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Close to 300 years before Shakespeare’s birth, in the year 1290, King Edward I expelled anyone of Jewish descent from England all together. It would not be until 40 years after Shakespeare’s death that Jews would be allowed to return to England. This law makes it somewhat confusing to find over 100 references to Jews and “Jewry” in Shakespeare’s plays. How did he know about Jewish people if there weren’t any in England? Additional history further muddies the waters with the story of Roderigo Lopez, a Spanish Christian of Jewish ancestry that worked as a private physician to Elizabeth I. Ultimately, Lopez was executed, his sentence being influenced heavily by rampant antisemitism in England at the time. Lopez was not the only Jew in England for Shakespeare’s lifetime, but his story shines a light on the plight of racial Jews as well as anyone seeking to practice the Jewish religion, who lived during the life of William Shakespeare. Here with us to tell us more about Lopez’s life, Jews in early modern England, and the references to Jews found in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice are our guests, Rhona Silverbush and Sami Plotkin. 

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Rhona Silverbush wears many hats in the course of a given day. She studied psychology and theater at Brandeis University and law at Boston College Law School and then represented asylum seekers before returning to her first loves – Shakespeare and writing. Rhona has written and co-written several books, most notably Speak the Speech! Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated with Sami Plotkin, hailed by Sir Derek Jacobi as “A fabulous book, gloriously packed with information”. Other books include a cookbook with chefs Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortuzar and the Terrific Toddlers series of nine picture books for toddlers with Carol Zeavin. Rhona currently coaches actors in New York City, writes, tutors, and consults for families of children and teens with learning differences and special needs.

Sami Plotkin is co-author with Rhona Silverbush of ‘Speak the Speech! Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated”, hailed by Artistic Director Emeritus of the Royal Shakespeare Company Terry Hands as, ‘the most detailed introduction to the delights of Shakespeare that I have ever read…and worth a place in any private library.” Sami is a playwright, mystery writer and freelance writer. She coaches writing and film editing, and has also been an actor and an acting coach, presenting master classes and workshops in acting Shakespeare.

I’ll be asking Rhona and Sami about:

  • What roles in society did Jews hold and what records do we have of how Jews were able to live in London and make a profitable wage? 
  • It would seem that if there was an outright objection to Jews as a race, no amount of conversion to Protestantism would be sufficient to allow them to stay in England. The presence of figures like Roderigo Lopez, who was not only Jewish, but operating at the highest levels of society in direct service to the Queen herself, suggests that the law against Jews during Shakespeare’s lifetime was aimed at keeping England religiously Protestant rather than primarily about racial prejudice, which I think is an important distinction for modern listeners who are used to racial disparagement being about an opposition to someone’s skin color. Was England’s official opposition to Jews a racial concern, or a religious objection?  
  • Roderigo Lopez is a prominent example of a Jew who managed to do well in England, working as a private physician to the Queen of England. After he becomes a physician, Lopez was accused of being one of the secret Jews you mentioned earlier, and ultimately, is executed due in no small part to abject antisemitism. One example Rhona and Sami point to in their work includes the Earl of Essex accusing Lopez of trying to poison the Queen. Rhona, can you share with us why accusing a Jew of trying to poison the Queen is significant, specifically since poison in general, was a major concern to monarchs in this period? 
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Rhona Silverbush and Sami Plotkin recommends:

Speak the Speech! Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated, by Rhona Silverbush and Sami Plotkin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

Shakespeare and the Jews, 20th Anniversary Edition, by James Shapiro (Columbia University Press, 2016)

“Four Hundred Years Later, Scholars Still Debate Whether Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ Is Anti-Semitic,” by Brandon Ambrosino, Smithsonian Magazine, April 21, 2016: Four Hundred Years Later, Scholars Still Debate Whether Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” Is Anti-Semitic | Arts & Culture

“The Merchant of Venice: A Modern Perspective”, by Professor Alexander Leggatt, Folger Shakespeare Library : A Modern Perspective: The Merchant of Venice | Folger Shakespeare Library 

“About Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice”, by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library: About Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice 

Other Research Information:

BASSANO FAMILY OF ENGLAND & ITALY

The Bassanos – a dynasty of recorder makers, players and composers

Trent 1475 : stories of a ritual murder trial

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Bassano coat of arms
  • map of where the Bassano family held property
  • statue of Christian child who was murdered and Jews were falsely blamed
  • Illustration of Roderigo Lopez
  • Portrait of Emilia Lanier
  • Painting that demonstrates blood libel
  • Painting of a Jew executed by the Inquisition
  • Illustration of Bartholomew Hospital where Roderigo Lopez worked
  • Poetry of Amelia Lanier that references Jews
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

I’ll see you next time!