- Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in "The Merchant of Venice"
Conversion narratives are perhaps the key defining feature of early modern conceptions of identity. They have been marginalized because it was assumed for a long time that race was an alien category, a belief very few hold today, and that religion could be read as a separate, self-sufficient category. A wealth of recent research and intellectual endeavour has shown that notions of race and religious identity were intertwined in complex ways that we are only just beginning to unravel. Colin Kidd's groundbreaking work on British identities coined the term "ethno-theology," in the understanding that religion and race were rarely perceived independently. John Bale, English bishop of Ossory in Ireland, for example, could happily write about the English Christian and the Irish papist, nations defined by religious identity so that it was not clear what actually made one English or Irish, or a Christian or a papist, and how easy it was to change states. Such insights have been supplemented by the work of historians such as Peter Lake, who have shown how early modern people simply could not imagine religion separated from the stuff of daily life. We are now familiar with the criticism of New Historicism, which points out that its practitioners, blinded by the rhetorical brilliance of Foucault, thought that everything was about power and display and neglected to think about belief and sincerity. But the converse also holds true: religion cannot be imported as the key to all mythologies because it too did not exist in isolation but was related to everything else that was important.
To return to the principal subject here, it is likely that, even now, we undervalue the significance of conversion, focusing on spectacular examples of the transference from one faith to another, Christians turning Turk, or vice versa, rather than the ways in which the idea of conversion forced people to think about who they really were. In her wonderful new book, the product of many years of research and, more importantly, industrious thought, Janet Adelman argues that the conversion narrative was a fundamental issue for Christian England. Christians were, of course, converted Jews and, however hard they denied their origins or despised the Jews, they could not erase this fundamental understanding of their identity. This is why, according to Adelman, The Merchant of Venice [End Page 412] is such a powerful and important play and why it has been misread as if it were simply about prejudice, as if somehow the "other" was just outside: "theologically, the knowledge that Merchant simultaneously gestures toward and defends against us is that the Jew is not the stranger outside Christianity but the original stranger within it" (4).
The introduction shows that anti-immigrant sentiment and violence in 1590s London was never far away from anti-Semitism, even when it focused on the Dutch and French: "generalized anti-alien sentiment could easily gain its force from anti-Jewish discourse" (8). Adelman suggests that the scene in which Sir Thomas More quells the anti-stranger riots in the play that bears his name extends a sympathy toward others who had flocked into London: Spanish, Portuguese, and, among them, conversos. The stage also witnessed the opposite representation of strangers: The Three Ladies of London shows London as the new Venice, with Lucre and Usury dominating the character of the capital, and features a xenophobic plot that does not explicitly name the Jews as culpable of undermining the nation's civic values but that allows the audience to make the connection. John Foxe, whose history of the English church as the true church would have been a touchstone for many, wrestled with the relationship between Christian and Jew, on the one hand straining to expunge all traces of his religion's origins, but on the other, acutely aware of its genealogy. Foxe bases his sense of English identity on the ancestry of the English church but then has to deny this logic when faced with the Jews...