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Anti-Semitism and the English Mystery Plays Stephen Spector The general tone of the medieval English mystery plays is affirmative. The early religious drama conveys a triumphant vision of temporal and cosmic symmetry that was designed to comfort and sustain the believing Christian. Yet there also exists within the plays a mood of unrelenting hostility, and this is directed in large part toward the disbeliever, the Jew. The mys­ tery plays comprise, in fact, one of the most vehemently antiJewish genres in the history of English literature. I propose in this article to explore the character of this anti-Jewishness and to speculate about its function. I shall argue that the perspec­ tives and dynamics of the drama parallel those of classic and clinical anti-Semitism: that the drama not only distorts and stereotypes the Jew, but more particularly that it assigns to the Jew the unwanted aspects of the Christian community and con­ sequently execrates him. I offer this analysis both in order to address an important issue that has been too often ignored, and also to attempt a more temperate and adequate assessment than those which now exist. This study is not an indictment of a single group, but rather a consideration of human failings. I describe here a mode of self-justification and self-defense that can operate in all men, Jews as well as Christians. Hannah Arendt, Jacob Katz, and others have demonstrated Jewish complicity in historical reli­ gious recriminations,! and this must be explored, as must Chris­ tian offenses, in the hope that both can be better understood and therefore avoided. Most of the critics who discuss the anti-Semitism of the religious drama do so with an indignation that impedes accurate appraisal. Their work is neither systematic nor analytical, but only loosely descriptive and condemnatory. For example, Ed3 4 Comparative Drama ward N. Calisch says in The Jew in English Literature that in the New Testament plays “there is no accusation [against the Jews] too horrible, no charge too monstrous to prevent its being given credence and repetition.”2 M. J. Landa says in The Jew in Drama that “in every possible way the representation of the medieval drama vilified the Jew,” and he adds that the Jews “were fair game for the merciless sport of the ignorant people whom the ecclesiastical writers of the Mysteries and the Miracle plays were anxious to impress. The convention of the Jew of the stage was thus bom amidst fanaticism, intolerance and ignor­ ance. . . .”3 These critics are right to condemn the anti-Semitism of the plays, but they are mistaken in their assessment of the insult and, in Landa’s case, in the attribution of motive. The Jews in many of the plays are demeaned, but not in “every possible way.” Rather, their vices are precisely and consistently delineated, and the nature of these vices reveals much about the plays themselves. To ascribe these stage-portraits to fanaticism, intolerance, and ignorance, as Landa does, is to ignore the sig­ nificance of the Jew to the drama—and to the community that wrote, produced, and attended the plays. That significance can be discovered by comparing the antiJewishness of the plays with the dominant psychoanalytic theory about real-life anti-Semitism. This conception of antiSemitism was first tacitly suggested by Sigmund Freud, and has since been reiterated by historians, social commentators, and clinical psychologists. In essence, it portrays the anti-Semite as a person who condemns in the Jew those qualities, real or attributed, that he cannot tolerate in his experience or in himself .4 The anti-Semite attempts to externalize inner conflicts and to relieve anxieties by unconsciously scapegoating the Jew.5 He seizes on the Jew because the Jew is the available or cultur­ ally-defined target, the suspect, alien element in the community, and he projects onto the Jew dangers that the anti-Semite finds threatening. In this way, the anti-Semite’s personal responsibility for his problems is reduced, and the problems themselves are readily located in an external and convenient repository: the Jew. The attributes perceived in the Jew are a function of the anti-Semitism, and will therefore reveal more about the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 3-16
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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