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Merchant of Venice – Elizabethans and the Jews, Part 1: The Dark Reflection

Elizabethan England was a fundamentally tumultuous society. By the time Shakespeare started writing his plays in the last decade of the 16th century, the country had been completely disrupted by a century of successive crises. Its success in rising to these crises had transformed England into a nascent world power, but in the process its identity had been torn apart.

Today we might talk about the Elizabethans looking for their national identity, but the very concept of a “nation” was a significant part of their philosophical confusion. “Nationalism”, as we think of it, was a concept in the process of being invented, and there were a lot of questions about how, exactly, a “nation” should be defined: Was it a political entity? A geographic boundary? A religious community? A racial group? Or some combination of all four?

In struggling with these questions, Elizabethan philosophers and political thinkers turned their attention to the Jews. Jews deeply unsettled theories of “nation” because they were a nation without geographic borders or political power. (While simultaneously being prophesied, by some, to regain those things.) At the same time, Jews had been banished from England in 1290 and in their “absence” (they had never been completely expulsed) they also served as a convenient example of something inherently “not English” at a time when the entire country was struggling to evolve the nationalistic concept of what it meant to be English.

Of course, Elizabethan England was also a place of religious crisis. The grandparents of Shakespeare’s generation had converted to the Church of England under Henry VIII; their parents had returned to Catholicism under Queen Mary; and they themselves had grown up Protestant once again under Queen Elizabeth. In a time when people were struggling to define what it meant to be really Christian, the Jews once again provided a universal contrast that easily exemplified what it meant to be “not Christian”. At the same time, conversion to Judaism was a cessation of one’s Christianity in a particularly regressive fashion, which meant that the Protestants would accuse the Catholics of having secretly become Jews while the Catholics would accuse the Protestants of the same.

But at the very time that the Jews were becoming a convenient embodiment of the Other — the non-Christian, non-English outsider against which a divided society could collectively unify itself — the Jewish identity itself was fracturing.

The primary epicenter of the problem lay in the heart of Elizabethan England’s greatest rival: Spain. Catholic Spain had begun forcibly converting Jews in the late 13th century. When the Jews were finally exiled from Spain in 1492, it was an effort to expunge the most recalcitrant of the Jewish hold-outs. By that point, however, it was too late. Forced conversions, apparently, weren’t all that effective and paranoia was erupting: How many of the Jews-turned-Christians (now referred to as “marranos”, a Spanish term which was adopted into Elizabethan English) were still secretly Jews only pretending to be Christians?  It was a “crisis” which could only be “solved” by unleashing the Spanish Inquisition.

The Spanish Inquisition, of course, was a horror show which resolved nothing. But in its wake it left the legacy of the “secret Jew” and the burning question of how one could identify a Jew. (These were not easy questions to resolve: Even Jewish authorities of the time were deeply divided on whether not the marranos should still be considered Jews. And the question of whether blood, belief, or physical circumcision define Judaism is one which continues today both within and without the Jewish community.)

The idea of the “secret Jew” quickly grew beyond the boundaries of the marranos communities. For example, the ease with which members of the Church of England could accuse Catholic leaders of being secret Jews (and vice versa) depended on an underlying belief that not only could Jews be anywhere, but that at any moment faithful Christians could suddenly turn into (or reveal themselves to be) Jews.

From there it was a pretty short leap to, “The secret Jews are corrupting our children!” In more rational discourse (comparatively speaking), this belief took the form of, “If we make it legal for Jews to live in England again, then they’ll convert us all to Jews!” In the populist wilds of urban legend, however, Jews began kidnapping children and forcibly circumcising.

And it wasn’t long before “they’re kidnapping our children to circumcise them!” became “they’re kidnapping our children to circumcise them, murder them, and then eat them!”

The Jew was a boogeyman.

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