Sunday, October 15, 2017

James Shapiro's Shakespeare and the Jews

Columbia University Press, 1996.  ix+229 pp.  If you pick up this book thinking it is about Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, you are going to wonder how Shapiro filled a whole book with that one topic.  This really a history of how Englishmen considered their relationship wit the Jews, starting with the apparently extralegal, executive order expulsion in 1291, passing through early modern England ("early modern" now the preferred term for Renaissance England), the legal status of Jews resident in England in the interval from 1291 until Cromwell allowed them back in, and the vigorous debate about whether a Jew could really be an Englishman without converting. 

Along the way, there are many depressing discussions of how extreme the blood libel was in England--including not just the  murder of Christian children, so the blood could be made into matzoh (of which Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln is the best known today), but also ritual cannibalism.
You find yourself scratching your head at how anyone could have believed this, but the blood libel persists in the Muslim world today, often promoted by Arab government media.

The level of detail in primary sources is impressive, especially considering Shapiro is a professor of English.  Unsurprisingly, there is a bit more literary analysis than I would prefer, but he seems to regard the identity politics that has taken over the high falutin sewers of academia as destructive.

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