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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 at Manhattan Theatre Source in Greenwich Village.


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-


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

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

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