Commentary Magazine

Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews

I first met Dr. Roderigo Lopez in a footnote. There is a passage in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1) where Gratiano says to Shylock,

Thy currish spirit
Govern’d a wolf, who, hanged for human
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And . . .
Infused itself in thee.

Here, the New Penguin edition of the play has a footnote that reads, “This is argued as a reference to the execution of Dr. Lopez (lupus-wolf).” In the uncertain orthography of the 16th century, Lopez’s name was frequently spelled “Lopus,” and easily punned with the Latin for wolf; wolves and dogs were actually hanged for attacks on humans and domestic animals.

Dr. Lopez has been found mostly in footnotes since June 7, 1594, when he was carried on hurdles from Westminster to Tyburn Hill, the site of the gallows in Elizabethan London. Lopez, the Queen’s physician, had been convicted of high treason for attempting to poison her. William Camden, a contemporary historian, tells us that at Tyburn, “Lopez affirm[ed] that he loved the Queen as he loved Jesus Christ, which from a man of the Jewish profession was heard not without laughter.” The diarist John Stow noted that Lopez and the two others convicted with him were then “hanged, cut downe alive, holden down by strength of men, dismembered, bowelled, headed, and quartered, there [sic] quarters set on the gates of the citie.”

Although Lopez is no one’s idea of an important historical personage, in the last century or so he has occasioned articles by such prominent Anglo-Jewish historians as Sydney Lee, Lucien Wolf, and Cecil Roth. Faye Kellerman, the popular mystery writer, published an improbable historical romance, The Quality of Mercy, based on his case. The English author Pamela Melnikoff wrote a similarly fabulous novel for children, Plots and Players: The Lopez Conspiracy. During Edward I. Koch’s tenure as mayor of New York, there was a much-publicized production of The Merchant of Venice which got him involved in a controversy about Lopez in the letters’ section of the New York Times. The doctor has three entries in the index of John Gross’s Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (1993). And now there is discussion of Lopez in James Shapiro’s well-received Shakespeare and the Jews. A feature article about the book in the Times included a photograph of a 1627 woodcut of Lopez engaged in his alleged conspiracy.


Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and not readmitted until 1656, although we now know there was a community of 80 to 100 Marranos—crypto-Jews living as Christians—in London during Elizabeth’s reign. Shakespeare and the Jews gives us a feel for the culture they found themselves trying to pass in. Shapiro draws heavily on diaries, pamphlets, legal documents, and other nonliterary sources to illustrate his thesis: the “projection of English fantasies onto Jews—or the simulacra of Jews,” as a reviewer of his book in the New Republic put it.

This was a century of social and psychological upheaval for the English. Successive royal decrees had transformed them from Catholics to Protestants to Catholics to Protestants; the revival of interest in their own history reminded them they were the product of the melding of several peoples; the success of Tudor policies strengthened their position in the world, while shifting power among classes at home. To sort out who they were to themselves, Shapiro argues, the English “constructed” a figure of the Jew, over against which they contrasted a figure of the Englishman.

Certain cultural constructs take on the force of myth and become indestructible; they are proof against reality. There are no vampires in America, and yet everyone in the country knows what vampires look like, knows they drink human blood, wear capes, sleep in coffins, can be warded off with garlic or by being confronted with a crucifix, and can be killed only with a wooden stake through the heart (some say a silver bullet will do). Children are introduced to vampire lore as soon as they are exposed to the Count on Sesame Street. At school they may read the classic Bram Stoker text, Dracula, and then be reminded of it again in a college course on 20th-century poetry when they read about the bats who “crawled head downward down a blackened wall” in the concluding section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. There are innumerable novels, including most recently the series by Anne Rice, and enough movie versions to occasion cinema retrospectives. Although we are usually meant to feel abhorrence, vampires can also be made figures of fun in cartoons or by stand-up comedians doing their shticks. Some representations are actually philo-vampiric and try to help us see things from their point of view. (They can’t help sinking in their fangs; society is to blame.)

So, mutatis mutandis, with the Jews. In traditional Christian societies, what gave the figure of the Jew its potency, made it ineradicable, was that he was more than just a commercial or social or even religious competitor: with these there might have been reconciliation. The Jew was a numinous figure, freighted more like the image of the vampire than some mere social stereotype such as one might have of a hillbilly, a spic, a bohunk, or a nerd. Unlike you and me, the Jew was also immortal, if not quasi-supernatural, defined by his evil—deicide—for all time, or at least until the end of days. As the scholar Hyam Maccoby has written, “Many Christians came to believe Jews had cloven feet and a tail, and that they suffered from an innate bad smell and from diseases of the blood, for which they sought remedies in vampirism[!].” The hook nose and funny accent were just details.

During the centuries when they were officially expelled from England, the image of the Jew was maintained there not just by the teachings of the Church but in stained-glass representations of the archetypal Jew, Judas, and in cathedral carvings depicting the Synagogue vanquished by the Church. Ballads kept alive the memory of Little St. Hugh of Lincoln, a lad whom Jews were accused of having killed for ritual purposes in 1255, and the story was then recycled by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

One of the most accessible modes of transmission was the miracle and mystery plays performed in the nooks of churches and in public squares at regular times during the year. The title character of The Conuersyon of Ser Jonathas the Jewe by Myracle of the Blyssed Sacrament stabs a stolen host, which then bleeds and overcomes him. The figure of Jonathas is at once outrageously blasphemous and enormously funny. (Interestingly, this particular play has a subplot featuring a doctor.) As in all such plays of the period, the Jew was played with a bottle nose and a red fright wig.

These dramatic conventions reached their apotheosis in Barabas, the Jew in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1592). The play hardly has a coherent plot, being driven by the manic energy Marlowe pours into Barabas’s wickedness. Along his way, Barabas poisons a whole nunnery, including his own daughter who has taken refuge there after he kills both her suitors. Marlowe has such a good time with Barabas’s homicidal enthusiasms that not until near the end of the play does he remember that such evil must be punished, and devise an appropriate end for his villain. Yet Barabas dies unrepentant, crying “I would have confusion of you all,/Damn’d Christian dogs, . . ./Die, life! fly, soul! tongue, curse thy fill and die!” It is Barabas who utters the phrase, “Infinite riches in a little room,” the only line Shakespeare ever quoted from a contemporary in one of his own plays, a line which fascinated Elizabethans poised between a medieval society where wealth was based on land and a capitalist one in which wealth could be condensed into coins, gems, and instruments of debt.

Marlowe in many ways resembles the 20th-century English playwright, Joe Orton: a quick-blooming talent, a mordant appreciation of wickedness, insight that expresses itself better in the crystalline phrase than in the well-developed philosophy, a defiant homosexuality, a reckless engagement with violence. Both men died young and brutally. Unlike Shakespeare, whom no one would consider an autobiographical playwright, Marlowe always put himself on stage. He figured in the characterizations of Tamburlaine (Tamburlaine the Great), Faustus (Dr. Faustus), certainly Edward (Edward II), and, I believe, Barabas. Why? Because figuring himself as a Jew allowed Marlowe to indulge in his two great fantasies, unlimited wealth and unlimited mayhem.

Enough of his audience enjoyed the spectacle of these same fantasies for the play to become an enormous success when it opened in 1592. Although the theaters were closed soon afterward because of an outbreak of the plague, Ned Allen, the great actor who created the title role, took the company on a tour of the countryside, and brought the play triumphantly back to London in 1594 in time for Dr. Lopez’s trial. The Jew of Malta became the biggest theatrical hit until that time, and fed the anti-Jewish hysteria that prompted the mob to laugh so heartily at Lopez on the gallows.


Lopez and Marlowe also had this in common: they both served as intelligencers for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State. Marlowe had been recruited out of Cambridge where he was a scholarship student in divinity, and sent ( probably) to the Jesuit seminary in Rheims to spy on English Catholics studying in France. When Lopez began his service is not known but, like many Marranos, he was deeply involved in secret diplomatic intrigues. In an era when news traveled slowly and uncertainly, the commercial and family ties maintained by the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal throughout Europe and the Mediterranean provided valuable conduits for information. The precariousness of their situations everywhere made it advantageous for them to insinuate themselves into positions with proximity to power. And it could be made to pay.

Lopez’s father-in-law, Dunstan Añes, was Purveyor and Merchant for the Queen’s Majestie’s Grocery. He was the first to bring Elizabeth the news that the Spanish Armada had actually set sail on its crusade against Protestant England. Another relation through marriage was Alvaro Mendez, a fascinating man who left Portugal in his youth, made a fortune in the Indian diamond mines, was a financial adviser to Catherine de Médicis, and finally an important vizier to the Sultan in Constantinople. He so impressed Elizabeth when they met that she made him her point man in the Sublime Porte, often relying on him rather than her official ambassador when delicate work was at hand.

As for Lopez himself, he was intimately involved in the affairs of Don Antonio, the bastard pretender to the Portuguese throne who ended up in England where he tried to raise support for his cause. Lopez was his translator, his gofer, and, when all Antonio’s projects failed, his creditor. The Spanish tried to get Lopez to betray him.

“One thing is needful: win the Queen,” wrote Sir Francis Bacon. There were two main factions that vied for Elizabeth’s attention. One was noble, martial, High Church, land-poor, and determinedly anti-Spanish. The Earl of Leicester, and then his ward, the Earl of Essex, headed this party. They loved entertainment, including the theater, and both Marlowe and Shakespeare were allied with them. The other faction was not so noble, not so warlike, not so High Church, comfortable with commercial interests, pragmatic about Spain, sober and industrious. Lord Burghley, who inherited the portfolio of espionage operations after the death of Sir Frances Walsingham, headed this party. Dr. Lopez had entry to both groups, but after the failure of Don Antonio’s project, for which Essex was in large measure responsible, he mostly associated with Burghley’s interests.

Throughout her reign, the Queen made it a practice to have contradictory schemes under way in most policy areas so as always to have options available. One such may have been an initiative of Walsingham’s to sound out Philip, the king of Spain, on the possibilities of a comprehensive peace. Elizabeth was an inspired leader of her people in times of danger, but she was no war-lover. So she probably would have supported Walsingham in his circuitous venture to see if there was some way Philip could be settled with, and in this venture her royal physician, Dr. Roderigo Lopez, would have been instrumental. But whether the Queen was supportive or not, Burghley, possibly because he knew Philip would never make an accord with an ever more powerful England, provided little supervision of this operation. He certainly knew of it, though, and both he and the Queen consented at least tacitly to its continuance. Neither of them could have been made happy when one of Lopez’s operatives was intercepted by an agent of the Earl of Essex. Essex was outside the loop.

Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was a man of high ideals and shabby practices; a self-imagined knight of the courtly tradition, not so much a mad Don Quixote as dim. He was to have his pretty head severed from his neck in the courtyard of the Tower after the failure of his comically inept coup d’état in 1601, seven years after the Lopez trial. (The night before the coup attempt, he would be rowed across the Thames to the theater so he could watch a special performance he had requested of Shakespeare’s Richard II, in which Bolingbroke does successfully what he, Essex, would botch on the morrow.) But now, once Essex had evidence Lopez was up to something the doctor could not adequately explain, he became his implacable prosecutor.

Essex was the head of the anti-Spain faction, rabid for war. When Sir Francis Walsingham, who happened to be Essex’s father-in-law, died, and it became evident that his successor, Burghley, had only a desultory interest in espionage, Essex set up a shadow foreign service, headed by the brilliant and experienced Anthony Bacon. (Essex also employed Anthony’s equally brilliant brother, Francis, future author of the essays.) They had agents throughout Europe, and in England as well. As more cryptic evidence accumulated against Lopez (“The bearer hereof will tell your Worship the price in which your pearls are held. . . . Also . . . in what resolution we rested about a little musk and amber . . . we shall have good profit”), it dawned on Essex that the purpose of the intrigue must have been for the Jewish doctor to poison the Queen. All his resources were thrown into stirring up the court and the London mob against him.


James Shapiro believes Lopez was guilty. He does not spend much time on the case, perhaps because his thesis in Shakespeare and the Jews would be better served if the doctor were innocent. His index lists five entries under “Poisoning.” During the Renaissance, poison figured as a sort of stealth weapon, insidious because it could do its work undetected. The English were fascinated with it. Jews (and Italians) were believed to be adept at its use, and Jewish doctors especially adept. These Jewish doctors were simultaneously thought to be able to effect marvelous cures, and to have a ghoulish lust for the death of their Christian patients. Shapiro mentions the libel published in 1584 in which Dr. Lopez was specifically “credited with skill in poisoning,” and he would know from the sources listed in his bibliography how Essex worked these prejudices in his one-man pogrom against the “alien” physician.

“Were Lopez exonerated,” Shapiro writes correctly, “a long shadow would be cast on interpretations that portrayed Shylock as one who truly conspired against the life of a Christian.” Aside from the telling conflation of Elizabeth and Antonio, this is putting it mildly. Elizabeth was more than just “a Christian”: she was part of every Englishman’s very definition of what it meant to be English. If it is true that Lopez tried to poison her, we are dealing with something more primal than a mere crime. Yet Shapiro believes that the “meticulous account of the Lopez affair” in David Katz’s Jews in the History of England (1994) “conclusively demonstrates that Lopez was involved in a conspiracy to poison the Queen.” It does not.

Katz, an American who studied in England and now teaches in Israel, thinks that because Lopez and all those taken with him signed confessions, and because not only Essex but Burghley made public and private acknowledgments of Lopez’s guilt, he did in fact conspire to poison the Queen. Katz devotes 59 pages to Lopez, but he misses the dramatic play of the strong-willed individuals involved, and shows little sense of the political context. Lacey Baldwin Smith, in his seminal article “English Treason Trials and Confessions in the Sixteenth Century,” written in 1954 while the cold war was still a daily reality, was more on the mark in comparing them to the notorious Moscow show trials. “The determining factor in most cases was not whether the individual had committed treason, but whether he was too dangerous to the state to be allowed to live.”

To be indicted was to be convicted, so the real battle to save Lopez was to keep him from being indicted, which it seems Burghley and his son Robert Cecil tried to do. But once Essex had spent enough time interrogating his prisoners to wring accusations from them against each other, and once he got his anti-Spain propaganda machine cranked up, Burghley’s and Cecil’s efforts failed. And once it was clear Lopez was going to be indicted, they had to acknowledge he was guilty, because to do otherwise was to question the justice of the Queen’s law, something no person would do who wanted to be spared a charge of treason himself.

And Lopez’s confession? Although the common law denied the use of torture, an exception was made for cases, like his, of high treason. Richard Topcliffe, the rackmaster, “avaunted he could stretch a man one foot longer than ever God had intended.” So how much can Lopez’s confession have been worth?


The mind-set of those who prosecuted Lopez can be sampled in Sir Edward Coke’s address to the jury:

For the poisoning of her highness this miscreant, perjured, murdering traitor and Jewish doctor hath been provided. The plot and practice were more wicked, dangerous and detestable than all former plots and he—Dr. Lopez—a dearer traitor than Judas himself.

And later:

Dr. Lopez intended to covey himself . . . to Constantinople with his brood, and there to live as a Jew amongst the Jews in Turkey, where he had nephews and kinfolk. And though Englishmen know him as they call them their new Christians, [and] he here was generally so accounted, to [those] to whom he did entrust this great secret, he did ordinarily avow himself to be a very Jew.

Another attorney playing the race card.

Katz mentions that the trial was held at the Guildhall before a special commission consisting of fifteen judges. He does not say how peculiar this was. Most trials for treason were held in camera before a small tribunal made up of the Crown’s senior councilors. This was done to protect state security. Having the trial at the Guildhall gave it maximum exposure; having the Lord Mayor of London serve as a juror made as much sense as if Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, D.C., were asked to preside at the trial of KGB mole Aldrich Ames. What Essex did was to turn Lopez’s trial into theater.

Lopez was tried in February and hanged in June. The dates are in Katz’s narrative, but again he does not mention how peculiar it is that four months intervened between the two events. Essex would lose his head the day after his conviction, and that was about the standard wait at a time when there were no endless appeals of verdicts. Why was Lopez kept in the Tower so long? Elizabeth was reluctant to sign the warrant for his execution, but was it because she did not want what she knew to be innocent blood on her hands, or because she was afraid to jeopardize her relationship with Alvaro Mendez, Lopez’s important kinsman in Constantinople?

Lopez was very sick by this time, and Essex was firing up the London mob to insist that the sentence be carried out lest the doctor die and cheat the hangman of his due. Reviewing the pressure brought to bear on Elizabeth to get Lopez to Tyburn Hill, Katz writes that “on 7 June 1594, Lopez was carried away from the Tower and the Queen’s protection to Queen’s Bench prison in Southwark, and then to the court of the Queen’s Bench at Westminster.” But why was he hauled around London in this highly irregular way? According to Katz, once Lopez was out of the Tower he was not under “the Queen’s protection.” But he does not spell out the implication: Elizabeth never did release Lopez to the executioner; she released him to intermediate authorities who did.

In a footnote, Katz cites the early-20th-century English historian Martin Hume, and he lists three of Hume’s works in his bibliography. But he does not mention Hume’s paper, “The So-called Conspiracy of Dr. Ruy Lopez.” (Shapiro cites it in a footnote.) Hume, an expert on Spanish-English relations in the 16th century, was especially interested in the Spanish plots against the English crown, and he was the first English historian to have access to the secret Spanish diplomatic correspondence of the period. From his research, Hume concludes that while the evidence “does not show [Lopez] to have been a worthy or a good man, [it] does, in my opinion, prove this Jewish physician was not guilty of the crime for which he suffered.”

Why does David Katz go to such great and, I believe, disingenuous lengths to “prove” Dr. Lopez guilty of a crime all Englishmen would abhor? After all, as he writes in his preface, “Lopez, the model for Shylock, had far greater influence in the long run on molding public views and prejudices about Jews than the worthy efforts of all the English rabbis put together.” But it seems Katz has an agenda: he wants to displace those Anglo-Jewish historians who tried to exonerate Lopez and who, like Cecil Roth, wrote “for an audience of educated people who wanted to be proud of their past.” For Katz, the only motive at work in human dealings appears to be money; in his telling of the story, no one is ever prompted by genuine religious impulses, patriotism, tribal affection, personal glory, or family concerns—even though there is evidence that Lopez, at great risk, secretly collected and transmitted funds to the synagogue in Amsterdam. For reasons of his own, Katz seems to want the English to believe that, for money, a Jew was willing to kill their most beloved Queen. He is too committed to his agenda to be reliable on this.


Katz speaks of Lopez’s “eternalization” in English literature. Indeed, Lopez ended as meat over the gates of the city, but Shylock is immortal. He lives forever, morphed with the figures of Judas, Sir jonathas, Barabas, Fagin, Dreyfus, Jay Gatsby’s bootlegging partner Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish physicians of Stalin’s “doctors’ plot,” and the Jewish doctors who Louis Farrakhan believes are infecting the ghettos with AIDS.

Shylock is in only five scenes in The Merchant of Venice. He does nothing criminal, he does not cheat. How then does Shakespeare achieve the aura of preternatural malevolence that surrounds him? It has partly to do with the ghoulish irrationality of setting a pound of flesh as forfeit for the loan Shylock makes to Antonio. If the lien were against Antonio’s real estate, and not his organs, Shylock would be just a particularly nasty malcontent.

But what of the contention, heard repeatedly, that Shakespeare is actually sympathetic to Shylock? The case rests pretty much on one passage, the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. But in Shakespeare, context determines much of what a speech means, and when Shylock makes that speech he is in fact talking to two of the least significant characters in the play, the instantly forgettable Salarino and Salanio: that is, nobodies. Were he talking to Antonio or Portia or the Duke, their presence would give the speech a gravity it does not have. Were the speech in poetry rather than prose, it would indicate an elevated intention on Shakespeare’s part. Instead, the speech is, I think, meant as a comic example of the abuse to which rhetoric can be put.

Shylock’s speech, remember, begins with six lines of hate-filled screed. (“He hath . . . laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated my enemies. . . .”) It takes every bit of an actor’s art to segue into the pathos we are accustomed to for the delivery of, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” The syllogism that follows has a major premise that is undeniably true: Jews have the same physical attributes (hands, organs, dimensions, senses, etc.) as Christians. But then Shylock goes on to suggest that revenge is a Christian practice—a turn an audience would certainly find piquant. This, after all, is a play whose denouement will rest on a speech based on New Testament teachings about the “quality of mercy.”

And so Shylock’s speech that moves us so deeply when ripped from the play has no effect on anyone in it. Immediately afterward, Salarino and Salanio greet the arrival of Tubal with, “Here comes another of the tribe: a third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turn Jew.” There is nothing here to make one think the speech is aimed at eliciting sympathy for its speaker. I believe it was aimed at drawing contempt.

We like to think that Shakespeare, by virtue of his genius, was exempt from the prejudices of his time, but great writers tend to be the summarizers of their age. As E.M.W. Tillyard put it in The Elizabethan World Picture, “Shakespeare’s [remarks] on the state of man in the world seem to be utterly [his] own, as if compounded of [his] very lifeblood: [but] divested of their literary form they are the common property of every third-rate mind of the age.” This is not to say, with the deconstructionists, that poets and playwrights are only capable of echoing their own particular time and place. If that were the case, the past would be dead to us, and authors would be no more responsible for their writings than stenographers. It is their access to beauty, and the power that beauty of expression wields, that opens them to immortality—and also to moral culpability.

I say Shakespeare did great harm to the Jewish people through the creation of his character Shylock, based as he is on centuries of prejudice and on Dr. Roderigo Lopez, whom I believe to have been innocent. And I say, because I know Shakespeare is a great writer, that he intended it.


See Robert Alter’s “Who Is Shylock?” in the July 1993 COMMENTARY—Ed.

Columbia University Press, 320 pp., $29.50.

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