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The Merchant: Historicism

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Jews in Medieval and Early Modern England

A number of political actions taken in the years before The Merchant of Venice illuminate official attitudes of the time towards such things as the status of Jews and the legality of lending money at interest. Here are some examples:

  1. In 1290, under Edward IV, the Jews in England were deported en masse to France --which they were forced to flee less than twenty years later. Not until Cromwell's Commonwealth (1656) were Jews allowed to establish communities in England. Amsterdam and Venice, both centers of commerce, allowed flourishing communities of professing Jews. Elsewhere they had to preserve at least the appearance of conversion to Christianity to avoid persecution and deportation.
  2. There was a sensational trial just before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. In 1593 Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, a converted Jew and physician to Queen Elizabeth, was condemned to death for conspiracy against her life. He died protesting his innocence, and there is evidence that Elizabeth did not believe that he was guilty, but the trial publicized all the old accusations against the Jewish people. Lopez was well known to the Earl of Essex, who was a close friend of Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, to whom in turn Shakespeare dedicated two of his works (Venus and Adonis in 1593, The Rape of Lucrece in 1594). The chain of connection may be rather long, but there is no doubt that Shakespeare would have known of the trial, and may have actually met Lopez.
  3. The politics of moneylending in the period were complex. For centuries, "usury"-- lending money and charging interest-- had been forbidden as contrary to the Law of God, but the increasing demands of capitalism made the policy unworkable. Henry VIII passed a law allowing interest rates of up to 10%, but it was repealed by his son, Edward VI, who outlawed usury again. The result was hardship, and a black market of far higher rates. Under Elizabeth a complicated law was passed, instituting heavy penalties for those who charged more than 10% interest. While it allowed charges of less than 10%, those borrowing could not be forced legally to pay the interest--just the principal.

Recent kinds of historicism

In a posting on an Internet discussion group devoted to Shakespeare, Robert Appelbaum made some useful general comments about recent kinds of historicism (the posting is reprinted with his permission, and retains email formatting):

From:  	Robert Appelbaum  
Date: 	Thursday, 20 Jul 1995 
Subject: Cultural constructions

   To say that plays, poems, etc. are cultural constructs isn't an "explanation" of 
them and, so far as I know, has never been used to serve as an explanation. It is 
rather the beginning of a strategy of explanation. The force of that strategy 
immediately appears as soon as one compares it with other traditional strategies, 
e.g., that which follows from the idea that plays, poems, etc., are "expressions" 
of the author's psychology or feelings or genius. Obviously the different strategies 
are looking at the same things from different angles, and perhaps not exactly at the 
*same* things, even though the strategies need not be mutually exclusive.
   But do any consequences necessarily follow from adoption of the "cultural construct" 
position? I don't think so. If you look at culturalist criticism you will NOT find a 
whole lot of consensus, though you might find a lot of fellow feeling. For that 
reason alone I think it is hard to conclude that the culturalist perspective is 
reductive.  And is the "cultural construct" position blind to its own assumptions, 
its exponents failing to see that they too are speaking from within the confines 
of constructs? Actually, it is just this point, it is just their self-reflexivity 
with regard to their own interpretative assumptions and strategies, that has marked 
out culturalist criticism from earlier forms of criticism. T.S. Eliot thought that 
he could sit at the banquet with Dante. Culturalists know they cannot. The hard 
Marxist position, still maintained by people like Terry Eagleton, not to mention 
certain members of this list, is based on the idea that materialist criticism is 
itself the product of historical forces, that one could not be a cultural 
materialist of a certain kind until a certain moment in time, and that one of 
the chief virtues of cultural materialist criticism is that it *knows* this. 
Culturalist criticism is *supposed* to be a form of *self-consciousness*; and 
if it reflects on an historical artifact it always also reflects on its own 
historicity with respect to both itself and its artifact.
   A softer position -- usually thought of as new historicism -- isn't so confident 
of its own transparency to itself, or of the logic of its historical position, 
but it too is based on the idea that criticism is as historically situated as its 
objects, and that historical-cultural artifacts cannot therefore be *reduced* to 
the explanatory parameters of any single given model, since all models are 
constructs, etc., etc. Which is why this form of criticism so often steps backward 
into autobiography and what Leah Marcus calls "local knowledge" -- trying to be 
very precise about its epistemological limits, and conscious of "where it's coming 
from." But all this is common knowledge. Perhaps what is really at issue here is 
not the culturalist position(s), but the rhetoric used by culturalists against 
non-culturalists, and vice versa. Some of you out there are cringing every time 
you hear the word "culture," even though you probably share a lot of culturalist 
assumptions yourselves. And there are those of us in love with art, in love with 
the beautiful and the sublime and all that, who absolutely cringe when we hear 
other people *invoking* these things, as if they were gods.
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This page last updated on 28 August 2006. © Michael Best, 2002.