- Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage
Anyone lucky enough to happen upon Michelle Ephraim's 15 June 2008 article in the Washington Post, "Father's Day with Shakespeare," a touching piece about using Shakespeare to cope with her own father's passing, will unavoidably think of her as a deeply engaged writer with a keen ability to cut straight to the heart of even the messiest matter. Ephraim's new book is characteristic. Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage is an absorbing and piercing examination into female Jewish characters of the period that is historically both broad and deep, framed by a thorough theorization. Grounded in the most recent scholarship on the topic of Jewish representation in Elizabethan plays, this book manages within the first three pages to significantly complicate commonly held notions of Elizabethan anti-Semitism as reflected in both the playwriting and theology of the period.
The book is organized in a clear chronology depicting arcs of evolution of female characters from biblical sources (Esther, Deborah, Rebecca, Susanna, Bathsheba, and the daughter of Jephthah) to original characters like Marlowe's Abigail, daughter of Barrabas in The Jew of Malta, building to a coup de grâce with Shakespeare's Jessica, daughter of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. As a critical analysis focusing on depictions of both women and Jews, reading plays against broader social contexts of politics and ecclesial writings, the book is valuable enough. But Ephraim here has bigger (gefilte) fish to fry.
What the book is really tussling with is the uneasy, fraught, and overdetermined relationship of anti-Semitic Christians to Jews as a people who, despite their supposed malignancy, intractability, infidelity, cannibalism, necromancy, blasphemy, and general inborn wickedness, are nevertheless the inheritors and custodians of the most central and sacred biblical truths. Jewish women are even more problematic; Judaism is, after all, the womb of Christianity. As a Jew who grew up in Salt Lake City, I am particularly interested at the intense and often (to my eye) ridiculous theological gymnastics necessary to liberate holy biblical Jews from diabolical living ones, and the divided consciousness that results. In this book, Ephraim deftly exposes this mechanism as it concerned the Elizabethan stage, contextualizes it, and renders it legible without diminishing its complexity.
One passage that accomplishes this very well is Ephraim's examination of the play The Godly Queene Hester, a dramatic adaptation that was probably penned in the context of representations of Esther in civic pageantry. The play would gain publication and wide readership in 1561 thanks to associations with Elizabeth's 1558 ascendancy to the throne of England. Esther, Ephraim argues, is a complex figure who employs her female body to infiltrate (using both subterfuge and [End Page 406] racial cross-dressing) non-Jewish culture, at once protecting biblical truth from extermination and also finding fertile soil for it to germinate, ultimately emerging as a political powerhouse, revealing the secluded truth and then disseminating it. The temptation for comparison to Protestant Elizabeth, shut up by Catholic Mary only to emerge as queen, proved too great for Elizabeth's panegyrists. Naturally, however, it's not quite so simple. Ephraim writes:
Esther's Jewish identity, which she wields as a commanding political weapon, also plays out contemporary concerns about scriptural interpretation.… In Hester, an Elizabethan audience could imagine their queen as a righteous monarch as well as a body that can "unclaspe" meaning. In one sense, Hester suggests a deceptive exterior that must be penetrated to discern a hidden Christian truth, but the interlude also inverts this traditional hermeneutic mode. In The Godly Queene Hester, Hester's hidden Jewishness offers the essence of scriptural clarity and yet ultimately delivers a Judaic and nationalistic meaning that excludes her Christian audience.(30)
That meaning, involved as it is with a body that is both Jewish and female, becomes a site of tremendous anxiety, as reflected in the plays. The efficaciousness of Esther's subterfuge reminds the audience that the foreign threat remains present even in an England that can arguably...