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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

King Edward I and the Edict of Expulsion

In 1290, King Edward I issued an Edict of Expulsion which ordered all Jewish people to leave England.

Edward I

There are no precise numbers as far as the Jewish population at the time. I have found estimates from 2000 to 16000.

But the very last ones finally left England on 9 October of that year.

England was not the only country to expel Jews in the Middle Ages, as this map illustrates:

The Jews in England arrived in significant numbers with William the Conqueror in 1066.

By the way, the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings is on 14 October.

William considered the Jews to be very important to the country and he gave them a special protection under the law. They were not under the rule of any particular lords, as were other citizens, but under the direct rule of the king himself.

Jews could practice usury, lending money for profit.

Christians were strictly forbidden by the Church to practice usury.

William the Conqueror

William understood the importance of usury, since it created more industry and more importantly it provided him with a steady stream of revenue, which he could collect personally.

Unfortunately, the Jews became more and more unpopular and urban legends and anti-Semitic myths spread that unfortunately still exist today in the darker corners of the world.

This of course led to violence, as in the York massacre in 1190, where about 150 Jews were killed.

Soon after, in 1218, England was the first country to require Jews to wear badges.

By 1289, King Edward was deep in debt and he wanted to order his knights to go collect more taxes. But in order to make the taxation more palatable, he offered to expel all of the Jews as well.

Despite his edict, there is evidence that some Jews remained.

In fact, Queen Elizabeth I had a doctor named Rodrigo Lopez, who was one such hidden Jew. He was executed for plotting to assassinate the Queen.

The events of his plot have been thought to hold a clue to the meaning of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice -- a play about a moneylending Jew in Venice.

Actor Charles Macklin as Shylock

I don't think the Lopez plot had much to do with the play.

I think the more significant fact is that Queen Elizabeth issued a Usury Act in 1571 which for the first time allowed Christian Englishmen to practice usury, lending money for profit.

This was a popular and problematic change -- it allowed more money to flow and arguably was responsible for the strong economy the Elizabethans enjoyed, but it flew in the face of centuries of prohibitions against it.

Some people, including Shakespeare's own father it would seem, were accused of usury and had to go to court to defend themselves.

I think Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice to explore these issues in a very bawdy and funny way, and lampoon the prejudices against Jews. 

No matter how you read the play, arguably the most problematic of his "problem plays" -- Shylock is the most human and three-dimensional character in the play.

Also, recently I discovered that the name Shylock means Shakespeare!

I like to think that Shakespeare's play had a hand in changing attitudes towards Jews in England, and Europe in general, and led to the overturning of the Edict in 1656.

Much has changed since then, and today the population of Jews in Britain numbers 300,000, 
the second largest population in Europe and the fifth largest Jewish community worldwide.


David B. Schajer

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