Transnational Shakespeare & Elizabethan Travelogue: Jewish Otherness in The Merchant of Venice – Josh Mcloughlin

Josh Mcloughlin is co-Founder and editor at Sonder.

Transnational Shakespeare & Elizabethan Travelogue: Jewish Otherness in The Merchant of Venice  

Portia’s famous question to the Venetian court, ‘Which is the merchant here, and which is the Jew?’ could be re-written ‘which is the Christian here? And which is the Jew?’ since those present see the case as a religious conflict between Shylock’s vengeful ‘Jewish heart’ (IV.i.80) and a hoped for Christian, ‘gentle answer’ (IV.i.34) more so than a strictly legal-economic dispute.[1] That question and the answers to it were of great importance in Elizabethan England, and defining Jewishness was one of the great preoccupations of early modern transnational discourse.[2] For Patricia Clavin, ‘transnationalism […] is first and foremost about people: the social space they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange’.[3] Insofar as The Merchant of Venice represents the ‘social space’ of early modern Venice and its inhabitants, and participates in an ‘exchange’ of ideas with early modern travel writers like Thomas Coryat, Shakespeare is active in a ‘network’ of early modern transnationalism. Since those networks include the boundaries of different ideas and people as well as places, transnationalism is as much social, cultural and religious as it is geographical. Comparing The Merchant of Venice and Thomas Coryat’s Coryat’s Crudites, I will demonstrate the desire – and the discursive strategies – in early modern transnational writing to fix the difference between Christians and Jews. I will first theorize some ideas of transnationalism in relation to Shakespeare and Coryat, before discussing the two key transnational discursive strategies – visual and verbal – used by both writers to construct Jewish otherness.

Theories: Travel Writing, Early Modern Drama and Transnationalism

Caroline Levin and John Watkins supplement those post-colonial critical ‘studies [which] have already addressed Shakespeare’s place in the pre-history of Orientalism with respect to his representation of Indians, Moors and other non-European populations’ with their reading of ‘the foreigner as a portable category within European society itself’.[4] However, Levine and Watkins fail to fully grasp how early modern transnational engagements with ‘foreignness’ might prefigure later colonial discourses used to construct ‘oriental’ others in contradistinction to European self-sameness.[5] This is because, despite showing how Elizabethan drama ‘polic[es] the boundaries between English and foreign identities’, Levine and Watkins ultimately play down the importance of writers like Shakespeare in the construction of those boundaries.[6] Clavin’s suggestion that transnationalism ‘form[s]’, not just crosses, boundaries of networks, is implied but never realised in Levine and Watkin’s study. Transnational discourse is writing which shapes and is shaped by different but interconnected ‘network [s]’ – for example, English and Venetian, Christian and Jewish – and participates in the construction of the very boundaries it documents. Seen in this way, early modern transnationalism is more law-maker than ‘poli[ce]’ force. Just as Edward Said describes Orientalism as ‘the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it’, early modern transnational writing constructs and thereby fixes ideas of otherness.[7] The strategy, as Said notes, is less to objectively document an otherness discovered ‘there’ –  ‘polic[ing]’ ‘foreignness’ in Coryat’s Venice or Shakespeare’s dramatic ‘social space[s]’-  but to fabricate laws of otherness which consolidate the identity of the one who discourses.

Coryat actually travelled to Venice, but Shakespeare was a dramatic traveller who also participated in transnationalism through his imaginative rendering of geographical and cultural otherness. Coryat’s and Shakespeare’s regulation Jewish otherness demonstrates a proto-Orientalist use of discourse which constructs otherness through documentation and dramatization. First, Shakespeare and Coryat construct Jewish otherness through specular categorisations which codify Jewishness visually. Second, both writers construct a specific idea of Jewish discourse, fixing religious difference in the foreignness of Jewish language-use. Coryat’s reiterations of the difference between Jews and Christians in his travel ‘observations’ repeat Shakespeare’s own attempts to fix that difference in dramatic language.[8] Both early modern drama and travel writing participate in transnationalism insofar as both continually re-answer the question, ‘which is the Christian here? And which is the Jew?’ The instability of that distinction is implied by the need for multiple answers to that question, and so addressing Jewish otherness also speaks to the need to consolidate Christian identity. First I will show how both writers attempt to fix Jewish cultural difference visually.

Visions of Jewishness: Otherness on Page and Stage

James Shapiro notes the importance of codifying Jewishness visually:

the English began to think of the Jews […] as a potential threat to the increasingly permeable boundaries of their own social and religious identities. The challenge of preserving these boundaries was intensified by the difficulties of pointing to physical characteristics that unmistakably distinguished English Christians from Jews.[9]

Levine and Watkins also read Shapiro here, but in discussing how early modern attempts to enforce ‘sign[s] of difference’, such as the mandatory wearing of earrings for Jewish women, they ignore the way transnational writing actively ‘distinguishe[s]’ between Jew and Christian. [10] Rather, it is ideas of visually encoded cultural otherness which are significant. Coryat’s descriptions and Shakespeare’s dramatizations point not to any essentially ‘Jewish’ dress habits or physical traits. Instead, they disclose the desire and the discursive strategy for creating and fixing the difference between Christians and Jewish others through specular categorisation. Ania Loomba notes the ‘physical and moral’ myths which codify Jewish difference – particularly their ‘large hooked noses’.[11] As Toby Lelyveld points out, nasal ‘appendages’ were ‘standard equipment’ for actors playing Jews in medieval moralities and later figures like Barabas and Shylock.[12] Lelyveld goes on to add that Shylock was probably also played with a ‘red beard’.[13] Shylock remembers when Antonio ‘spit upon my Jewish gaberdine’ (I.iii.107) and Robert L. Lubin, like Oscar Wilde, sees Shylock’s gabardine as central to visualising theatrically the ‘stigma’ of Jewish otherness.[14] Visually encoded difference, then, was central to dramatizations of Jewishness in general, and to The Merchant of Venice in particular. While Coryat’s ‘observations’ (1) of Venetian Jews appear more material than mythic, this same need to fix Jewish difference visually persists in the discourse of Elizabethan travel writing. Coryat reports that ‘[The Jews] are distinguished and discerned from the Christians by their habites on their heads’ (370). Here Coryat’s discursive strategy, what Michel Foucault terms a ‘way of speaking’, is to utilise the regulation of dress to inscribe visual otherness in his own discourse.[15] Coryat continues:

[the Jews] do wear hats, and onely those Jews that are borne in the Westerne part of the world, as in Italy &c, but the Eastern Jews being otherwise […] weare Turbents upon their heads as the Turks do; but the difference is this: the Turks weare white, the Jewes Yellow. (370-371)

This intensified visual coding, now explicitly transnational, ensures that the Jews become objects of specular and textual knowledge, caught up and defined within and by Coryat’s ‘way of speaking’, just as Shylock’s visual presence on stage was crucial in constructing Jewish otherness in dramatic terms. Coryat’s assertion ‘the difference is this’ drives the point home with quasi-deictic immediacy (my emphasis). In the same way Said describes Orientalism as regulating Eastern otherness by ‘making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it,’ Coryat’s transnational discourse also ‘authoriz[es]’ the difference between Christians and Jews, crystallising it in a particular knowledge producing idiom, that of ‘obersvation[al]’ travel writing.  Coryat’s increasing specification of Jewish identity, ‘distinguish[ing]’ between Eastern and Western Jews, and Eastern Jews and Turks, constructs a finely tuned set of specular cues which inscribe Jewish difference – ‘being otherwise’ – in the same way the nose, beard and gabardine mark Shylock’s Jewishness dramatically. Both journal and stage participate in a transnational-discursive construction of Jewish otherness, utilising visually encoded markers to articulate religious difference. It is not, as Levine and Watkins assume, a ‘polic[ing]’ of some pre-existing boundaries. Rather, Coryat and Shakespeare construct those boundaries immediately and even as they represent them, ‘dealing’ as Said says, with Jewishness ‘by making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it’.[16]  Coryat does not relate how Christians dress, but compares Jew and Turk, defining otherness as deviation from an unspoken because unambigious Christian standard.  Likewise a Christian ‘look’ on the Elizabethan stage is rarely laboured, except in the case of clergy.[17] Christians instead appear as lawyers, merchants, heiresses, sailors and dukes – not just ‘the Jew’ or ‘the Moor’. The close attention, in Coryat and Shakespeare, to visual difference demonstrates both the desire and the strategy to construct and ‘authoriz[e]’ otherness in opposition to Christianity in both travel writing and drama.

Language of the Other: English Transnationalism and Jewish Discourse

Coryat goes on to describe a synagogue service, implying a comparison with Christian church discourse. Coryat says ‘[the Jew] […] pronounce[s] before the congregation not by a sober, distinct and orderly reading, but by an exceeding loud yaling, undecent roaring and as it were a beastly bellowing of it forth’ (371). Coryat observes a rule of three, pairing ‘sober’ with ‘exceeding loud yaling’; ‘distinct’ with undecent roaring’ and ‘orderly reading’ with ‘a beastly bellowing of it forth’. Coryat’s careful, verbal alignment constructs a hierarchical opposition between Christian church liturgy – the ‘sober, distinct and orderely reading’ he is used to – and Jewish religious service. The rhetorical rule of three unifies the point and the unattributed marginalia redoubles the distinction, describing the service as ‘roaring not reading’ (371) and ‘tedious babbling’ (373). Shakespeare also dramatizes a peculiarly Jewish use of language whilst answering the same question ‘which is the Christian here? And which is the Jew?’ Shylock declaims:

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? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? (III.i.58-64)

Shakespeare does not give Shylock verse here, as he does elsewhere. The prose form anticipates Coryat’s account of the lack of control exercised over language by the Jewish religious speaker. Shakespeare reserves prose for low characters, so here dramatic form works to reduce Shylock to the ‘undecent roaring’ (371) Coryat says characterises Jewish discourse. In this way, what Judith W. Page sees as Shylock’s ‘sympathetic’ justification for ‘revenge’ is, in fact, Shakespeare’s formal rendering of what Coryat terms Jewish ‘loud yaling’ (371).[18]  In what some see as a redeeming passage demonstrating Shakespeare’s cultural tolerance, dramatic form undermines any ‘dignity’ of content to fix a peculiarly Jewish relationship to language as fundamentally opposite and inferior to ‘orderely’ Christian discourse.[19] For Said, this idea of ‘opposition’ structures Orientalist discourse, which separates West from East using divisions like order/chaos or rational/irrational. Likewise, Shakespeare’s form and the opposition Coryat sets up between ‘beastly’ Jewish discourse and ‘sober’ Christian language construct the very difference they pair dramatize and document respectively. Coryat codifies Jewishness as excessive, barbaric, unintellectual and zealously ‘superstitious’ (375).[20]  Shakespeare’s use of form, which works like a mocking joke, likewise relegates Shylock’s command of language from high verse to low prose at the very the moment he would appear most ‘sympath[etic]’, thus dramatizing the same version of Jewishness Coryat observes in Venice.[21]


Coryat and Shakespeare demonstrate how early modern transnational discourse constructs Jewish otherness in opposition – and in order to consolidate – Christian identity. In The Merchant of Venice and Coryat’s Crudites, Jewishness is fixed as opposite to Christianity: Old Testament savagery instead of New Testament mercy; barbaric linguistic and discursive excess instead of Western ‘sober […] and orderly reading’; intellectually obdurate; resorting to violence to settle disputes, and visually alien by Western/Christian standards. In the same way Said describes Orientalism as regulating otherness by ‘making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it,’ Shakespeare and Coryat fix Jewish visual and linguistic difference, the one theatrically, the other through ‘observation’ (1). Critics like Levine and Watkins ignore the productive role played by early modern transnational discourses in the construction of the very ‘foreignness’ these texts appear merely to dramatize or document. Instead of seeing Shakespeare and Coryat as reiterating or ‘polic[ing]’ existing ideas of Jewish otherness, we can see how these writers, much like later Orientalists, construct cultural boundaries even as they represent them. Two key discursive strategies – the visual and the verbal – at work in both Coryat and Shakespeare demonstrate how early modern transnationalism, though extending across different textual forms from the dramatic to the descriptive, address that same question: ‘Which is the Christian here? And which is the Jew?’

[1] All lines references are to John Russell Brown (ed.), William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (London: Arden, 1955)

[2] The most comprehensive study is James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). Shapiro says, ‘while there were not many Jews in early modern England, it was nonetheless a society surprisingly preoccupied with Jewish questions’ (p.1).

[3] Patricia Clavin, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary European History, 14 (2005), pp.421-439, p.422

[4] Caroline Levin and John Watkins, Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds: National and Transnational Identities in the Elizabethan Age (London: Cornell, 2009), p.10

[5] The classic study is Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1994 [1979]). Said describes how Western discourse constructs Oriental culture as an object of knowledge; this knowledge constitutes an exercise of power to subjugate, control, regulate and ‘put into discourse’ the objects of that knowledge, in the sense originally described by Michel Foucault. See especially, ‘Knowing the Oriental’, pp.31-49. For Foucault’s model of subject-production, see Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Vol.1, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998)

[6] Levin and Watkins, Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds, p.13

[7] Said, Orientalism, p.3

[8] Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s Crudites (Glasgow: Glasgow University Press, 1905 [1611]), p.1 [all subsequent references incorporated].

[9] Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews, p.7 [my emphasis]

[10] Levine and Watkins, Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds, p.89

[11] Ania Loomba, Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.144

[12] Toby Lelyveld, Shylock on Stage (London: Routledge, 2014 [1961]), p.8

[13] Lelyveld, Shylock On Stage, pp.7-9

[14] Robert L. Lubin, Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture (London: Ashgate, 2011), p.160.

[15]Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M Smith (London: Tavistock, 1972 [1969]), p.193.

[16] Said, Orientalism, p.3

[17] As Lubin notes, theatrical ‘Christian habit likely included a doublet, breeches, nether socks, and perhaps a jerkin, apparel such as was common in England at the time’ (143 my emphasis) . In other words, actors on stage were not distinguished as Christians with the same specificity as were Jews, Turks or other religious foreigners. See Lubin, ‘Religion’ in Costuming the Shakespearean Stage, pp.123-163

[18] Judith W. Page, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’: Edmund Kean and The Sympathetic Shylock, Wordsworth Circle, 34 (2003), pp.116-119, p.116.

[19] Interestingly William Hazlitt saw the ‘dignity’ in this passage, after seeing Edmund Kean’s famous 1814 production, only insofar as ‘[Kean’s] Jew is more than half a Christian’. Any virtue in Shylock’s speech, then, is not so much redemptive of Jewishness as it is reinstating what Coryat calls ‘orderely’ Christian discourse over Jewish ‘loud yaling’. Similarly reinscribed by Hazlitt is the division Shakespeare implicitly makes between Jewish prose and Christian verse, given that any sympathy for Shylock comes from his un-Jewish – i.e. Christian – use of language. Hazlitt quoted in John Russell Brown (ed.) ‘Introduction’ in William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (London: Arden, 1955), p.xxxiv

[20] ‘Barbaric’ is used here as it comes from Greek βαρβαρικός (‘like a foreigner’) or βάρβαρος (‘foreign, rude’), especially to do with the use of language [OED ‘barbaric’ (adj.)]

[21] Judith W. Page, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ p.116.


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