7 Conversion Interrupted: Shame and the Demarcation of Jewish Women’s Difference in The Merchant of Venice

Sara Coodin

Recent scholarship on the history of race has made clear that Jews have long been central to the logic of racial supremacy and were targets of distinctly racialized persecution in Europe as early as the thirteenth century.[1] “Jewish looks” and “looking Jewish” have not always been at the forefront of the discriminatory logic designating Jewish difference, but it is impossible to deny the long-standing intransigence of convictions that Jews are essentially and ineradicably “other.”[2] In Jews and Judaism’s complex and ongoing imbrication within ideas about race, racializing structures, and racism, an unstable relationship to visible forms of racial difference, including whiteness and Blackness, emerges.[3] Thus, this chapter takes a step back from the physiological as a primary source of Jewish difference and turns instead to the more diffused structures of feeling implicated in marking and perpetuating Jewish difference — especially the difference of Jewish women.

In contrast to Jewish men, Jewish women are often figured as less racially distinct and more assimilable, a feature reflected in the English literary canon through their imagined amenability to Christian marriage and conversion.[4] The Merchant of Venice’s Jessica provides a formative and influential example of the narrative of Jewish female responsiveness to normative Christianity and its potential to “whiten” Jewish converts. As an eligible, unmarried woman, Jessica is described using the period’s typical language of fairness. Her skin is figured as “ivory” to her father’s “jet” and her blood described as “rhenish” — light — in contrast to her father’s, which is likened to the darker “red wine” (3.1.35–36).[5] And yet, despite her association with whiteness, Jessica’s entry into Christian marriage remains conclusively ambivalent. Rather than being defined through conversion, Jessica is instead characterized through her repeated professions of religious self-loathing and shame. These affects forestall what are ultimately left unstaged: her transformative conversion and marriage.

Rather than focusing on discourses of bodily difference — complexion or blood — as key anchors of Jewish racial difference, I investigate Jessica’s deployment of religious self-loathing and shame as racially formative. Affect remains under-studied in its capacity to map social and political spaces and subjects along racial lines, despite the passions’ current centrality as a scholarly topic. This chapter considers self-loathing and shame as vitally important and distinctly political forms of currency in The Merchant of Venice, intimately bound up with race and the processes that attend the racial othering of Jewish women.

In its modern iteration, shame has overwhelmingly been understood as a private, inward condition rather than a public or political force. Jewish self-loathing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was particularly prone to psychologizing interpretations that designated it as a pathology of the mind. Fin de siècle Jewish “self-hatred” was considered a psychopathology of assimilated European Jewish intellectuals, evidenced through public figures such as journalist Karl Kraus and philosopher Otto Weininger, both of whom spoke out forcefully against the mannerisms of the “uncouth” Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) from whom they sought to distinguish themselves.[6] In a twentieth-century American context, the term “inferiority complex” used before the Second World War became known by the 1940s and 1950s as “Jewish self-hatred,” a concept “as attractive as … the Oedipal complex”[7] had been in the 1920s and 1930s in its capacity to illuminate the Jewish psyche.[8] “Jewish self-hatred” entered into the cultural lexicon as part of a “broader psychological moment in American social science, public policy, and public culture.”[9] Heavily influenced by the work of refugee scholars arriving from Nazi Germany, the postwar years brought an intensive focus on the affective experiences of persecuted minorities, particularly Ashkenazi or “European” Jews. Although the various iterations of modern Jewish self-loathing were also known to encompass a range of topical sociopolitical issues — prewar German Zionism, post-Holocaust trauma, Jewish assimilation in America — the framework for understanding the phenomenon itself remained insistently rooted in a psychologized view of the Jewish subject as a self-divided person, almost always depicted as male and presumed to be pale-skinned and Ashkenazi.

Whereas shame’s modern meaning has come to denote an inward condition — a self fundamentally in conflict with itself that maps external strife onto an interiorized terrain — by contrast, early modern accounts of shame emphasize a public, exteriorized constitution. Early modern shame was generated in an interpersonal social milieu, the product of being seen and perceived by others. Reflecting on how “men make no doubt of doing that in secret, which for shame they would not do openly,” Timothy Bright’s 1613 treatise on melancholy declares that shame depends on public scrutiny, without which there is no corresponding inner sense. Therefore, according to Bright, “[t]hough a man be greved & sorie therefore, yet before it be known to others is he not ashamed.”[10] An interiorized feeling of shame follows only after the public recognition of a misdeed.

Early modern shame’s distinctly public contours, as a form of experience inscribed outwardly and communicated in a social environment, would appear to confirm the recent scholarly claim that Renaissance emotions themselves were profoundly sociable, transactional entities.[11] Similar notions have also underwritten poststructuralist and new historicist scholarship theorizing the social constructs of interiority.[12] Much of that work has succeeded in challenging the post-Enlightenment concept of selfhood as a contained and inwardly generated thing. And yet, though such theories succeeded at challenging modern assumptions about selfhood and estranging the early modern from the modern, they also often remain intensively psychological in their focus. Several have rebuilt the Renaissance psyche by first emptying out its modern contents, and then pouring back into it a series of worldly elements, from geohumoralism to Elizabethan structures of authority, without attending significantly to race.[13] Early modern shame has been extensively theorized as a form of inherently social communication and a site of socializing discipline enforced on women’s bodies; however, those same discussions have also elided race from the picture of the social environments in which affective signals were apt to circulate.[14]

Emotion’s sociability, and shame’s in particular, points insistently towards the racial hierarchies in which shame is enmeshed — hierarchies that shame often helped to constitute. Rather than functioning as the marker of incomprehensibly premodern inwardness, or a form of discipline for bodies without discernible racial identities, or bodies characterized by an unmarked implicit whiteness, the affective experience of shame actually represents a remarkably legible form of race-making technology in the Renaissance and beyond, one that presides over the process of racial othering. Within Western moral-philosophical and scientific traditions, shame has functioned as a powerful tool for demarcating boundaries between types, groups, and categories of living things. As far back as Aristotle, shame and its most visible token, blushing, have been used to mark distinctions between male and female; between humans and other animals; between persons imagined capable of moral emotions as opposed to those excluded from a full range of capacities and therefore deemed less sensible, less civilized, even less-than-fully human.[15]

Shame’s racializing capacity during the Renaissance was bound up in complex ways with the discourse of complexion. As a prerequisite for certain forms of Christian virtue, the blushing cheek presupposes a skin tone light enough to redden with shame. Renaissance Spanish literature proverbializes the equation of light complexions with the capacity for virtue in expressions such as, “how can he be trusted who knows not how to blush,” a formulation that emphasizes pale skin’s inherent moral superiority over dark. Miguel de Cervantes reformulates this same commonplace slightly in Don Quixote as, “better a blush on your face than a blot in your heart.”[16] English Jesuit Thomas Wright offers a similar conclusion in his description of the relative merits of European and especially English complexions over other nationalities: “The very blushing also of our people showeth a better ground whereupon Virtue may build that certain brazen faces, who never change themselves although they commit, yea, and be deprehended in enormous crimes.”[17] Light skin becomes the prerequisite for virtues that, for women, are spelled out in English Renaissance moral codes centered on female modesty, silence, and sexual chastity or virginity, whose token is the blush. For men, temperance is often read as the key sign of the capacity to self-moderate, something of which dark-skinned populations are routinely imagined incapable in the period, just as they are excluded from the capacity to blush.

Despite the widespread association between complexional lightness and the capacity for shame and its associated virtues in Renaissance writings, these same texts often go on to discuss the ways shame also positions the body as fundamentally ambivalent rather than eminently readable. Even in the face of such supposedly clear signs as skin tone, shame has the capacity to destabilize the moral hierarchies that European Christian writers use to make sense of ethno-racial and religious difference. For travel writers, meditations on shame often shift into occasions for self-reflexive assessment in which the critical gaze is refocused back onto the European observer, who begins to critique the mores and morals of his fellow Europeans. Unguarded displays of nudity in New World Indigenous populations often prompt these kinds of episodes, in which the inherent moral superiority of normative Christian values is called into question. In the 1550s, Jean de Léry concludes in his written reflections on the Tupinumba of Brazil that the native tribespeople not only fail to conceal their bodies, but also are not ashamed of going about as naked as the day they were born.[18] Though unmistakably moralizing in its intent, de Léry’s account of the Tupinumba’s nudity also identifies a prelapsarian innocence in the tribespeople’s unclothed bodies, which then prompts him to reflect critically on the habits of European women. He concludes that French aristocratic women’s proclivity for jewelry, superfluities, and sartorial excess[19] generates a far more lascivious tableau than the Tupinumba’s unclothed simplicity.[20] De Léry’s reflection where he encounters the Brazilian “other” threatens to dissolve the moral imperative of his voyage and the theological mission that underwrites it, which is patterned on a conclusive conversion of the “savage” to Christianity. This same reflexive turn is also present in Michel de Montaigne’s meditation on the Tupinumba’s simplicity in “On Cannibals.” The unclothed tribesperson’s lack of shame generates a turn towards self-scrutiny, one that moves into cultural self-critique as well as the self-dissolving skepticism that characterizes many of Montaigne’s more extended reflections throughout the Essais.

Within Renaissance European travel writing, the naked body of the tribesperson promises to afford unguarded visual access to something vital that is kept closely hidden in a European context. The apparent absence of shame amongst Indigenous populations in faraway lands represents an occasion for the Christian observer to look more closely. Instead of disclosing its hidden secrets, however, the shame-less body of the “other” can only occasion a series of inconclusive attempts at meaning-making. The Christian narrative of prelapsarian innocence is introduced in de Léry’s account as a possible explanation for what he observes; however, de Léry cannot reconcile that account with his Christianizing mission, which views the tribespeople as unredeemed and primitive. The unclothed, shame-less body of the tribesperson resists facile moral explanations or easy location within a familiar hierarchy. Instead, discussions of shame and its absence turn the observer’s own gaze back on itself. In its capacity to destabilize, shame occasions a collapse of the interpretive enterprise and thereby occasions a kind of hermeneutic crisis, a phenomenon that Sujata Iyengar has argued constitutes shame’s signal feature in Renaissance writing.[21]

Shame’s capacity to incite hermeneutic instability is not only a feature of European observers’ encounters with the bodies of exotic “others,” but it is also endemic to familiar, local, and pale-skinned European Renaissance bodies. Women’s shame was particularly prone to signal multidirectionally. Markers such as the blush functioned as sites where moral truths were thought to be communicated; however, blushes had the capacity to indicate either guilt or innocence, wantonness or chastity. As a site of extraordinary significance for measuring the moral worth of individuals, women’s shameful blushes were simultaneously opaque in what they actually signaled. Thought to reflect the body’s transmission of blood to the face, Renaissance English accounts of the physiological processes underwriting blushing were awash with contradictions. Wright’s explanation cites the rush of “the purest blood” to the face as “a defence and succour the which effect, commonly, is judged to proceed from a good and virtuous nature, because no man but allow it, that it is good to be ashamed of a fault.”[22] Blushing signals virtue, a subject’s purest and innermost awareness of a fault’s inherent viciousness, and is therefore a sign of innocence. And yet Wright also asserts, contradictorily, that individuals blush “because nature being afraid, lest in the face the fault should be discovered.”[23] Wright’s comments appear to assert that blushing is both a sign of innocence and its opposite: an attempt to conceal a fault’s discovery, and therefore a sign of guilt.

In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica rehearses some of the key elements and contradictions that attend Renaissance discussions of shame, including the complexional whiteness that is imagined as a prerequisite to blushing and its corresponding Christian virtues. However, her blush also occasions some of the signature destabilizations that are equally endemic to Renaissance accounts of blushing, in ways that bear on her racial mobility. At the moment of her absconsion, Jessica calls attention to the “lightness” of her transgression and pronounces, “What, must I hold a candle to my shames? They in themselves, good sooth, are too too light. Why, tis an office of discovery, love, and I should be obscured” (2.6.42–45). Jessica’s juxtaposition of fairness, awareness of sin, and desire for the cover of night as she engages in transgressive activities communicates that she is cognizant of her current “sins,” which include theft, betrayal of her father, and elopement with a Christian man. Her shame therefore indicates her subjection to, and awareness of, a shared moral framework that regards such things as wrong, even as she playfully casts them as “light” or un-serious. The term “light” also references a complexional paleness that facilitates her participation in a shared Christian moral framework — one that, according to the conquistador’s logic, is framed according to skin tone and necessarily precludes dark complexions.

Through her turns of phrase, Jessica appears to situate herself as rightfully belonging to the world of Christian Venice, a milieu centered on the vilification of dark complexions that radiates through the play from Belmont outwards, and frames Shylock’s Jewishness as both theologically depraved and dark. Jessica’s characterization of shame through the language of color communicates a desire for belonging within a social community in which membership is prefaced on skin pale enough to register a blush. Here, Jessica aspires to be, and presents herself as, sufficiently light-skinned to enter that world.

Jessica’s mention of shame not once but twice as she absconds in Act 2, Scene 6 implies that she is capable of blushing even prior to conversion. But were Renaissance Jewish women imagined to be capable of blushing? Could conversion effect such a shift, even if a Jewish woman’s natural color was imagined to reflect darker tones? As she prepares to depart from her father’s home, Jessica calls out to Lorenzo in a speech that draws attention to her as a blushing subject while asking him to avert his eyes:

I am glad ’tis night you do not look on me,
For I am much ashamed of my exchange.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy. (2.6.35–40)

Jessica’s insistence on the moment of her absconsion as an “exchange” draws attention to several illicit elements that underwrite the scene, including her donning of male clothing to disguise her departure; the transgressive looting of her father’s coffers; the transfer of those funds to Lorenzo in lieu of a legitimate dowry; and the underlying fact of Lorenzo’s “marrying down” by eloping with a Jewish woman, however beautiful and richly endowed. All of these circumstances are rightful causes for blushing since they violate a host of protocols governing marriage and fidelity.

However, Jessica’s body — the very thing to which she calls attention in this episode, even as she implores her viewing audience to look away — is also a profoundly destabilizing entity. Her somewhat embarrassed joke about looking like a boy resonates meta-theatrically with the presence of the boy actor behind the young woman who dons the male disguise. The scene’s layers of theatrical artifice also extend to the actor’s other illusions, including the application of marks of shame through cosmetic rouge and white face paint, which formed part of the assemblage of cosmetic preparations sold to women in Renaissance England.[24] Even as she urges her onlookers to look away, Jessica calls attention to the signifying blush while simultaneously revealing its contingency as a construct produced, or at least producible, through the skilled illusions of makeup and actorly impersonation. In this scene, Jessica’s “lightness,” her pale skin and all of the social and racial mobility bound up with it, are de-stabilized through her call to look-but-not-look at her blushing face.

As Kimberly Poitevin has argued, early modern cosmetics could “disrupt the intersecting categories of race, nation, and religion” that were thought to mark — and render legible — a person’s complexion in Renaissance England.[25] This capacity, and the application of cosmetics, was predominantly associated with women in Renaissance England, unlike cosmetics’ use abroad, which travel writings ascribed to both men and women alike.[26] By recalling the blush and the spectral presence of the actor who plays Jessica’s role — a role characterized by the fluidity of disguise — Jessica destabilizes the connection between Jewish women and racial whiteness. In this moment of transition that forecasts her imminent conversion from Jew to Christian, the unsettling of clear racial belonging suffuses Jessica’s Jewish body with uncertainty and contingency. Within the parameters of the play, the Jewish woman’s body is revealed to be underwritten by a series of unstable signifiers. While it remains subject to transformation through the process of whitening-through-conversion described in some medieval texts, it can also be “painted” through the artful application of cosmetics. Jessica invites her lover, along with the play’s audience, to examine the “pretty follies” that actively unsettle her image as a chaste maiden, reminding them that what proves her modesty is ultimately a boy actor dressed as a young woman and the specter of makeup in the blush. Even the contingent phrasing surrounding the blush itself (“for if they could, Cupid himself would blush) and the blush’s obscure subvisibility in this scene — never directly perceived, and yet repeatedly recalled — further unmoors the scene’s anchoring in clearly visible racial, moral, and physiognomic categories. Does the Jewish would-be convert blush, or doesn’t she? Jessica’s reply only invites further obfuscation and scrutiny. Like the stories of European travel writers, Jessica’s account of blushing calls attention to the body while simultaneously revealing its opacity as a source of determinate meaning.

Jessica’s absconsion scene de-stabilizes the firm anchoring of Jewish racial difference via skin color. Historically, Jews have had a range of skin tones and physical attributes ascribed to them in a European context, shifts also reflected in ideas about their perceived religious, racial, and ethno-national identities in relation to normative Christianity. In medieval European medical texts, Jews were ascribed a humoral melancholy, and their complexions associated with melancholy’s attendant color: black. Melancholy’s association with mud (luteus) and lead (lividus) also invoked a range of other colors associated with Jewish complexions, present in graphic depictions of Jews that included white, tawny shades of brown or red, blue, blue-black, gray, and grayish-black hues.[27] One fourteenth-century text comments on Jews as melancholic and pale due to blood loss tied to hereditary punishment for the crucifixion.[28] The exegetical commentary of Ambrose of Milan aligns Jews with Ethiopians, black because the sun no longer shines on them, but redeemable to whiteness upon their conversion.[29] Medieval psalter depictions of Jesus’s Jewish tormenters cast them with distorted features, including large noses, grimacing mouths, black or brown skin, bulging foreheads, red hair; however, these features exist alongside others typically used to depict Christians, such as blonde hair, white skin, and unremarkable facial features.[30]

By the seventeenth century, European writers expressed conflicting opinions about Jewish appearance and skin color, with some ascribing blackness to Jewish complexions, and others, such as François-Maximillian Misson in his 1691 New Voyage to Italy, declaring all European Jews white, with the exception of the Portuguese.[31] In some English texts, assertions of Jewish physical difference are belied by initial confusion over whether an unknown interlocutor might be Jewish, only to be followed by assertions that the author in fact registered a distinctly Jewish appearance from the start. To that end, Sebastian Munster’s 1655 The Messiah of the Christians and the Jews recounts a story wherein a Christian interlocutor discovers a man to be Jewish only after attempting to converse with him in Hebrew. He then attempts to overwrite his initial uncertainty by declaring that he had seen visible tokens of the man’s Jewish complexion from the start: “I knew you to be a Jew: for you Jews have a peculiar color of face, … for you are black and uncomely.”[32]

Whereas Jewish men were identified by a range of physiological characteristics, some of them indistinguishable from those of Christians, Jewish women’s visible difference was rendered more obscure and intangible during the early modern period. M. Lindsay Kaplan has argued that medieval English Christianity viewed Jewish women as both racially undifferentiated and amenable to racial transformation through conversion. In combination with newly circulated and popularized Aristotelian ideas about gender and reproduction, women were identified as more physiologically malleable than men, and therefore unable to transmit their own racial identity to their offspring. Jewish women’s bodies were thereby imagined to be far less racially distinctive and formative than the bodies of Jewish men.[33]

Rather than serving as a locus of indisputable proof and racial belonging, Jessica’s body in The Merchant of Venice instead calls attention to multiple levels of ambiguity. Furthermore, the ambivalence of Jessica’s racial Jewishness as she absconds in Act 2, Scene 6 is bound up with shame’s broader ambivalence in the Renaissance. Rather than the body speaking for itself, blushing as a sign of shame requires us to think through the ways the body communicates the social judgments levied upon it. The body’s ability to register shame is neither endowed with absolute nor clear significance; instead, it remains subject to ongoing revaluation depending on context and on who is positioned to interpret it. Unlike visible forms of difference figured in the complexional darkness of Launcelot’s Moorish lover, Jewish difference is provisionally amenable to whitening and Christian conversion, which is particularly useful in the context of the play’s concern with transactionality.

The play’s exploration of transactionality imagines the possibilities for a subversion of Portia’s — and Belmont’s — Christian purity through the influx of strangers who vie for the chance to marry and procreate with her. The Merchant of Venice also follows this trail in the opposite direction, testing out ways racialized “others,” like Jessica, seek to become whitened and Christianized. In moving financial assets from her father’s coffers to Lorenzo’s waiting hands, Jessica helps to facilitate the play’s revaluation of wealth as something that can come to reflect a particular concept of virtue when it is removed from the “wrong” hands and placed into the “right” ones. Like the proverbial convert to Christianity, money is subject to “whitening” and can be revalued, depending on who possesses it. By ensuring that the money ends up in the coffers of the play’s Christian men, The Merchant of Venice enacts a kind of wish fulfillment, illustrating the ideal flow of capital within a white supremacist Christian universe. Money, jewels, households, and their contents, including children, as well as sacred texts and divine providential blessings, are all redirected. They are taken from the hands of the Jewish moneylender and redirected into the hands of Belmont’s Portia, before finally coming to rest in the coffers of its Christian Venetian men.[34] The play’s comic resolution manifests what Kim F. Hall describes as “the redistribution of wealth from women and other strangers to Venice’s Christian males,” ensuring that “the uneven balance of wealth in the economy is righted along racial and gender lines.”[35] Hall also remarks on the play’s inability to assimilate its exogamous dark-complexioned “others,” even those who, like the offspring of Launcelot and his unnamed Moorish lover, form part of Venice’s forecasted ethno-racial future. Hall concludes by dwelling on the product of Launcelot’s sexual liaison with the Moor, the mixed child whose “blackness may not be ‘converted’ or absorbed within the endogamous, exclusionary values of Belmont,”[36] and who is ultimately excluded from the play’s concluding figuration of Venetian marriage, fertility, and procreation.

Jessica’s performance of blushing as shame makes possible a social mobility deployed precisely by Jewish women’s complexional indeterminacy, which Jessica depicts as a product of her white-presenting, blushing face. Unlike the Moroccos and Moorish lovers of the play, Jews are not the exogamous strangers from without, but strangers within, as Janet Adelman’s work has illustrated convincingly.[37] Theologically, this positioning was reflected through Protestant Christianity’s concern over the implicit threat that Jews, and converts in particular, posed to Christian theological supremacy. Since Jews constituted the original “chosen nation” favored by divine blessings and providential advantage, it required considerable theological explanation to discount their claim to greater primacy than Protestant Christians.

And yet despite Jews’ resemblance and dangerously close proximity to Christians, Jewish difference, and Jessica’s in particular, is continually reasserted throughout the play. She is a stranger at Belmont according to Portia’s description. The antisemitic taunts rehearsed by Launcelot and recirculated by Lorenzo and others occasionally settle on invisible sites of ineradicable difference — such as the inner recesses of her blood or paternal lineage — as the source of her inherited inferiority. In the absence of visible, empirical forms of difference, however, Jewish difference relies increasingly on forensic modes of differentiation and racialization that have significant performative dimensions. The legacy of those attempts is well represented in the history of spectacular public shamings of Jewish rabbinical authorities that took place in staged theological disputations between Christians and Jews intended to reenact Christian supersessionism in medieval Europe.


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Shame in an early modern European context constituted a powerful technology for marking and situating Jewish bodies imagined to be amenable to whitening, as Jessica’s clearly is. Particularly for bodies that were read as racially indeterminate and hence mobile, affective modes of discipline like shaming ensured that any potential for mobility and success remained strictly limited. The processes that attend blushing are both inherently theatrical in their optics and deeply forensic in subjecting vulnerably positioned individuals to interrogation. Women’s bodies were particularly apt to be identified this way and positioned as objects of intensive moral scrutiny.[38] Part of the underlying logic of that kind of marking involved their identification as sufficiently pale and blank enough to bear the imprint of normative Christian dominance, able to be inscribed with male meaning, and circulated within an economy where marks of shame signal not only moral, but also ethno-racial and religious availability, even malleability.[39]

Shame manages to firmly fix its subjects within the crosshairs of an authoritative, evaluative gaze, in ways that also reflect powerful patriarchal dominance. When Lorenzo engages in an extended discourse with Jessica on the civilizing powers of music in Act 5, Scene 1, he insists that there is a hidden structure to the universe that underscores all things, visible in the night’s sky when the “floor of heaven / Is thick inlaid with pattens of bright gold” (58–59). Despite the heavenly music’s inaudibility to those with preoccupied and “attentive spirits” like Jessica’s, Lorenzo insists that its harmonies will eventually pacify the “wild and wanton” strains of Jessica’s rebellious nature (71). Lorenzo’s lesson is intended to apply not only to Jessica uniquely, but also to the entire ethno-religious group for which she stands, rendered in the speech’s pluralized animal imagery featuring not just a single wild horse, but an entire “herd, / Or race, of youthful and unhandled colts” (72). In theological terms, Lorenzo forecasts the conversion of the Jews and their submission to a universalizing Christianity whose harmonies remain inaudible to Jewish ears so long as Jews remain unredeemed by conversion. Unconverted Jews remain stuck in the “muddy vesture of decay” (64–65) of intransigence and literal-mindedness that forms the core of a set of antisemitic Christian theological tropes that resonate throughout the play. Lorenzo’s insistence that his young colt’s “savage eyes” can be “turned to a modest gaze” (78) manages to emphasize not only Jewish theological submission, but also the gendered domestications that attend Christian marriage, which Jessica repeatedly conflates with her longed-for conversion. The natural energies and vigor that characterize the herd of young colts will become subjugated by the inaudible but diffuse tempos that structure the world that Jessica longs to enter, on whose threshold she stands perched in this scene as the couple awaits entry to Portia’s home in Belmont. Those tempos promise to keep Jessica firmly fixed in her designated place, even where her contrarian opposition — “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (69) — suggests that its sounds may remain forever inaccessible to her, its rhythms perpetually elusive.

Unlike the proselytizing Christianity that promises to erase all difference as it enfolds exogamous “others” into its universal truths, Jessica’s spirit is here positioned as still virile and not particularly amenable to Lorenzo’s instructive lesson. The rhythms of domestication are juxtaposed against bucking images of potent rebellion, which are only ever temporarily mollified into submission within the terms of Lorenzo’s lesson. His speech forecasts a young Jewish woman and her Christian husband within a union replete with ongoing tension and unresolved distinctions between the two lovers. At the outset, Lorenzo lays out the gleaming allure of celestial imagery to draw Jessica into a more compliant acceptance of her assigned place. But his speech soon evolves into an object-lesson in the soothing capacities of diffuse but universal harmonies that promise to pacify even the quickest of spirits. His speech then shifts again, switching out the carrot of gilded and beautiful skies for the stick of enforced discipline and threats of reprisal. Lorenzo concludes with a warning:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. (83–88)

Lorenzo articulates a promise that reads as indistinguishable from a threat: the rhythms that govern his world are not only aspirational markers, but also forms of discipline to be marked. Through affective processes like shame, the bodies of Jewish female “others” are positioned submissively, able to be marked by normative Christian imperatives. But Lorenzo’s speech suggests that they also resist being completely overwritten, even as they remain perpetually out-of-tune with the overarching beat of the Christian world they inhabit. Because of the ongoing problem of their perpetual dissonance, they risk sliding into alignment with the villainized “dark affections” and complexions that the play relegates beyond the pale of social acceptability and membership. In having to be told to “mark the music” that she cannot fully hear, Jessica is positioned for ongoing surveillance that is also a form of subjugation.

The logic of early modern Jewish racialization centers not on stable physiological differences observed in Jewish bodies, but rather on forms of affective currency that subject those bodies, and particularly women, to forensic modes of scrutiny. Affective experiences like shame have proven remarkably successful at generating and policing the boundaries of ethno-racial belonging, even in the absence of clearly identifiable signs of Jewish difference. The sense that Jews do not quite fit in because they are unable to fully grasp the subtle contours of things like English irony, as former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbin insisted in 2003,[40]   turns Jewish difference into something that is simultaneously harder to identify than visible physical marks like dark skin; and much harder to pin down because of its diffuseness and elusive contours. The perceived invisibility of Jewish difference, at least of the kind assigned to certain white-presenting, Ashkenazi Jews, also helps account for shifting perceptions about Jews’ relationship to racial whiteness over time, and to the tendency for Jews’ position relative to normative racial categories to shift quickly and sharply, as has been the case within just the last century. In moving away from the body as a primary locus for Jewish difference, it becomes clearer that Jews as a group are particularly prone to such revisions, which often results in unique forms of isolation, as it does for Jessica, even where it promises to afford opportunities for mobility that are denied to those with more visible forms of racial otherness.

  1. On this point, see Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), Chapter 2. Heng discusses English Jews as the first racialized minority in Europe and England as the first racial state. For a different perspective, see M. Lindsay Kaplan, Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), who examines Jews’ status within medieval Christian theology and argues that Jews came to be marked with an inherited inferiority relative to Christians during this period. Robert C. Stacey, “The Conversion of Jews to Christianity in Thirteenth-Century England,” Speculum 67, no. 2 (1992): 263–83, argues that Jewishness in medieval Europe was understood to be irreducible, even for converts who had become Christian. The operative idea was that even when Jews converted to Christianity, they were thought to still remain Jews.
  2. See Susan A. Glenn, “‘Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish’: Visual Stereotypes and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity,” in Boundaries of Jewish Identity, ed. Susan A. Glenn and Naomi B. Sokoloff (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 64–90.
  3. In this essay, I capitalise “Blackness” and “Black” where it applies primarily to racial identity or category. This spelling is in accordance with recent arguments that emphasize the “elements of shared history and identity” of Black culture (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/05/insider/capitalized-black.html). However, I also want to call attention to the ways in which early modern writing frequently deploys the language of color — blackness and whiteness — to designate hue as well as racial category in ways that can prove extraordinarily difficult to prise apart. In cases where both racial concept and pigment are possibilities, I have chosen to leave the terms “black” and “blackness” uncapitalized as a way of emphasising the ways in which the two meanings, material pigment and racial designation, were beginning to shift into conceptual alignment. Leaving those instances un-capitalised allows readers to parse the conflation of the two senses, and consider the ways in which natural properties like pigment have historically shifted to become terms for artificial, culturally constructed racial categories. This essay’s consideration of where Jews fit into the categorical designations “Black” and “white” in many ways epitomises that very process, since Jewish identity has shifted across time and geography many times.
  4. This argument is made persuasively in M. Lindsay Kaplan, “Jessica’s Mother: Medieval Constructions of Jewish Race and Gender in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2007): 1–30.
  5. All references to the play are from William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 3rd Series, ed. John Drakakis (London: The Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, 2010).
  6. Susan A. Glenn, “The Vogue of Jewish Self-Hatred in Post-World War II America,” Jewish Social Studies 12, no. 3 (2006): 96.
  7. Glenn, “The Vogue of Jewish Self-Hatred in Post-World War II America,” 98.
  8. “Jewish self-hatred” was meant to describe the psychological self-loathing born of internalized antisemitic persecution and Holocaust trauma. This trauma was thought to result in an attempted erasure of all signs of Jewish origin in order to assimilate seamlessly into white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American culture.
  9. Glenn, “The Vogue of Jewish Self-Hatred in Post-World War II America,” 100.
  10. Timothy Bright, A Treatise of Melancholy (London, 1613), 203–204.
  11. Steven Mullaney, The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), esp. 22.
  12. On this point, see See Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).
  13. See Mary Floyd-Wilson, “English Mettle,” in Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 130–46; “Temperature, Temperance, and Racial Difference in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness,” English Literary Renaissance 28, no. 2 (1998): 183–209; Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).
  14. One of the most detailed recent discussions of the phenomenology of early modern shame and women’s bodies is in Jennifer Panek, “The Nice Valour’s Anatomy of Shame,” English Literary Renaissance 48, no. 3 (2018): 339–67. Panek’s work, like her previous study of shame and pleasure in The Changeling (“Shame and Pleasure in The Changeling,” Renaissance Drama 42, no. 2 [2014]: 191–215), adopts a historicized approach focused on the particular representations of early modern women’s shame; however, her approach does not take up questions of race. Paster’s The Body Embarrassed represents the most influential historicized study of early modern shame, but also does not address race substantively, despite its careful attention to early modern embodiment and women’s embodiment in particular.
  15. Charles Darwin cites blushing as a “most peculiar and the most human of expressions,” and he admits that though monkeys visibly redden when they become impassioned, “it would require an overwhelming amount of evidence to make us believe that any animal could blush” (The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965], 309).
  16. “do no hay verguenza en cara que mancilla en corazon” (Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, ed./trans. John Rutherford (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002, part 2, chapter 44).
  17. Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Mind in General, ed. William Webster Newbold (New York: Garland, 1986), 82.
  18. “non seulement sans cachers aucunes parties de leurs corps, mais aussi sans en avoir nulle honte ni vergogne, demeurent & vont coustumierement aussi nuds au’ils sortent du ventre de leur mere” (Jean de Léry, Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, [La Rochelle: Antoine Chuppin, 1578], 110).
  19. “baubances, superfluitez, & exces en habits” (de Léry, Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, 131).
  20. Léry, Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, 131. For a discussion of European expedition writing in the Renaissance and beyond, see Brian Cummings, “Animal Passions and Human Sciences: Shame, Blushing and Nakedness in Early Modern Europe and the New World,” in At the Borders of the Human: Beasts, Bodies, and Natural Philosophy in the Early Modern Period, ed. Erica Fudge, Ruth Gilbert, and Susan Wiseman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 26–50.
  21. Sujata Iyengar, Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 108.
  22. Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde in Generall, (London: Valentine Simmes, 1604), 30.
  23. Wright, The Passions of the Minde in Generall, 30.
  24. See Kimberly Poitevin, “Inventing Whiteness: Cosmetics, Race, and Women in Early Modern England,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 11, no. 1 (2011): 59–89. For a comprehensive analysis of the period’s cultural preoccupation with cosmetics, see Farah Karim-Cooper, Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).
  25. Poitevin, “Inventing Whiteness,” 81.
  26. Poitevin, “Inventing Whiteness,” 66.
  27. M. Lindsay Kaplan, “The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England,” Philological Quarterly 92, no. 1 (2013): 42-44.
  28. Kaplan, “The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England,” 44.
  29. Kaplan, “The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England,” 46.
  30. Kaplan, “The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England,” 49–52.
  31. François-Maximillian Mission, New Voyage to Italy, qtd. in Kaplan, “The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England,” 55.
  32. Sebastian Munster, The Messiah of the Christians and the Jews (1655), qtd. in Kaplan, “The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England,” 55.
  33. Kaplan, “Jessica’s Mother.”
  34. For an extended discussion of how the play stages a complex negotiation between Christian and Jew over the ownership of sacred texts, see Sara Coodin, Is Shylock Jewish? Citing Scripture and the Moral Agency of Shakespeare’s Jews (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), Chapter 2.
  35. Kim F. Hall, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Colonization and Miscegenation in The Merchant of Venice,” Renaissance Drama 23 (1992): 99–100.
  36. Hall, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” 105.
  37. Janet Adelman, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
  38. On this point, see Derek Dunne, “Blushing on Cue: The Forensics of the Blush in Early Modern Drama,” Shakespeare Bulletin 34, no. 2 (2016): 233–52.
  39. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 87, has argued that an emerging complexional whiteness in Renaissance England marked women’s availability to be commodified within a patriarchal social order. Shame’s potential to determine a body’s worth also represents a powerful way women’s bodies could be inscribed with racial meaning and value in a Renaissance context.
  40. This episode is drawn from one of Jeremy Corbyn’s remarks that was recorded on video. There are multiple news outlets that aired them, including https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/aug/24/corbyn-english-irony-video-reignites-antisemitism-row-labour


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Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature Copyright © 2022 by Sara Coodin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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