“What’s in a Name?”: The Archetypal Jew in English Literature

24 09 2006

“Though it comes into futility and departs into darkness, and its very name is covered with darkness”¹, the archetypal Jew in English literature captivates me. What is it about the miserable fiend who holds me so enthralled? Is it his lisping self-effacement? The simpering manner in which he seeks to gratify his worldly masters whilst nonetheless stabbing them all in the back? Or is it the darkness with which he appears to envelop himself like a thick and dirty cloak, invisible to those who dwell in light and laughter, and detested by the very creator of the world?

There are reams of commentaries devoted to his character; rivers of ink have been spilled in understanding his author’s prejudice. What was the motivation behind the apparent hatred that underlies texts like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta? What was the root of Chaucer’s fixation with the blood libel in “The Prioress’ Tale”? In answering this question, it is pertinent to note the role of the Jew’s daughter in much of the literature. Both Shylock’s daughter (Jessica) and Barabbas’ daughter (Abigail) serve a common purpose. They abscond from their communities, reject their faith, cause untold despair to their hated fathers, and marry a virile and virtuous Christian man. So triumphs Christianity.

Was this the world-view of Shakespeare and Marlowe (respectively)? Do the actions of their Jewish protagonists reflect the experiences that they both had with Jews? In actual fact, the answer is no. In 1290, Edward I (“Edward Longshanks”) had all of the Jews in England expelled. For 350 years, England was completely rid of its erstwhile Hebrew citizens. Shakespeare, Marlowe and Chaucer, all three of whom were writing during this period, had never met a Jew. So deep was the racial prejudice ingrained, however, that the moneylenders they presented to their audience were steeped in characteristics that simply reeked of age-old Jew hatred. And their unfamiliarity with Jews and Judaism is reflected most clearly in the names that they chose.

Jessica and Abigail are names that were also prevalent amongst non-Jews at the time. Abigail is a Biblical name, but common enough in English society so as not to appear even slightly Hebraic. The purpose here is reflected in the protagonists themselves: just as Jessica and Abigail righteously abandon their dead faith in favour of the living Christianity, so too are they graced with ‘real’ names by their authors. Their stiff-necked fathers, condemned literarily to a dying religion, are not granted names with which a Christian may necessarily be familiar. Shylock, a mock name, reflects Shakespeare’s ignorance. Not having met a Jew, he was incapable of choosing a genuine Jewish name. The name that he ended up choosing, however, was most probably designed on the basis of its sound.

The word shy conjures up the image of a simpering and an ingratiating person, as Shylock himself proves to be. The word lock, on the other hand, may have been chosen for its proximity to the word ‘forelock’, the English name for the curls of hair that some religious Jewish men grow from the sides of their face. The combination of the two terms, that mixture of obsequiousness and piety, encapsulates the manner in which Jews were considered by the Christians amongst whom they had once lived. For Chaucer too, whose characters do not have names, there is this same combination of fearful gratification, coupled with an almost satanic degree of religious ritual.

For Marlowe, whose Barabbas embodies this same distasteful combination again, there is more on which to elaborate. The name Barabbas speaks volumes for, unlike Shylock, Barabbas is a Biblical name. It features in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, when Pilate offers the citizens of Jerusalem a choice between liberating Jesus (“the king of the Jews”) and an instigator of rebellions by the name of Barabbas. The people, spurred on by Caiaphas and the Pharisees, select Barabbas and have Jesus condemned to death. While we hear more of several of the other minor characters in the narrative, Barabbas departs from the written record almost as soon as he had entered it. His name, however, is a curious one.

Barabbas is the Greek transliteration of an Aramaic name, Bar Abba. This name translates, literally, to “the father’s son”. In a world where many people’s names featured patronymics, this name is a mockery. It is one thing to be given a name like Abba Shaul (The Father of Saul²) or Bar Kosiba (The Son of Kosiba³) but Bar Abba by itself makes no real sense. On the contrary, the name is ironic. When faced with the opportunity to redeem the Son of the Father (Jesus), the fickle multitudes instead opted to redeem a man whose name merely happened to be “Son of the Father”. Over the reality, they opted for appearances.

In many ways, Marlowe’s protagonist (like Shakespeare’s) has a most fitting name. It is not a Jewish name and, short of simply lifting a name from the pages of the Hebrew Bible, there was no real way for him to have chosen one. Nonetheless, it conveys certain images. While “Shylock” conveys the distasteful combination of excessive flattering and false piety (the very stereotypical image of the Jew in Shakespeare’s England), “Barabbas” conveys images of misplaced hope. His character, as a moneylender, has all the appearances of somebody who services his community, but his very soul is bare. He is a reminder, as Jews themselves served as a reminder in many Christian communities, that God was dead; killed by the Jews themselves before salvation could be effected. Just as the role of Barabbas’ and Shylock’s daughters was to indicate the triumph of Christianity over a religion of appearances, so too was this role reflected in the very names of the protagonists themselves.

[Postscript: It may also be worth noting that, of the other Jewish names chosen by Marlowe in the same text, Ithamar is the name of Aaron’s son; Obed is the name of the son of Ruth and Boaz; Nones was a contemporaneous Jewish doctor who had converted to Christianity; and Kirriah Jearim was an Israelite town, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.]

¹ Ecclesiastes 6:4.
² More probably “Saul the Elder”; a Rabbi of the Babylonian Talmud.
³ Possibly “sheep-shearer”, or “resident of KSB”; the failed hero of an insurrection against Roman rule.




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