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Jessica's Mother: Medieval Constructions of Jewish Race and Gender in The Merchant of Venice


My essay argues that the gendered racial representation of Jews in early modern English culture, articulated most explicitly in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, draws upon a similar set of ideas developed in medieval England. Concerns in thirteenth-century England about the efficacy of Jewish conversion to Christianity gave rise the notion of an immutable Jewish racial identity, corresponding to a modern definition of race, that was constructed in theological, class, somatic, hereditary and gendered terms. In those cases where Jews are seen as impervious to conversion, the problem lies not with resistance from the convert, nor in the sincerity of their profession, but with Christian assertions of Jewish race. The language of these assertions reveal a concern that Jews, spiritual inferiors to Christians, gain a kind of parity or even superiority through conversion. This results in a paradox: on the one hand, St Paul prophesied that the second coming requires the conversion of the Jews, on the other hand, conversion is perceived as advantaging Jews over Christians. The representation of a Jewish woman lacking in racial difference from Christians and acquiescent to conversion develops in the same period, at the time that Aristotle’s views on gender and reproduction are re-introduced in Europe.  Aristotle offers evidence for the “natural” inferiority of women, and submits that they are mere vessels for nurturing the male seed that becomes a child.  These ideas make possible the construction of an acceptable convert whose inferiority is fixed even after her “elevation” to Christianity, and whose racial status is moot, since she contributes none of her characteristics to her husband’s offspring.  Gendered representations of Jewish race in the early modern period are informed by these medieval antecedents, and a close consideration the latter is followed by a discussion of their operation in Merchant of Venice.

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