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Shakespeare and the Jews

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.
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Table of Contents

False Jews and Counterfeit Christians Myths, Histories, Consequences The Jewish Crime "A Pound of Flesh" The Hebrew Will Turn Christian Race, Nation, or Alien? Shakespeare and the Jew Bill of 1753

Promotional Information

Going against the grain of the dominant scholarship on the period, which generally ignores the impact of Jewish questions in early modern England, Shapiro presents how Elizabethans imagined Jews to be utterly different from themselves--in religion, race, nationality, and even sexuality.

About the Author

James Shapiro is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.


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 has written a brilliant, incisive cultural history. -- Glenn Speer Shakespeare Newsletter

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