- Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage
This volume claims to be the first book-length study of the Jewish woman in Renaissance drama. This is an ambitious undertaking and one that fills a clear gap in the study of Early Modern theatre. Through close analysis of Elizabethan plays, sermons and commentaries, Michelle Ephraim explores the ways in which Protestant playwrights represented the queen as a Jewish woman in attempts to legitimate her authority as head of the nascent Church of England. Ephraim argues that by staging stories from Hebrew scripture, Protestant dramatists laid claim to the Old Testament as a prisca veritas, the pure Word of God, which could only be interpreted correctly by those of the new, reformed faith. But the ambivalent representations of the Jewish woman reveal a deep-seated cultural anxiety over the process of reading and interpreting the Jewish Bible and a growing awareness of the possibility of multiple interpretations of the Word of God. Ephraim exposes the way the body of the female Jew came to stand for the elusive meaning of the [End Page 208] Hebrew scripture; the Jewish woman was represented as a text that could not be understood.
The first four chapters of the book are devoted to little-known dramatic adaptations of the Biblical stories of Deborah, Esther, Rebecca, Susannah and Jephthah. It is in light of these performances that Ephraim then turns her sharp critical gaze to the famous ‘Jewish daughters’ in the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare. This elegant structure encourages the reader to understand Shakespeare and Marlowe as part of a wider dramatic movement that sought to explore the Protestant relationship to Hebrew scripture through the figure of the Jewish woman. In the epilogue, Ephraim provides a brief analysis of the works of Elizabeth Cary and Aemilia Lanyer to propose that it is through the figure of the Jewish woman that these female authors asserted a uniquely feminine literary and religious authority. This is a particularly interesting argument and it is unfortunate that it is not developed further in this study.
The depth of its research and the elegance of its expression distinguish this highly scholarly work. There can be no doubt that it will make a valuable contribution to the study of Early Modern drama.