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Jews in Early Modern England




Richard Westall. Shylock Rebuffing Antonio. Oil on canvas, 1795.

The Jewish people and their faith constituted early modern Europe's most significant minority and non-Christian religious group. Living a separate and at best uneasy existence among their Christian counterparts, Jews frequently experienced torture, expulsion, and death. Among the factors contributing to the European refusal to tolerate the Jews was a series of anti-Jewish myths that associated Jews with the devil and diabolical practices. Despite the Humanist openness to Hebrew learning, the age was characterized by vicious stereotypes and dark fantasies. However, in places like Venice and London (after 1650), where discrimination was moderated, Jewish communities and culture thrived.

 

Among the factors contributing to the European refusal to tolerate the Jews was a series of anti-Jewish myths that associated Jews with the devil and diabolical practices. A turbaned Jew is depicted poisoning a well. The fiendish alliance is further suggested by a devil urinating in the same well. The belief that the Jews abducted and ritualistically murdered Christians is illustrated by the image of a child nailed to a cross.

 

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1600) reflects the anti-Semitism of his age, particularly in the less well-known subtitle that highlights Shylock's Judaism and his inveterate cruelty. Nonetheless there is also a marked ambivalence in Shakespeare's treatment of Shylock. In emphasizing Shylock's humanity, the play gestures toward toleration. By tracing Shylock's inhumanity to his own experience of intolerance, the play suggests the endless cycle of violence brought on by intolerance.

 
Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice. London, 1600



Pierre Boaistuau. Certaine secrete wonders of nature. London, 1569



Symon Patrick. Jewish hypocrisie, a caveat to the present generation. London, 1660



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