What Was Shakespeare's Jewish Connection?

    April 2010            
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A Lost Jewish Poet: the Case

By David Basch

To those unacquainted with the evidence, few subjects will appear as unpromising as a Jewish William Shakespeare. However, most curiously, the finding of strictly Judaic elements in his plays reveals the Bard's knowledge of Talmud, Midrash, and Aggadah, literatures all but unavailable in the England of his time — Jews having long been expelled.

While skeptics may reject the diagnostic worth of even some Judaic elements in the work of a medieval author who has demonstrated a prodigious catholic reach, its presence, easily confirmed, poses a major challenge to scholarship. Why has this content been little accounted in earlier study? How did Shakespeare gain access to this literature? Does it appear in patterned ways, revelatory of its author? These are among the questions assayed here.

Exhibit A of the evidence would present a sampling of Shakespeare's use of Talmudic materials. Some of this appears in easily identified lines, such as "What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine," and "Sin will pluck on sin," appearing respectively in Measure for Measure and Richard III. While both lines are drawn from the Talmud's Pirke Avoth, their simplicity is such to make them suspect. But, when it is learned that the continuation of the Talmudic line that begins, "Sin plucks on sin," which runs to "sechar mitzvah mitzvah" ("the reward of doing the deed of the commandment is the doing of the deed of the commandment" is to be found in Coriolanus in praise of Marcius, a man who "rewards his deeds with doing them," it becomes evident that the Bard has more fully rendered this Talmudic line. Note here, in this second part we are actually given a "derash" (an interpretation) of this part of the line and not merely its translation because one of the meanings of "the reward of the mitzvah is a mitzvah" is that the deed is its own reward, as his deeds were for Marcius. But these are only two of the many lines of Pirke Avoth which Shakespeare can be found to have quoted.

And lest it be surmised that Shakespeare restricted himself to sayings from Pirke Avoth, of which there were some earlier Latin translations, we find numerous examples from other portions of the Talmud that had not been translated. For example, King Priam in Troilus and Cressida presents the Mishna's five penalties to be imposed on one who injures another. Priam notes this in telling his sons that the Greeks have offered to strike off these exact five penalties were the Trojans to restore the kidnapped Helen: “Deliver Helen, and all damage else — As honour (transformed to boshet), loss of time (shevet), travail (tzaar), expense (repou’i), Wounds (nezek),...”

Even more marvelous are some of Shakespeare's plays that dramatize books of the Bible and serve as parables of biblical wisdom. While the Bible, of course, was generally read in the England of the poet's time, what is revealing are the allusions in these to parochial Judaic elements and literatures virtually unknown to Gentiles of the period. Thus, Hamlet, which is a cautionary tale, is in effect a parable, vivifying precepts of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and in doing so, uses such things as Talmudic controversies and medrashic themes to make its points. Similarly, King Lear turns out to be Shakespeare's interpretation and explication of the deeper truths of the Book of Job.

More veiled, but no less a dramatization of a book of the Bible, is The Merchant of Venice. This play conveys in disguised form the themes of the Scroll of Esther, including, surprisingly, its Judaic triumph. While to learn of these aspects requires careful attention to details of the play and knowledge of its particularistic Judaic allusions, much too complex a matter to summarize in brief, some signs of this are most explicit.

For example, while Christians consider mercy to be the grand hallmark of their religion and this is implied by Portia's world famous speech on the transcendent value of mercy, when Shylock's enemies have brought him down to full defeat, they do not show him their vaunted mercy. Shylock is stripped of all his wealth and forced to convert — hardly the practice of the wonderful mercy espoused, one of many such reversals in this play that stamp the play as the poet's version of the type of play, called the PurimshpielPurim play — written by Jews of the European Ghettoes in honor of the holiday.

Concerning direct historic evidence, British historian, Peter Levi, in his book, The Life And Times Of William Shakespeare (1986) reveals that Shakespeare's father John was left a legacy, recorded in a preserved court document, in which his name is given as "Johannem Shakere." The historian did not realize that "Shakere" has a Hebrew meaning as a form of the Hebrew word for "false," "sheker." "The word “shakere" appears exactly in the Ninth Commandment in the phrase, "false witness" (eyde shakere). This suggests an identity as a crypto-Jew, especially when the word is considered in connection with the verse in Isaiah 63:8 — "They are my people, children who will not be false" (lo ye'shakeroo). Apparently, at the time of the Shakespeares, not being false was an impossible condition if a Jew wished to live in England, where Jews had been banished for almost 400 years.

Have we here more circumstantial evidence ultimately signifying nothing? Once again, the skeptic will find no sanctuary. For the evidence demonstrates that Shakespeare knew the meaning of this name and its portent since he found ways to interject it into some of his plays in dramatic form. For example, in Richard III, we find Richard knocked off his horse that had given him power and speed and limping toward defeat. In one of Shakespeare's most memorable lines, Richard cries, "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse," a most clear sign that Richard thinks a horse will save him. This must recall the words of Psalm 33:17 that most emphatically answers Richard: "False is the horse for salvation" ("SHEKER ha'soos lit'shu'ah,” in Hebrew). Appearing in this biblical line is the poet's trademark Hebrew name, sheker/shakere. Shakespeare repeats this dramatic device featuring his name in allusions to biblical verses at least three more times in his plays — an amazing accident of chance if that is what these are.

The poet also represented this name in his 1596 Coat of Arms. The original application for this still exists and includes a tell-tale sketch of his arms and a motto, "Non Sanz Droicht" ("Not Without Right"). The sketch features a falcon, a species known in English today as a "saker" from falconry consult an English dictionary for the word. This is a name that obviously resembles "shakere." Note that, when spelled in Hebrew, the letter that begins it, the "shin," can be pronounced either as "s" or as "sh."

Furthermore, when analyzed, the configuration of the coat of arms, which depicts the saker standing on one foot and shaking a spear, reveals the poet identifying himself as a son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (See a reproduction of the coat of arms on the last page of this article.) Illustrative of how these identifications are made, the bird standing on one foot recalls the Talmudic story about the sage Hillel, in which a prospective convert to Judaism offers to convert if Hillel teaches him the entire Torah while he stands on one foot. Hillel accomplishes this in a teaching that happens also to be embraced by Shakespeare's motto, "Not without right."

The poet's motto appears to be drawn from Genesis 18:25, where Abraham teaches that, with respect to the inhabitants of the city of Sodom, if God destroys the wicked together with the righteous, "the judge of all the earth will not do right." Translating Abraham's plea into a behest gives the adage, "Not Without Right," revealing the source of the poet's motto and the poet as a disciple of the teaching of the Patriarch Abraham. Other allusions similarly link the poet's Arms to the Patriarchs Isaac and Jacob.

Finally, there is the evidence to be found in Shakespeare's Sonnets. Its 154 poems can be revealed as a work that follows the form of the 150 biblical Psalms, many readings of which showing up as parallels to correspondingly numbered psalms, including, in some, their direct addresses to God, Who turns out to be one of the mysterious friends of the poet. For example, Sonnet 30's couplet of gratitude — "When I think of you (dear friend), All losses are restored and sorrows end" — parallels David's Psalm 30 which similarly thanks God Who "has changed my mourning into dancing." Concerning mourning, this sonnet mourns for “precious friends hid in Death’s dateless night” and is actually a “sholoshim” — which literally means thirty in Hebrew —alluded to in the sonnet’s number 30. A “shloshim” is a traditional Jewish follow-up remembrance for a departed person thirty days or so after burial.

We soon learn that Shakespeare's poems are hardly odes expressing the feelings of a man in thrall to unholy passions, but ones dedicated to higher purposes, in which the poet's friends include God, allegorical representations of aspects of man's soul, and spiritual mentors — some of which being personalities that are well known to readers. The poems testify to the wisdom and love of the Creator even as they epitomize the poetic art. These poems are beautiful and rich as they plumb the most profound depths of our being with their insights.

The trail of these Judaic elements in Shakespeare's work, left as clues by the greatest of communicators, await fuller scholarly exploration of a kind that has hardly begun to this date.


The book noted below discovers these codes in the poet’s sonnets:

THE SHAKESPEARE CODES: The Sonnets Deciphered (2000)

Book jacket statement
by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman

Once again I have the pleasure of reading more of David Basch's work concerning Shakespeare's links to the Jewish people. True to the promise of the title of his new book, THE SHAKESPEARE CODES, he has indeed been resourceful in finding the Poet's own "codes." As before, Shakespeare is shown to draw on literary devices only accessible through an understanding of their Judaic sources. These are seen to provide unique windows to his inner thoughts on many personal and general topics. Coming from the eminent Poet, what is learned will undoubtedly be an important addition to his legacy to the world. It will surely be of enormous interest to the Jewish community and will inspire many to take a renewed and deepened interest in their traditions and learning that had so moved the Poet.

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman
Chancellor, Bar-Ilan University
Israel and New York
Ador 1 5760 - February 2000

www.ziplink.net/~entropy/; http://www.ziplink.net/~entropy/codes.htm


On the following page is a facsimile of Shakespeare’s proposed Coat of Arms as presented in his application for it to British authorities. Readers are invited to find for themselves the allusions to Patriarchs Yitzchak (Isaac) and Yaacov (Jacob) that are contained in the image. Also included in the original application was the poet’s motto, Non Sanz Droicht (Not without right).



from the April 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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