How Elizabethan society responded to Jews and prejudice


Shakespeare’s Shylock is probably the most famous of all Jewish characters, but we are less familiar with how Jews lived when The Merchant of Venice was written in the 1590s.

Now, an exhibition, which opens at the British Museum in London next Thursday, will shed light on the social and cultural background to the dramas of the world’s greatest playwright — including attitudes to Jews in Elizabethan society.

Exhibits include one of the oldest portraits of a European Jew, Elijah de Lattes, physician to the Pope.

Shakespeare: Staging the World is one of several arts events taking place to coincide with the Olympics. “At the heart of it is the section on Venice,” said curator Dora Thornton. “It’s the place Londoners identified as the proxy for their own city or what their society could become. It was the New York of the time.”

Venice was the setting not only for The Merchant but also another of Shakespeare’s plays centred on an outsider to white Christian society, Othello. The plays offer a “lens into society of the times — its hopes, fears, prejudices,” Dr Thornton said. Although Venetian Jews were forced to live in a ghetto, they were vital to the city’s commercial success in the 16th century.

De Lattes’s image, which appears on a bronze medal the physician himself commissioned, was, according to the catalogue, “not only the first Italian Renaissance medal commemorating a Jew, but one of the earliest portraits of a European Jew, in which the name of the individual… is proudly accompanied by [the word] Ebreo, or Jew.”
The fact that he had it struck shows a degree of Jewish self-confidence and Venice’s relative openness towards them compared to elsewhere across Europe.

Another item tells a different story. It is what is believed to be a Shabbat lamp, one of the oldest remnants of English Jewry, discovered in Windsor in 1717 but dating back several centuries to the town’s medieval community. “The point of showing it here is that there were no professing Jews in London in Shakespeare’s time,” Dr Thornton said. “They’d been expelled in 1290.”

Although no Jews lived openly in London, there were, however, Marranos — the descendants of forced Jewish converts from Spain or Portugal, such as the unfortunate Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s doctor.
He was hanged, drawn and quartered, only a few years before The Merchant of Venice was staged, on charges of trying to poison the Queen on behalf of the Spanish — a charge which could have only increased popular suspicion towards Jews.

When Christopher Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta, about a decade before The Merchant of Venice, his villainous character Barabas would have played to the antisemitic gallery. But Shylock was an altogether more complex character through whom Shakespeare grappled with questions of identity more deeply.

“What was the relationship between Jews and Christians?” said Dr Thornton. “Where did the hate come from? And what did the hate do?”

The display on The Merchant opens with a recording of its most familiar speech “Hath not a Jew eyes?” performed by Sir Antony Sher. The accompanying panel reads: “Shylock the Jew appeals to a common humanity across the ethnic divide in the face of injustice.”

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