Blood and Manners: Rethinking Jewish Difference on the English Renaissance Stage

Streifer, Adriana, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Maus, Katharine, Department of English, University of Virginia
Parker, John, Department of English, University of Virginia
Kinney, Clare, Department of English, University of Virginia
Biemann, Asher, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

English Renaissance plays take a great interest in foreign and exotic peoples, but they usually make it clear which characters are familiar and which are alien. Jewish characters trouble this distinction. “Blood and Manners” investigates how qualities that are traditionally labeled “Jewish” tend in early modern plays to spread beyond the characters meant to embody them. I term this process “assimilative Jewishness.” In order to remedy Jewish categorical vagueness and to re-erect strong boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, early modern stage Jews exemplify vengefulness, greed, literalism, atheism, Machiavellian cunning, and violence. In commercially-focused plays, these stereotypes grapple productively with England’s hopes and fears in the international arenas of commerce and colonization. The activities of international trade encourage its participants to recognize religiously, geographically, and culturally disparate people as linked by material needs and desires. This recognition makes it more difficult, and yet more pressing than ever, to draw clear distinctions between “us” and “them.” In plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Daborne, Jews appear alien upon first glance; yet the traits the plays present as “Jewish” seem to be adaptations to an environment of cutthroat competition, and therefore emerge in those who participate in such environments, whether or not they are actual Jews.

Thus, I argue that Jewish difference often appears as such not because Jewish figures truly are a category apart, but because the plays reject or deny similarities between Jews and non- Jews. Plays containing Jewish characters anxiously reproduce Christianity’s conflicting needs to own and disavow its parent religion, unstable narratives about the sources and meanings of racial difference, and nascent ideas about how nationhood is tied (or not) to geography and religion, all without resolving such anxieties. In chapters on The Jew of Malta, The Merchant of Venice, and A Christian Turned Turk, I show how drama’s poly-vocality makes it the inevitable outlet for marginalized Jewish voices, and how its status as a performed genre made it possible to translate abstract and theoretical beliefs about Jewish otherness into lived behaviors and experiences that contest otherness as a viable framework for understanding the English relationship to Jews and Judaism.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
literature, drama, theater, early modern, Jews, Shakespeare, Marlowe, renaissance, Judaism, international commerce, race, religion
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