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Why are there Jewish allegories in Shakespeare’s Plays?

By John Hudson

At the Elizabethan Court, solving allegorical puzzles was a major pastime. As the
Queen’s cousin Sir John Harington observed, allegory was used in literature in
order to communicate hidden meanings. Allegory was also used in English stage
plays including the mystery plays. The use of allegory and personified characters
in the Shakespearean plays has attracted some recent attention. For instance,
Linda Hoff has shown that Hamlet is an allegorical parody of the Christian Book
of Revelation, an Apocalypse which all goes wrong, and mocks the most sacred
Christian theology. In November 2010 the Dark Lady Players will be doing a
production called Hamlet’s Apocalypse to demonstrate this in New York City
http://www.scribd.com/doc/26623778/Hamlet-s-Apocalypse at Manhattan
Theatre Source in Greenwich Village.

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Similarly Steve Sohmer identified Julius Caesar as containing an “impious


parody”, while Othello’s allegorical sub-plot contains a parody of the Virgin Mary
(Desdemona), presumably pregnant by the Holy Ghost, being smothered in
revenge by an allegorical Joseph (Othello) on the night before Easter, thereby
echoing the body of Jesus in the tomb with its face covered by a handkerchief.
The Dark Lady Players demonstrated the Othello allegory in our production last
year of Shakespeare’s Three Virgin Marys.
The last time these allegories received much attention was in the 1930s. Various
scholars tried to show how the religious references in the plays created a
consistent Christological allegory, but they failed. It is now clear why. The plays
do not reflect conventional Christian doctrine. Rather these allegories reflect a
Jewish theological perspective. Some of them parody Christianity and others
comment on the Roman-Jewish war fought by Vespasian and Titus Caesar 66-
73CE.

The existence of these Jewish allegories in the plays makes it very likely that the
person who put them there was England’s only Jewish poet, Amelia Bassano
Lanier. Let us look at a couple of examples.

The Merchant of Venice


Of all the plays, The Merchant of Venice is richest in Jewish material and in
Hebrew puns. For instance as Schoenfeld has shown, Portia says “I am lock’d”
(3,2,40) and “I am contain’d” (2,8,5) in one of the caskets. These are strange
statements because it is her portrait that is inside the casket and not Portia
herself. But a Hebrew speaker would know that PoRTia’s name in Hebrew is
spelt PRT. They would see the lead casket, know that the word ‘lead’ in Hebrew
is YPRT (oepheret--the first letter is a soundless letter the ayin), and realize that
the Hebrew pun shows that Portia (PRT) is contained inside the lead. Naturally
this is the casket chosen by the suitor Bassanio, whose name is the original
spelling of the name of the Bassano family who, as Marrano Jews would
recognize a Hebrew pun.

The play also contains a comic parody of the Christian Eucharist, the so-called
‘last supper’ in which Messiah Jesus supposedly gave his body and blood to be
devoured by his followers. The name Shylock is derived from Shiloh, a name for
the Messiah that “was a name current among the Jews” at the turn of the 16th
century, as the most scholarly New Variorum edition of the play notes. In the
Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Johanan said: "The world was created for the sake of
the Messiah, what is this Messiah's name? The school of Rabbi Shila said 'his
name is Shiloh, for it is written; until Shiloh come.'" (Sanhedrin 98b). Also 'Until
Shiloh shall come; He is called by the name of Shiloh because all the nations are
destined to bring gifts to Israel and to King Messiah, as it is written, 'In that day
shall the present be brought to the Lord of hosts.' (Yalkut 160).

In the play the Duke initially says that half of Shylock’s wealth goes to Antonio,
the other half to the State. Antonio modifies that in lines 376-385, so that instead
of owning outright half of Shylock’s goods, Antonio will have them in use, and on
Shylock’s death they will go to Lorenzo and Jessica. For this favor Shylock has to
become a Christian. Shylock then disappears from the play.

What happens to him? There are only two possibilities.


(a) Shylock becomes a Christian and on his death half his goods go to
Lorenzo and Jessica.

(b) Alternatively, Shylock does not become a Christian, in which case at


his death he owns nothing. He does not even have the value of a rope to hang
himself (4,1,362). That raises the question of what exactly he leaves to Jessica
and Lorenzo “After his death, of all he dies possess’d of” (5,1, 292-3). Since he
would not own even his clothes, all that he could be said to own was his naked
body. It is that which would be implicitly given to the “starved people” (5,1,294). It
is significant that they refer to the gift as “manna” (line 293), meaning of course
“what is it?” (JPS Torah Commentary/Shemot 16;15), and this is a key question
to answer.

The reader is then left with making a decision about the strength of Shylock’s
faith. It seems to me that he would not convert to Christianity, in which case what
he leaves Jessica is his corpse. The reason is that this is an allegory. The only
other Messiah figure, who left his body to be eaten and who also was put through
3 trials is Jesus. The play is a very simple and elegant parody of the Christian
Eucharist. This is confirmed by the reference towards the end of the play to
golden ‘patens’, the plate that was used in Christian churches to serve up the
body of Christ in the Eucharist. The purpose of the allegory is to show that it is
not Jews, but Christians, who should be accused of eating human flesh.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream


The world’s expert on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Professor Patricia Parker
at Stanford University. In 1998 she demonstrated that the play contains an
allegory set in first century Judea in which Thisbe is an allegory for the church
and Peter Quince is an allegory for Saint Peter. Bottom/Pyramus is a
conventional medieval allegory for Jesus. The Wall, the “wittiest
partition”(5,1,165), is an allegory for the Partition between Earth and Heaven
which comes down on the Last Day. So in the play-within-the-play, Peter Quince
presides over the Last Day, Apocalypse, in which Jesus comes again to be re-
united with the Church. But it all goes wrong and both die, with Bottom/Pyramus
dying in another comic parody of the Gospels’ “passion” story. This is all
standard scholarship, though known only to a few Shakespeare experts.

To confirm that Parker is correct, the death of Bottom/Pyramus uses a rhetorical


‘envelope’ structure to open and close with a reference to the ‘passion’ (5,1,277
and 303). In between, the light disappears, there is a stabbing in the side, a
reference to dice-playing (5,1,296-7), and a death. All of which echo the
descriptions of the crucifixion given in the gospels, including the men who cast
lots at the foot of the cross (shown on stage in the mystery plays as dice-
playing). In 2007 I wrote my thesis at the Shakespeare Institute on the allegories
in this play, and the Dark Lady Players demonstrated them onstage at the
Washington Shakespeare Festival and in a production at the Abingdon Theater
in New York City.
The Death of Bottom, photo © Jonathan Slaff, (2007).

But there is more. To build on Parker’s work further, Oberon is an “invisible”,


“jealous”, “Lord”, some of whose lines come from the solar Psalms, so he
evidently represents the Hebrew G-d. He is also fighting a war, against Titania,
who turns out to be an allegory for Titus Caesar— so perhaps this is the Roman-
Jewish war? So, for instance, the reason Titania so strangely gives orders to cut
off the legs of the bees (3,1,163) is that this parallels an order that Titus gave
during the war to cut off the limbs of a Jewish leader who was a descendant of
the Maccabees. It is a simple pun on bees/Maccabees. There is also a line in
Bottom’s crucifixion scene that alludes to the crucifixions that Titus ordered
towards the end of that war.

In the play however, the war is being fought over a little ‘Indian’ boy (2,1,22).
Since other characters come from Judea, this should rather be read, as was
normal in Elizabethan literature, as ‘Iudean’. So Titus/Titania has stolen away a
little Judean boy from the Hebrew G-d and turned him into a “changeling”
(2,1,120) who is crowned like Bottom/Jesus with thorny flowers (2,1,27). His
mother is a virgin votress or nun (2,5,123) associated with the sea (like the Virgin
Mary). In other words, Titus/Titania has stolen away the figure of the Messiah
and changed him into the literary figure of Jesus. Yahweh wants him back and
plans to take comic revenge by making Titania fall in love with the Jesus figure,
wearing Bottom’s asshead.
The Bees having their legs cut off, photo © Jonathan Slaff, (2007).

While remarkable, this anti-Christian satire appears compatible with a radical


new paradigm that is emerging in New Testament studies— notably in two recent
books Das Messias Ratsel and Caesar’s Messiah both by Joseph Atwill. This
radical New Testament model suggests that the account in the play is to some
extent symbolically conveying actual history. Although aspects of the play echo
historical details from the Roman-Jewish war--which the Jews lost-- in Oberon’s
war, on the Last Day the Jews will be victorious. This is why Oberon distributes
dew, which is found in no Christian Apocalypse but is found in the account of the
Last Day in the Zohar “when the Holy One revives the dead and will shower dew
from his hair” (Zohar 1:131a).

John Hudson
The Dark Lady Players, New York
www.darkladyplayers.com