Abstract

This essay argues that the gendered racial representation of Jews in early modern English culture, articulated explicitly in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, draws upon a similar set of ideas developed in medieval England. Concerns in thirteenth-century England about the efficacy of Jewish conversion to Christianity gave rise to the notion of an immutable Jewish racial identity constructed in theological, class, somatic, hereditary, and gendered terms and revealing a concern that Jews gain parity or even superiority to Christians through conversion. The representation of a Jewish woman racially indistinguishable from Christians and acquiescent to conversion develops in the same period, as Aristotle's views on gender and reproduction are reintroduced in Europe. Aristotle argued for the "natural" inferiority of women, that they are mere vessels for nurturing the male seed that becomes a child. These ideas make possible the construction of an acceptable convert whose inferiority is fixed even after her "elevation" to Christianity and whose racial status is moot, since she contributes none of her characteristics to her husband's offspring. A close consideration of the medieval roots of these gendered representations of Jewish race in the early modern period is followed by a discussion of their operation in The Merchant of Venice.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-3555
Print ISSN
0037-3222
Pages
pp. 1-30
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-12
Open Access
No
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