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Welcome to Episode #85 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

There were only a few hundred Jews living in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and of the ones who were there, they would meet and worship in secret. Outwardly, these Jews would either have converted to Christianity or lied about their faith to keep from coming under suspicion. As callous as it seems for the nation to have been suspicious of Jews, famous Jewish people in high places, like Roderigo Lopez, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, gave the nation cause to be scared of them as Lopez was arrested for trying to poison the Queen. Despite the suspicions around Jewish people, and their faith, many Jews were employed at universities like Oxford and Cambridge during Shakespeare’s lifetime, as teachers of Hebrew, and even at the Bodleian library helping with the Hebrew collections there. In light of Shakespeare’s very Jewish play,  Merchant of Venice, we have our guest, Dr. Athony Bale, here this week to help us explore the presence, reputation, and reception of Jews, and characters like Shylock, by the average playgoer during Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

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Dr. Anthony Bale is the Executive Dean of Arts and Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck College. His work has explored relations between Christians and Jews in medieval England and, more recently, the culture of medieval pilgrimage. He has also edited and translated several medieval texts, and has recently published a new translation and edition of The Book of Margery Kempe with Oxford University Press. His current work explores travel, books, and pilgrimage between England and the Holy Land in the later Middle Ages. Professor Bale acted as an academic advisor for the Blood exhibition in 2015-16, and more recently the Jews, Money, Myth exhibition (2019), at the Jewish Museum London. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Anthony about :

  • Did Protestant England hold Jews in higher suspicion than Catholics at this time?
  • Where else do we find Jews able to live and work in England and why are Jews seemingly tolerated when other religions were not?
  • When Shakespeare was 13 years old, two years after Dudley’s proposal to Elizabeth at Kenilworth which I mention for context here, John Foxe, famous for his Book of Martyrs, oversaw the public conversion of Jewish man named Yehuda Menda at All Hallows Church in London. He was one of many Jews who lived at a convert’s house, the Domus Conversorum, which was in existence on Chancery Lane from 1232. Anthony, what was a convert’s house?
  • … and more!

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You rogue, they were bound, every man of them; or I
am a Jew else, an Ebrew Jew.

Henry IV Part 1 (II.4)

Depiction of Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth I, Queen of England. More commonly known as her spymaster. He uncovered the plots of Francis Throckmorton and Anthony Babington. The discovery of the latter led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Walsingham died in 1590. Source

Sir Francis Walsingham

To understand the perspective on non-Protestant religions in England, you have to first understand a bit of the history of Catholocism in England.

In 1569 there was a major Catholic rising called the Ridolfi plot that sought to free Mary so she could marry Thomas Howard, the fourth Duke of Norfolk, and take over the throne in England. Walsingham, known as Elizabeth’s spymaster, was active in support of Protestants, and the Huguenots in France in particular. At the time of this uprising, Walsingham was working with William Cecil to squash plots against the Queen. Walsingham was instrumental in the defeat of the Ridolfi plot, writing propaganda against Mary’s marriage to Thomas Howard, and when the man for whom the plot was named, Robert Ridolfi was captured, he was interrogated at Walsingham’s house. After the rebellion’s defeat, Elizabeth I had over 750 of the rebels executed.  Pope Pius V was upset at the success of the rebel’s defeat, and issued a bull which excommunicated Elizabeth I, calling her a “pretend” Queen as well as a “servant of crime.”

The tension here created left Elizabeth paranoid about Catholics throughout her reign, while the Pope threatned anyone who obeyed Elizabeth’s orders with excommunication. While Parliament would pass strict legislative laws against Catholics in response to the Pope’s essentially declaring war on the crown, Elizabeth intervened and mitigated the harshness of the laws.  However, by 1581, it was a treasonable offense to convert someone to Catholicism with the intent of turning them against Elizabeth I through their conversion. 

Catholics were part of English society, culture, and history. Always high work ethics and influential. THere was the religious situation establishing the Church of England, reestablished by Mary, and then undone again by Elizabeth I. So 16th century, Shakespeare’s England, Catholicism was very familiar.

Shakespeare as a child would have had catholicism in his parents and grandparents influence. The landscape even, dissolution of the monasteries, and the geogrphy would have been affected by this cetholic presence. Reformation was young, and quite fragile. Elizabeth herself used several hangovers from Catholicism right up to the 17th century.

Jews were much more imaginary. ALien culture. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290. Their memory had been kept alive in popular culture and religious culture, but actual familiarity with Jews was pretty rare in Shakespeare’s England. So when you consider how people might have held different religions on suspicion, catholics was held in suspicion over the Reformation, whereas Jews were vague, mobile, and undefined.

Hie thee, gentle Jew.

Merchant of Venice, (I.3)

Lopez (right) speaking with a Spaniard. Engraving by Esaias van Hulsen (1570-1624). Source

Roderigo Lopez

Roderigo Lopez  (c. 1517 – 7 June 1594) served as physician-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth I from 1581 until his death by execution. He was found guilty of having plotted to kill the Queen by poison. Originally Portuguese, of Jewish ancestry, he is the only royal doctor in history to be executed, and his story is thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s character Shylock in Merchant of Venice. This theory is further bolstered by the proximity to current events of his death, which occurred just four years before the play is thought to have been written. 

Roderigo Lopez was born to a Jewish family in Portugal, raised a Catholic, educated at the Universityin Portugal, inquisition forced him to leave Portugal, settled in England 1559, joined the Church of England. Now Protestant. 

Not simply Jewish, but one of the things that would have made him an enemy was that he was Portuguese and Catholic. Perfect enemy of all the different things England distrusted at that point in history. Laughing at him professing his love of Elizabeth I, is a way of laughing at the idea of someone who had changed his identity so many times could possibly have any fixed or stable allegiances. Executions were highly theatrical, and normal for crowd to participate through shouting, laughing, and similar declarations at the executed person. 

Content, i’ faith: I’ll seal to such a bond
And say there is much kindness in the Jew.

Merchant of Venice (I.3)

This is a portrait of Martin Lutherby Lucas Cranach the Elder. Martin Luther hung 95 theses on the front door of the Vincentian church, remembered as the start of the Protestant Reformation. The painting hangs in the choir of St. Anne’s Church next to a portrait of the Elector Johann Friedrich of Saxony Source

Christian Hebraism and Jews teaching the Bible

The Renaissance saw scholars learning to read the Bible in their original languages, and is credited with a role in the Protestant Reformation. Considered the Father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, a Doctor in Bible at the University of Wittenberg promoted the idea that salvation is a gift of God’s grace, something you can only get through faith in Jesus, who paid for sin by conquering death in his cruxificion and subsequent resurrection.

In addition to salvation by grace through faith, and the doctrine of justification, a major tennant of the Protestant REformation was a higher view of the Bible. Martin Luther said, “The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.” (Source)

For Shakespeare’s lifetime, this exploration and adoption of Protestantism saw the rise of what modern scholars call Christian Hebraism (Christian study of the Hebrew Bible). In the 13-14th century Jews and converted Jews had been in conversation with Christians about the true meaning of the Bible.

Jews had access through their knowledge of Hebrew to a different version of the bible from the Latin Bible, so they had a contact theologically between Jews and Christians around Bible Study. During the Reformation specifically, Protestantism is about the congregation and specifically the individual understanding the Bible. One of the big arguments about pre-protestantism, is who can understand the Holy Scripture. FOr Protestants, getting Jews to interpret the Bible becomes a very big deal. H8 had Jews come to the English court to interpret the Talmud for him as part of his marriage to Anne Boleyn to justify that. Charles II would do this as well.

Jews could be accused of converting people they were teaching, and someone who is opening up a version of the Bible that does not include the New Testament is already on dangerous religious ground. 

Most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew!
If a Christian did not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived.
Launcelot Gobbo

Merchant of Venice (II.3)

The Convert’s House on Chancery Lane. Source

The Convert’s House for Jewish Refugees

The Domus Conversorum (‘House of the Converts’) was a established for Jews in London who had converted to Christianity. It was a communal home, and a neccessary service because all Jews who converted to Christianity had to give up their possessions. There is a lot of history here to do with immigration and the rules about coming to England as well.

The Convert’s House was setup by Henry III in 1232. Under Edward I in 1290, Jews were expelled from England and required to convert, or to leave, which meant that living at the Convert’s House was the only official way for Jews to remain in England. Originally, there were only about 80 people who lived there but by 1356 the last one of that group died. For the entire stretch of time between 1356 and 1607, there were only 48 residents admitted to the Convert’s House.

The building was in Chancery Lane. It was an enclosed dwelling originally designed for 50-70 converted jews, funded by the royal family, with the idea that if Jews gave up their faith, they would receive the support and sustenance to live here with clothes, food, and a place to live and provided them with instruction in Christianity. After their training, they were sent to monasteries. The population of this house went up and down, with refugee status of Jews. After 1290, it stayed, and 1308 there were 17 men and 17 women living in it. Much smaller, but still there. What’s really surprising is that the house of converts carries on to the 18th century. It’s not just Jews, however, in 1605 there was a native american Arthur Anto, he was a pagan who converted to Christianity. It was mainly for Jews, and in the 16-17th century you get a few people like Menda coming in, but the number stays small.

No records after 1609 have survived, but by 1891 the chaplain post there was abolished by an act of Parliament and the location was turned into a public archives house and became known as the Public Records Office. Today it is home to Maughan Library of King’s College London.

Books Dr. Anthony Bale recommends:

Note from Cassidy: Dr. Bale does recommend highly that you explore Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in all its’ formats: On stage, in print, and on film. However, the choice to include the Folger’s edition of Merchant of Venice in the links here is my recommendation. Dr. Bale did not endorse a particular edition. There are others by Arden Shakespeare, Dover Thrift, Oxford School Shakespeare Series, and many others which are just as good. The Folger copy is high quality scholarship and I use their editions myself, so that’s why I chose it to list here. You should use any copy that you enjoy.

Film versions of Merchant of Venice that you might enjoy:

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