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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: January ::
Shakespeare and Judaism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.056  Monday, 13 January 2003

From:           Anthony Burton <
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Date:           Friday, 10 Jan 2003 10:19:58 -0500
Subject:        Shakespeare and Judaism

The remark was made recently with reference to MoV in a submission I
overhastily deleted, that Shakespeare was certainly unfamiliar with
details of Judaism (Jewish law perhaps).  That assumption is quite
dangerous to make, and worse to take for granted in any serious
scholarship that turns on its accuracy.  During Henry VIII's great
dispute with Rome over the matter of his divorce he enlisted all the
scholars of Hebrew/Jewish learning he could, because his best arguments
came from the old testament, and one then leading light -- an Oxford
scholar whose name I don't now recall and is unnecessary for the point
I'm making -- came to London for consultation and stayed at length,
bringing with him to Westminster a Talmud  -- a many-volumed work of
Jewish interpretive exegesis in quite large folio format -- which for
that reason came among bookmen to be known as the Westminster Talmud and
was on display some years ago in the Morgan Library in N.Y.

The entire court was of course immersed in the fine points of the issue,
and its outcome was a turning point in English and church history as
well as the psychic foundation for much of the Elizabethan era.  No
doubt many learned scholars of that debate survived into Shakespeare's
lifetime and, more to the point, it is entirely likely that details and
curiosities of Jewish learning, especially those of interest to the
newly-developing Protestant agendas, were noted early -- very likely
written down, copied, and circulated in the manner of the era employed
for all such worthwhile subjects and familiar to most of us in the early
distribution of notable poetry, drama, sermons, lectures at university
and inns of court, and so forth, and were preserved in memory for
contemporaries and may possibly be available for rediscovery and study
now.  For an American parallel, we can think how the nearly occult legal
rules of presidential impeachment became a topic of intense public
discussion during the late Nixon years, making everyone (especially TV
talking heads) sort of instant barracks-room constitutional lawyers, all
of which in turn was remembered well enough to illuminate and also
confuse the impeachment debates in Clinton's case a quarter-century
later.

There is a body of remarkably coherent and suggestive Talmudic themes in
MoV that form a basis for much-needed deeper research into the existence
of and extent that material from Jewish law actually circulated in the
wider Elizabethan community of learning.   I myself am not likely ever
to do justice to such an enterprise beyond, in a project now under way,
drawing attention to it for the purpose of arguing one or two specific
reinterpretations of MoV that I believe would benefit Shakespeare
scholarship.  A great many casual and poorly examined assumptions about
Shylock's Jewish nature continue to becloud nearly every attempt to
understand the play.

Tony B

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