September 2005

    Firstly this is not an 'easy' read. It is a meticulously researched historical exploration of the status of Jews in England from the 'expulsion' to well beyond Shakespeare's period, which also seeks to shed light on 'The Merchant of Venice'. In this it succeeds absolutely. Prof Shapiro leaves the reader to draw conclusions from the research whilst dispelling many accepted views. You will certainly never look at the 'pound of flesh' in quite the same way again.

  • By Colin S. on 31 August 2015

    This summer I was to have seen both Marlow's the Jew of Malta & the Merchant on at Stratford - Shylock to be played by an Israeli from a Christian Palestinian family. Egger to research it as thoroughly as poss I bought "Shakespeare and the Jews" by James Shapiro - a leading Shakespeare expert. I had read in the MacMillan RSC edition of the Merchant that a recent & noted RSC production had used the book closely. I found Shapiro’s work ethnocentric in the extreme & was quite upset by this. There is a lot in Merchant to do with developing Protestant England (Britain I'd prefer to think) & Shapiro misses it making so much of a number of highly obscure incidents & publications mostly form well after Shakespeare's time. He begins by dwelling on Edward’s expulsion – I forget who I am plagiarising but I have since read a comment that one might as well claim an edict of Cromwell influenced a Pinter play. It strikes me as a classic example of how an academic can built a case & send things off at quite a tangent.Sadly I did not get to see the plays done together & Makram Khoury as Shylock due to the death of my father-in-law. Khoury’s casting prompted an undercurrent of Jewish comment but it is interesting to note Shapiro points out that originally & for many a year non-Jews played Shylock. (Christians they could be termed in the bard’s time & until quite recently.) Same went for Barabbas the protagonist of Marlow’s play. Shapiro makes something of suspicions that Catholics seeking to return England to the fold might enter the country disguised as Jews. He mentions confused situations such as faced Merranes or Conversos to use the polite term. Yet he has not a word about England just before Elizabeth when many a good Protestant would under Mary attend mass & avoid difficulties that could lead to being burnt & quietly justify it claiming that what was in ones heart of hearts was what mattered.Let me remove any costume or props – I am an Israeli that many might claim “turned Jew” to use the expression for a fear Shapiro refers to. Interesting that the author also points to how uncomfortable Jews may be with the Merchant but highlighting warnings of those opposed to further Jewish migration to Britain & their claims it would lead to not allowing productions of the Merchant. Yet of all Shakespeare plays it has had & will continue to have more runs in Israel than quite a few others among the Bards more popular works.


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