Was Shakespeare a believing Jew? – Sun Sentinel

Posted By on August 4, 2023

Was William Shakespeare, the most famous playwright of all-time, actually a faithful Jew?

At first glance the question seems preposterous. Shakespeare is the author of one of the most famous antisemitic works of all time The Merchant of Venice. He had his children baptized and he was married and buried in a church. During his lifetime,Jews could not legally live in England. They had been expelled in 1290 and would not be invited back until 1656, 40 years after Shakespeare s death.

And yet, its hard to ignore the intriguing evidence.

Courtesy of Aish.com

Shakespeares plays draw upon over 2,000 references to the Bible. While Shakespeare could be expected to know the Bible, the worlds most popular book, it is evident from his writing that he was familiar with its Hebrew version and with the Hebrew language in general. He also had knowledge of the Mishnah and the Talmud, includingPirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, a Mishnaic compilation of ethical teachings and maxims. Quotes from the Oral Torah appear throughout his works in hidden form. Some even claim that his plays contain hints of the Zohar, Judaisms chief mystical text.

How could a gentile living in a country without Jews be familiar with all this material? And even if he did why did he include them in his texts?

Quotes from the Mishna

Mishnaic quotes appear in some easily identified lines, such as Whats mine is yours and what is yours is mine, inMeasure for Measure(5:1) and Sin will pluck on sin, inRichard III(4:2). While both lines are drawn from Ethics of the Fathers, their simplicity suggests that it might just have been a coincidence. But the line Sin leads to sin continues in in the Mishna with the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah (4:2). This too appears in ShakespearesCoriolanusin the praise of Marcius, a man who rewards his deeds with doing them,(2:2). It then becomes evident that Shakespeare has fully rendered this Mishna.

The following words of Marcius: You cry against the noble senate, who, under the gods, keep you in awe, which else would feed on one another?(Coriolanus, Act 1, Sc. 1) bear a close resemblance to Rabbi Chaninas words in Ethics of the Fathers Pray for the welfare of the government for if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive (3:2).

Both Rabbi Hillel and Hamlet comment in a similar manner when they see a human skull. Hamlet muses that perhaps it was the skull of a politician who thought he could circumvent God but is now being overruled by a lowly gravedigger. This is the same moral of measure for measure drawn by Rabbi Hillel when he sees a skull floating in a river. Because you caused the heads of others to float, others caused your head to float. (Ethics, 2:6)

These are only a few examples of the many lines of Ethics of the Fathers which Shakespeare quoted. And lest it be surmised that Shakespeare restricted himself to these sayings which had some early Latin translations in England, we find numerous examples from other portions of the Mishna that had not been translated.

For example, King Priam in Troilus and Cressida presents the Mishnas five penalties to be imposed on one who injures another. Deliver Helen, and all other damage, all honor (in Hebrew,boshet), wasted time (shevet), effort (tzaar), money (repoui), wounds (nezek), friends and whatever else that is wasted in this war, shall be forgottenTroilus and Cressida(2:2).

InA Midsummer Nights Dream, the Mishnas TractateNedarim(Vows) is used to structure how Helena compares herself to Hermia. Her three criteria beauty, fairness, and height are the very same and in the same order as those used in the Mishna to determine the annulment of marriage vows: [If one vows,] Konamif I marry that ugly woman, whereas she isbeautiful; that black[-skinned] woman, whereas she isfair; that short woman, who is in facttall, he is permitted to marry her(Nedarim9:10).

And the name of Helenas father is none other than Nedar, which means vows in Hebrew. There is even a Hebrew play on words here, as the Hebrew word nedar also means missing and Helenas father is indeed always absent and never appears on stage.

Of course, gentiles reading the play would completely miss these inferences, but knowledgeable Jews would catch it.

Shakespeares Name

What about Shakespeares name? Surely that doesnt sound Jewish.

Peter Levi, in his book,The Life and Times of William Shakespeare(1986) reveals that Shakespeares father name was recorded in a court document as Johannem Shakere. In Hebrew shaker means falsehood. The word appears in the Ninth Commandment in the phrase, dont be a false witness. This may hint to Shakespeares identity as a crypto-Jew, a secret Jew who outwardly practiced Christianity. This is especially so when the word is considered in connection with the verse inIsaiah 63:8They are my people, children who will not be false (lo yeshakeroo). As Jew living as a Christian he would have felt he was living a lie. During Shakespeares time, if a Jew wanted to live in England where Jews were banished for almost 400 years, he would have to adopt a false identity.

The belief that Shakere was the original family name is boosted by the depiction on the Shakespeare family coat of arms which consists of a hawk, a saker, shaking a spear as in s(h)aker-spear or Shake-speare.

Hidden Hebrew Words

Several scholarly works have been written on the subject of Shakespeares Judaism. These includeWas Shakespeare Jewishby Ghislain Muller,Shakespeares Dark Ladyby John Hudson, and several books by David Basch. One of the worlds most celebrated authors, James Joyce, even hints at Shakespeares Judaism in his famous bookUlysses. When John Wyse Nolan reaches for his Shakespeare book he says, Ill say there is much kindness in the Jew.

And theres still more evidence. InAlls Well That Ends Well, what is supposedly nonsense text proves upon closer examination to be Hebrew. This was discovered by Shakespeare researcher Florence Amit. The interpreter begins his sentence to Parolles with, Boskos vauvado and later he says Kerely-bonto (4:1). In the allegory in the play Parolles is a Jew. Fittingly, then, the nonsense language the interpreter appears to be speaking is really Hebrew/Ladino. Translated the text also makes sense in the context of the play.Boz Kozmeans In bravery like boldness andVavadomeans And in his surety. And so we get: In bravery like boldness, and in surety, I understand thee, and can speak thy tongue.

Similarly,Kerli, I am aware andbonto; his deception. Thus, I am aware of his deception sir, betake thee to thy faith

Basch even claims that Shakespeares 154 Sonnets mirror the 150 Biblical Psalms. For example, Sonnet 30s couplet of gratitude When I think of you (dear friend), All losses are restored and sorrows end parallels DavidsPsalm 30which similarly thanks God Who has changed my mourning into dancing. And in Sonnet 18 we find Nor shall death brag, thou wander in his shade This is manifestly similar toPsalm 23Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Biblical Themes

There are also entire Shakespeare plays based on Biblical stories. For example,The Tempestparallels the Torahs story of Joseph and his brothers. Both Joseph and Prospero are the victims of jealous brothers upset with their special privileges. And in both works, Joseph and Prospero end up exiled to a foreign land where they become its rulers. In the end, both protagonists hide their true identities and replicate the circumstances of their initial betrayal in order to allow their brothers to make amends for their past cruelty. (The name of Prosper, it did bass my trespass.) Finally, both reveal themselves to their brothers and forgive them for their crimes. Prospero acts in virtue [rather] than in vengeance (5.1.28) while Joseph magnanimously tells his brothers, Do not be distressed or feel guilty that you sold me into slavery(Genesis 45:5).

But perhaps most fascinating of all is the Jewish historical allegory in Shakespeare plays which has led to them being called Jewish revenge literature. Prof. Patricia Parker, an expert onA Midsummer Nights Dream, says the play is actually an allegorical discussion of the Roman and Jewish war of 66-73 C.E and the destruction of Ancient Israel. Titania, Queen of the Fairies, is a hidden reference to Titus Flavius the Roman General who destroyed the Jewish Temple. And Oberon, King of the Fairies, represents God. He becomes invisible (2:1), and the appearance of the terms jealous (2.1) and Lord (2.1), in close succession, echo the description in Exodus, For I, the Lord thy God am a jealous God (20:5).

Meanwhile Bottom/ Pyramus is referred to as the lovely Jew (3:1). But instead of Titus beating the Jews, this time God defeats Titus. This is confirmed at the end of the play, with the Day of Judgment, when the spirits come out of the graves and are blessed with dew. That the graves all gaping wide, Everyone lets forth his sprite. (5:1) With this field dew consecrate. (5:1) This peculiar characteristic is not found in descriptions of the Christian apocalypse, but it does appear in the Zohar: And at the time, when the Holy One will raise the dead to life, He will cause dew to descend upon them from His head. By means of that dew all will rise from the dust . . .

More references to the Roman defeat of Israel are found inMacbeth, where the central character is a Roman fool (5:8), who is compared to Tarquin, ruler of Rome, who destroys the Lords anointed Temple (2:3). In fact, the names of both Titus and Flavius appear in many Shakespeare plays where they are often ridiculed. In Timon of Athens, Titus makes a comic cameo appearance as a cursed debt collector trying vainly to collect money from Flavius. InJulius Caesar, Titinius stabs himself in the heart (5:3) in a scene that parallels that of another character, a clown called Flavius. Some even claim that that Romeo (Rome) and Juliet (Jew) is a hidden reference to the Roman and Jewish wars.

The Merchant of Venice

If Shakespeare was indeed Jewish, how then do we explainThe Merchant of Venice widely considered one of the most antisemitic plays ever written? On the surface, the play is clearly antisemitic, but when one digs deeper, some believe you begin to find criticism of Christian moral duplicity and superficiality. On the one hand they spout the virtues of mercy, while on the other, they demand the persecution of Shylock.

These commentators claim the plays true message is achieved only by understanding that Antonio, the gentile who owes Shylock the pound of flesh for defaulted loan, is actually a former Jew who rejected his people for material gain. There are many hints to this in the play, including a reference to Antonio as a publican (from the Christian Bible: Jewish tax-collectors who sided with the Roman authorities) and the repeated hints that the two men are of the same kind. With this understanding, the play becomes a fight for Shylock to remain a Jew, while those around him (including his daughter) submit to Christianity.

These commentators believe the playwright put into Shylocks mouth a speech that comes from deep within Shakespeares own heart: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?And if you poison us, do we not die?

Was Shakespeare a Jew? The jury is still out. But if his writing is any indication, it came from deep within a Jewish soul, yearning to be free.

Yehezkel Laing is a journalist, actor and filmmaker living in Jerusalem.

This article originally appeared on Aish.com

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Was Shakespeare a believing Jew? - Sun Sentinel

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