Judaism and National Identity in Medieval England

Authored by: Samantha Zacher

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Religion

Print publication date:  May  2016
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415834056
eBook ISBN: 9780203498910
Adobe ISBN: 9781135051105


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Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice vividly demonstrates the extent to which pre-modern claims for national identity and communal integrity were refracted through perceptions of Jewish otherness. 1 To see this aspect of the play, we must look beyond the drama’s famous Jewish villain, Shylock, who is depicted in classically anti-Semitic terms: not only is he represented as the devil incarnate and an “inhuman wretch” incapable of mercy, but his insistence upon a pound of Christian flesh also recalls the horrors of the medieval ritual murder charges that accused Jews of killing (and sometimes eating) Christian children. 2 Elsewhere in the text we can detect a far more subtle political strain of anti-Semitism, which depicts Jews as an “other” nation (not just religion or community) and as “strangers” in their own patria. 3 Their alien status is clearly marked in a comical scene in Act 3, scene 5, when the fool Launcelot argues with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, about the nature of Jewish conversion. Launcelot tells Jessica that she will be eternally damned as a Jew, and Jessica counters that she will be saved through her marriage to Lorenzo, a Christian, and by her own subsequent conversion. Launcelot responds disapprovingly that this “making of Christians” is nothing but bad business for “the commonwealth.” He jokes that “if we all grow to be pork eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money” (3.5.19–21). It is no accident that Launcelot makes this joke on the way to dinner, where Jessica will presumably break her observance of kashrut by eating with Lorenzo, or that Shylock had previously refused to “break bread” with Bassanio, thereby exempting himself from the most basic social communion (1.3.30–33). However, Launcelot’s words have a far more sinister implication: Jessica correctly understands his insinuation that by marrying (and thus converting) a Jew, Lorenzo can be “no good member of the commonwealth” (3.5.29). If up until this point in the play Shylock and the other Jews have been demonized for practicing usury, and therefore for operating outside the normative Christian economy, Launcelot now suggests that the absorption of Jews as converts might also threaten domestic well-being and economic stability. It would seem that neither Jew nor convert has a place inside the “commonwealth,” with its double sense of common wealth and well-being.

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