Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Damaged Identities:

Jessica and the Old Christians

What did it mean to be a converso during the late Middle Ages in Europe? We don’t have many contemporary literary allusions to the inhospitable environment in which conversos lived in those days. There is Cervantes, presumably a converso himself, expressing admiration for Luis de Leon and writing the first known novel “Don Quixote”, (a masked Jew according to Ruth Reichelberg). We get a small, but telling, glimpse in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” of what it must have been like.

But who comes here? Lorenzo and his infidel.” Thus Jessica, Shylock’s estranged daughter, recently turned Conversa and newly-wed to Venetian Lorenzo, is announced by the ignominious Gratiano into Act III Scene ii of The Merchant of Venice. While a lively repartee ensues among the young Christians, Jessica’s isolation reverberates in her silence. An outsider, she is transparent in this group of friends, ignored and marginalized.

Her painful otherness resurfaces in Act III Scene V when she feels more secure in the company of Launcelot Gobbo, her father’s former servant. Launcelot offers her a “solution” for her problematic identity: she might be a bastard, and therefore not the daughter of a Jew. When Jessica sarcastically rejects this smear on her mother’s memory, he concedes that

Well, you are gone both ways”,

that is, too bad you are Jewish on both sides. He then goes on to complain that there were enough Christians as it is, and

“this making of Christians will raise the price of pork”.

As Lorenzo enters, Jessica acerbically relays to him Launcelot’s jokes: “[Launcelot] tells me flatly there’s no mercy for me in heaven because I am a Jew’s daughter, and he says you are no good…for in converting Jews to Christians, you raise the price of pork”.

Already we see Jessica’s tragic future unfolding, marked by alienation from her father’s faith and people, and by her exclusion from her husband’s circle of friends. She will be a silent woman, en penitence from either side of the divide, the one unforgiving of her betrayal, the other grimly and relentlessly reminding her that as a New Christian, she will never become an organic member of their milieu.

Jessica’s character was created at the end of the sixteenth century, long after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the flight of many conversos from that land, who resettled in other European countries such as Holland and Italy. English audiences would have been familiar with the special condition of “Christian Jews”. A handful of Marranos from Spain and Portugal made their way to London during the reign of Henry VIII followed by a larger community of some twenty families in Queen Elizabeth’s time.

One particular converso, Rodriguez Lopez, the Queen’s physician, was accused of trying to poison her. The charges were so obviously trumped up, that even the queen herself expressed grave scepticism about his guilt. He was, however, tried and executed. At his trial, both the prosecutor and the judges laid special stress on his being a Jew – “worse than Judas himself”. On the gallows, Lopez asserted his love for the queen and Jesus Christ. In response, the mob jeered gleefully, “But he is a Jew!” A proclamation of Christian faith was not acceptable coming from a converted Jew.

Set against this political backdrop, Shakespeare’s oblique depiction of Jessica’s cold-shouldered welcome by her husband’s Christian friends offers an iconic microcosm of the realities of the day: deep rifts of suspicion and ill-will in existence between converted Jews and the general society, in which factors of economy, religion and mass-mob psychology all come into play in their maximal intensity. This minor scene, in which Jessica’s giddy character comes into discord with her xenophobic “adoptive” society is an apt illustration of the proverbial tide that engulfed the many Spanish Jews who chose to convert to Christianity at an age that had no patience for energetic outsiders with ambiguous identity.


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