Few people in Shakespeare’s England would ever have met a practicing Jew. The kingdom’s Jewish population had been expelled in 1290, more than two hundred years before Shakespeare’s birth, and practicing Jews would not be permitted to enter the country until after Shakespeare’s death, in 1660. Despite the expulsion of the Jews in the Middle Ages, a small group of Portuguese Jews, comprised of just under one hundred people, survived in London by living quiet lives, and mostly avoided trouble with authorities. Elizabethan London was also home to a small number of Jewish converts to Christianity. In spite of their conversion, however, these Jewish people remained subject to anti-Semitic prejudice. In 1594 the royal physician Roderigo Lopez, a Spanish Christian of Jewish ancestry, was found guilty of plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth. When he spoke to the crowd who had gathered to watch his execution, Lopez insisted that he “loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ.” The crowd laughed at him. They believed that he hated the queen, so his choice of words only confirmed that he hated Jesus Christ as well and hence secretly remained a practicing Jew.
Anti-Semitic prejudice ran deep in England. Conventional wisdom held that Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were delaying the salvation of mankind. In the medieval period many Christians also believed that Jews killed Christian children as part of their religious practice, and this rumor persisted during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Perhaps the most widespread stereotype of Jews that survived in Shakespeare’s time related to usury, the practice of lending money at interest. In many parts of Europe, Christians were legally forbidden from collecting interest. Though not legally barred from the practice, Jews who did charge interest on loans came to be seen as greedy and devious. Shakespeare addressed this stereotype in The Merchant of Venice, a play that has proven ambivalent for many audiences through the centuries. Shakespeare’s depiction of the Jewish moneylender Shylock has struck many as anti-Semitic. Yet the play is also at pains to show that cruelty and greed, as well as pain and suffering, are traits that can be found in Jews and Christians alike. Shakespeare clearly indicates that Shylock’s cruelty partly arises in response to his experience of discrimination and abuse, yet within the play itself there is no empathy for the vilified man, who disappears in disgrace at the end of the fourth act.
Other plays written and performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime reflect a similar ambivalence about Jews. Perhaps the most famous of these plays is The Jew of Malta, written by Christopher Marlowe around 1589. Marlowe’s play tells the story of Barabas, a wealthy and villainous Jewish merchant who falsely converts to Christianity to further his devious plans. Eventually Barabas is tricked into falling into his own trap, which results in his being burned alive. Like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, it remains unclear for many modern readers whether The Jew of Malta condones anti-Jewish fantasies, or if the play works to critique those fantasies. Though Marlowe’s original title categorized the play as a tragedy, the play is also darkly comic and may have inspired cynical laughter among its original audiences. Another play that was popular in the 1580s and 90s offers a less ambivalent portrayal of a Jew. Robert Wilson’s comedy The Three Ladies of London, written around 1581, pitted a moral and sympathetic Jewish merchant against a wicked and scheming Italian merchant. Unlike the later plays by Marlowe and Shakespeare, Wilson’s play clearly rebukes the overriding anti-Semitism of Elizabethan England.