Shakespeare & The Jews

Tuesday, 16 June, 2015 - 6:24 pm

Professor Sir Jonathan Bate delivered a fascinating lecture on Shakespeare and the Jews focusing on the play the Merchant of Venice, written around 1597. He began by portraying Elizabethan England of the 16th century as endemically anti-Semitic with the Jew viewed as a villain lingering through mythology since the medieval period despite the expulsion of the Jews since 1290. Sir Jonathan mentioned how Shakespeare could have used then current myths for example that discovery of witches was done by a method of if you pricked them and they did not bleed this meant they were witches.


The play is a reflection of the Jew as the ‘other’ and foreign in a Christian society and aims to portray the Jew of the Old Testament as a pitiless usurer and revengeful as represented by ‘an eye for eye’ in contrast to the compassionate Christian of the New Testament as represented by the dictum ‘turn the other cheek’.


Bate proceeded however to portray the Shylock of the Merchant of Venice from a different and more compassionate perspective. Bate ascribed the cause of the tension between Shylock and society as being due to the segregation and oppression of the Jew by Christian society. He used the word Tyranny of the Christians. He noted that Thomas Coryate seemed surprised to encounter sweet-featured Jews in Venice, unlike Shakespeare’s Jew, and that Shylock in fact may be seen in the play itself as not simply a stereotypical Jew but rather as an old father with sobriety whose child wants to escape his authority. The lack of difference between the Jew Shylock and the non-Jewish merchant is expressed by the question asked when the judge entered the court ‘Who is the Jew and who is the merchant’. Sir Jonathan finished his lecture with the famous lines: ‘Laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, Scorned my nation, Thwarted my bargains, And what's his reason? I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?’


During Question time Bate took all questions gracefully and imparted his wide knowledge on both shakespeare and the period - pointing out that Shakespeare's father was accused of Usury; that Shakespease was considered an outsider to society and referred to derogatory as the 'upstart crow' and discussed interesting legal points such as the Continental approach of inquisitorial v the UK adverserial systems. A thoroughly stimulating lecture.

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