Was Shakespeare Jewish?

            October 2013    
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Was Shakespeare a Jew
By Ghislain Muller

Review By Danièle Frison

Was Shakespeare a Jew, Edwin Mellen, University Press.

Why write a new book about Shakespeare, and especially a biography when so many have already been published and every possible avenue seems to have been investigated? For many years, research on Shakespeare's identity has remained bound by the limits of Christianity: none of the Shakespearean specialists have dared to go any further than suggesting that Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic in an England forced to conform to the newly established Protestant religion. Yet, for many years now Shakespearean scholars have been quarrelling about the exact reality of Shakespeare's Catholicism. But no one has dared to launch so daring a hypothesis as that put forward by Ghislain Muller in the present book, namely that Shakespeare was in fact a Jew, although a hidden one.

Up to the present day, Shakespearean critics have been arguing about Shakespeare's message in The Merchant of Venice. Is it an anti-Semitic play or is Shylock's plea about his humanity and his right to revenge an attempt at a rehabilitation of the image of the Jews in English literature after so many anti-Semitic representations? Very recently, Yona Dureau was one of the first Shakespearean critics to prove that Shakespeare's works did indeed include more elements of Hebrew culture than just Shylock, Rebecca, Tubal, and the few references to the Jewish way of life contained in The Merchant of Venice. Her latest book, Shakespeare and Christian Cabbalah focuses on Shakespeare's indebtedness to the Christian kabbalah. She demonstrates that a number of the riddles found in Richard III, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Twelfth Night are Hebrew puns or coded kabbalistic messages, and that Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night and Richard II are developed on kabbalistic themes.

Ghislain Muller goes one step further: he suggests that not only did Shakespeare have a good first-hand or second-hand knowledge of Jewish culture, but that he was himself a Jew.

Leaving aside the controversial issue of whether there were Jews residing permanently on English soil after the general expulsion of the Jewish community ordered by Edward I in 1290, one thing is certain: there were Jews in Elizabethan England. The existence of a small Jewish community in England in the 14th and 15th centuries is confirmed by the fact that there was a second expulsion under Edward III in 1358 and that the Domus Conversorum (or House for Jewish Converts) was never empty during that period. Maybe a few members of the English medieval Jewish community had remained hidden in England after 1290; but archival research over the last hundred years makes clear that they were certainly augmented by a number of foreign Jews who trickled into England after that date.

It was after 1492 that the number of Jews present in England increased considerably. Almost all these Elizabethan Jews were Marranos, or New Christians, i.e. Jews of Spanish or Portuguese origin who had been forced to convert to Christianity by the persecutions of the Inquisition, and who had eventually been expelled from Spain and Portugal. Most of the Spanish and Portuguese Marranos who had fled north had taken refuge in Amsterdam, but some had settled in London. As Cecil Roth suggested, they were probably regarded as Protestant refugees, an obvious disguise to assume in a newly Protestant country.

Most of them were merchants, and skillled traders were useful to England. But they were mainly tolerated by the Queen because, thanks to their international connections, they were a precious source of information and intelligence for the English government in its war with Spain. None-the-less, these Jews had to hide their true identity and origins and could not practise their religion openly, not least because the England of the 16th and early 17th centuries did not officially allow Jews on its soil. (in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the Act of Expulsion of 1290 had not been repealed and was still in force). So these Marrano refugees attended the official Protestant service on Sundays in order to avoid fines and, above all, in order to escape interference in their daily business.

Ghislain Muller's thesis is that Shakespeare was one of these crypto-Jews and that, throughout his life, he always took care to hide his Jewish origins. As several famous Jewish scholars, like Sidney Lee, Lucien Wolf, Charles Jasper Sisson and Cecil Roth have proved, all the Jews who lived in Elizabethan England had to be crypto-Jews. The above mentioned scholars have also argued that, even though most of these Marranos attended Protestant service on Sundays for safety, in the privacy of their own homes they continued to practise the religion of their forefathers in secret.

On the basis of a number of official documents which, to this day, either went unnoticed, unexplained, or, what is worse, were intentionally ignored or misinterpreted, Ghislain Muller presents convincing evidence of the fact that Shakespeare's father was one such crypto-Jew. He goes further and demonstrates that not only was William Shakespeare of Jewish descent, but that he was also brought up in the Jewish faith and that the so-called "lost years" of Shakespeare's life were in fact the years when his father withdrew from business, took his son out of school and gave him a Jewish education.

The detailed study conducted here of the poet's friends and connections in London, and especially his intimate relationship with the Bassano family, suggests that he belonged to Jewish circles. His vast culture, in spite of the fact that he did not possess books of his own - a fact which Ghislain Muller thinks was intentional - and his almost compulsive taste for disguise, seem to testify to his need and desire to carefully hide his origins. The coat of arms which he and his father chose, once deciphered, also seems to reveal the same secret. Similarly, the bard's retirement to Stratford at the end of his life, as well as the way in which his will is worded, tend to confirm the fact that he was not a true Christian.

Finally, Shakespeare's burial, not in Westminster Abbey like most famous and less famous english poets, but in a discreet tombstone in Stratford, can be interpreted as further proof that he was a crypto-Jew, of Jewish descent, and that, as with the other crypto-Jews who lived in London, the Elizabethan authorities were aware of it. Ghislain Muller suggests that the authorities of later times, and possibly some Shakespearean scholars, knew about Shakespeare's Jewish origins, too, and that when Shakespeare's genius was acknowledged and the Stratford poet became an icon of literature, every effort was made to wipe away any trace of his Jewish origins and to turn him into a national hero of pure Anglo-Saxon stock.

Ghislain Muller's book is not only a piece of good scholarship, the fruit of long and detailed research, based on serious documentary evidence, in support of a convincing hypothesis. It is also a very challenging and enjoyable book which reveals a lot, not only about Shakespeare, but also about life in Shakespeare's time.

Each chapter, and almost each page, brings to light another piece which completes the puzzle of Shakespeare's life and adduces more evidence to the fact that indeed Shakespeare was probably the son of a Jew, and a Jew himself. Eventually the new light thrown upon the mystery of Shakespeare's life and true identity opens up new perspectives for literary criticism of his work.

Danièle FRISON, Emeritus professor, Université Paris Ouest - Nanterre La Défense.


from the October 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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