contributor.author: Heide Estes

title.none: Lampert, Gender and Jewish Difference (Heide Estes)

identifier.other: baj9928.0701.012 07.01.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Heide Estes, Monmouth University, hestes@monmouth.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Lampert, Lisa. Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. 277. $55.00 0-8122-3775-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.01.12

Lampert, Lisa. Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. 277. $55.00 0-8122-3775-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Heide Estes
Monmouth University
hestes@monmouth.edu

Lisa Lampert's Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare sets out several related and ambitious agendas--to link constructions of gender and Jewishness; to show how both figurations function to establish and sustain Christian identities; and to trace these constructions through sixteen centuries of biblical, theological, and literary texts. Lampert brings to bear on this study an impressive range of commentary, mining the insights of theoretical work on gender and on difference, and of the large body of literature on Patristic, medieval, and early modern attitudes toward Jews. The book investigates interconnections between gender and Jewishness as categories of difference in a textual tradition whose beginning she locates in the Pauline epistles of the New Testament and traces through the commentaries of Jerome, Augustine, their contemporaries, and their medieval interpreters; Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; two fifteenth-century mystery plays, and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.

These texts have been studied extensively in terms of the articulation, adaptation, and dissemination of ideologies about the nature of "woman" or of "Jew." Moreover, the sources of medieval literature, and especially of the Canterbury Tales, in Biblical and theological literature have been very thoroughly plumbed. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained by linking the ideologies of gender and Jewishness, and by ranging across a 1600-year time span. A key concern of the book is to bridge the disciplinary divide between medieval and early modern and to show how ideologies articulated or suggested by Shakespeare and still discernable in current discourse are embedded in a tradition that draws heavily on medieval ideas about women and Jews, which in turn are heavily influenced by Paul and his Patristic interpreters, and these points are persuasively made. Lampert's argument is incisive and deserves a broad audience.

Moreover, Lampert brings together two strands of thought already sometimes, albeit not frequently, linked. As Lampert points out, there are few representations of Jewish women in the literature of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period; those that exist usually treat Biblical figures allegorically rather than representing contemporary Jewish women. Lampert's discussion of issues surrounding gender is somewhat less thorough than, and largely subordinated to, her discussion of the deployment of fictions of Jewish identity. This book succeeds best at showing how ideas about Jewish identity are constructed early in the development of Christianity to help define what it means to be Christian, and how these ideas are subsequently restated and extended in subsequent centuries so that they are still operational in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.

This is a difficult but important book, written for a very well- informed audience. Lampert is conversant with a wide range of modern theorists as well as patristic theologians, medieval authors, Shakespeare, and scholarship on all of these periods. The book's tone assumes that its audience will be able to place references to theorists and theologians from Arendt to Zizek and from Albertanus of Brescia to Jacobus de Voragine; little explanation is given to the goals or projects of the various thinkers invoked. This is unfortunate. This book invites a broad audience of students of history, English literature, early Christianity, and medieval and early modern ideas about Jews in England; and Lampert references non- specialists she hopes will be included in the book's audience (7). Some concession to readers not familiar with the same range of thinkers and texts would make the book more accessible to scholars from different fields. Finally, the links between constructions of feminine and Jewish identity are explored quite thoroughly in chapter 2, but the rest of the book does not consistently draw the two into dialogue. Moreover, the linkages among the various chapters are suggested rather than argued.

Chapter 1: Introduction: Made, Not Born

Lampert notes in her "Introduction" that the goal of her book is to study not Jews or Jewishness, but rather how the idea of the Jew functions in "the production of Christian meaning or, more accurately, Christian meanings" (1). She argues that there are parallels in medieval representations of Jews and women, in that both are split into idealized and demonized groups. Moreover, both groups represent "the Other for the Christian exegetical tradition [and] they also represent sources of origin" (2). Lampert concludes her introduction with a discussion of why she concludes her book with an analysis of The Merchant of Venice. She writes, "My goal is not to create a telos toward the wisdom of the Bard but rather to read Merchant in light of the medieval exegetical tradition that so shapes it and the figuration of the Jewish and the feminine that it explores" (15).

Chapter 2: The Hermeneutics of Difference

In Chapter 2, Lampert details Patristic ideas about and constructions of women and Jewishness as well as medieval commentaries that disseminate and further extend these ideas. Lampert shows how Christian constructions of gendered and Jewish difference are created along analogous lines and grow from similarly perceived paradoxes about the roles and functions of women and Jews with respect to Christian practice and doctrine. Constructions of Jewish identity and of femininity have often been explored outside of the context of Christian ideology; Lampert draws on earlier work in these areas to show how these axes of difference are used to construct "Christian meanings" rather than simply how they function on their own. In linking the two, Lampert shows the importance of depictions of outsiders in defining Christian identity. While Lampert's title refers to gender and Jewishness, her book in fact explores how male Christian thinkers conceived of themselves and how they created a definition of themselves as normative members of their community, as distinct from various (external) categories of difference.

Following Carolyn Dinshaw, Lampert she argues, "[t]he hermeneutical Woman and the hermeneutical Jew both become associated with veiled knowledge, a clouded seeing, and, of course, with carnality and the body itself. Both become figured as embodied particulars in relation to a universal that transcends embodiment" (29). For Lampert, Mary is a crucial figure in this construction, "an embodiment of the paradoxes posed by the figures of both woman and Jew" (29). An individual woman can "become male" or an individual Jew can convert to Christianity, but the class to which either belongs remains fixed as a location for compromised identity.

Both Jews and women are polarized into opposing figurations: a Jew is either Patriarch or Christ-killer, while a woman is either virgin or whore. Lampert acknowledges that "...although it would...be a distortion to assert that polarizations are the only extant types, polarizing representations are so prevalent and so influential that they are more than simply the limits of representational extremes. Rather, their polarized ambiguities are generated...from the tensions that these two particular identities create in respect to Christian universalisms" (35).

An important and intriguing section of Lampert's argument is her discussion of the crucial importance of Mary and the Incarnation in the conjunction of constructions of women and Jews in Christian exegesis; as Lampert notes, the transition from Christian to Jew is marked within and through Mary's body (53).

Chapter 3: Reprioritizing the Prioress's Tale

This chapter shows that ideas about how (masculine) Christian identity is constructed by distinction from Jewishness and womanhood have broad currency in late medieval England. Lampert compares the Prioress's and Second Nun's Tales in terms of issues of feminine agency and spirituality. Issues of gender and Jewishness are considered in separate sections within this chapter, with links between them left for readers to tease out. This chapter reads as something of a digression from the main argument of the book about the persistence of ideologies of gendered and Jewish difference, in part because it is not clear how what is presented here pushes forward into Shakespeare's work.

Chapter 4: Creating the Christian in Late Medieval East Anglian Drama

This is the strongest chapter in the book and may profitably be read as the book's core, as it forms the bridge linking Paul and Patristic exegesis to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Lampert examines two fifteenth-century Anglian mystery plays, the Croxton "Play of the Sacrament" and the N-Town "Nativity Play," as well as the lost "Fergus," a York play on the funeral of Mary. Descriptions of this play in surviving records suggest that in it, a Jew touches Mary's body on her bier as it is being transported to burial, and his hand is damaged. (Lampert refers to the play as "Transitus.")

The three plays discussed in this chapter are linked by characters whose hands are maimed as a result of the hand-owner's doubt of some crucial element of Christian doctrine, but then restored when the character in question arrives at belief in that doctrinal detail. One of these characters so deformed and then restored to wholeness is a woman, and the other two Jews; in Lampert's analysis, this fact links the three plays and establishes a further link between the characterization of women and Jews. Lampert suggests that the "conversions" of a doubting woman in the N-Town play and of a doubting Jew in Croxton play highlight the link between Christianity and masculinity (104). Following Kristeva, she also suggests that the idea of the stricken hand breaches the "boundary between self and abject Other" (107) and argues that the simultaneity of laughter and horror at moments such as this challenges the boundaries between Christian and Jew (107).

Women are central to the N-Town "Nativity." Mary, as Lampert points out, is born a Jew; the play focuses on her "purity" (that is, Mary's reproductive organs are physically unchanged following Jesus' birth). In her discussion of this play, Lampert focuses on the symbolism of Mary as a point of contact and transition between Jew and Christian and between God and human. Lampert notes that "...it is the Incarnation, that moment when the Word becomes flesh in Mary's womb, which marks the moment of supersession, that shift from Judaism to Christianity. Mary's body...acts as a symbol for the relationships between Jews and Christians within the framework of Christian theology" (134).

In the Croxton play, a Jew bribes a Christian to steal the host so that he can test its holiness; when he attempts to throw it in boiling oil, it sticks to his hand; as his friends try to help him, his arm falls off. Lampert acknowledges that the usual interpretation of the "Jew" in this play is as a figure of Lollardy. However, the play is set in Aragon in 1461, in a time and place where issues of conversion and of Jewish and Christian identity were at the forefront. Because of extended trade between England and Spain in the fifteenth century, Lampert argues that it is a "realistic possibility" that the East Anglian author and/or audience would have known of the situation in Spain (110), and would have understood the play as referring to the literal problems of Jewish conversion and Christian identity rather than allegorizing the characters.

According to Lampert, the Christian and Jewish merchants of the Croxton play are similar in that both are motivated by financial greed, and the Christian refuses to steal the host until the Jew promises a substantial sum. By the end of the play, both "convert"-- the Christian to proper faith, and the Jew to Christianity. However, Lampert argues, the Jew's conversion is dubious. While the Christian merchant does penance by walking home, the Jew must walk into exile, because the play's vision of Christianity "finally cannot acknowledge Christianity's Jewish origins or contain Christians with Jewish origins, a situation that reflects the play's Spanish setting" (115).

Chapter 5: "O What a Goodly Outside Falsehood Hath!" Exegesis and Identity in The Merchant of Venice

Lampert shows in the final chapter of the book that Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice contains clear parallels to the Croxton play in its focus on the potentially corruptive forces of commerce and in its concern with conversion; she also suggests that the same biblical and exegetical traditions underlie Merchant as well as the mystery plays. Lampert engages James Shapiro's examination of issues of English identity and of the boundaries between Christians and others in Shakespeare and the Jews, noting that "English anxiety about Jews and counterfeit Christians was proportional to social, political, and religious upheaval" (138).

Commercial activity in the Venice of Merchant destabilizes gender difference as well as religious and other hierarchies by bringing together various traditionally segregated classes. Such destabilization also exists, Lampert suggests, in Shakespeare's London. Lampert notes that Christian exegetical methods come into play in the courtroom scene in which the disguised Portia defends Antonio from Shylock's demand of a pound of flesh, "which polarizes letter and spirit, Justice and Mercy, and Jews and Christians" (149).

Lampert argues that the play's most threatening character is Shylock's daughter Jessica, "who is both Christian and Jew and whose beautiful exterior may belie an intractable Jewish essence, which she, through her marriage to Lorenzo, threatens to spread into the commonwealth" (153). As a woman who makes the decision to leave her father and convert to Christianity, she also exercises a destabilizing level of agency. Shylock also converts to Christianity, but is absent from the stage in Act V, his "Jewish essence" (156) indigestible to the commonwealth. Jessica remains in the narrative, but Shakespeare articulates doubts about the efficacy of her conversion through her own dialogue as well as through the taunts of Launcelot, who "characterizes Jessica's Jewish parentage as monstrous" (161).

This chapter reads Merchant more closely in terms of constructions of Jewishness than of gender; the construction of female identity and its relationship to Christian identity are considered almost exclusively in terms of the character of Jessica rather than with respect to the broader workings of the play. In the context of Lampert's discussion of the act of reading as a masculine operation on a feminine text, it would be interesting to know how Lampert thinks Portia's identity as a woman shapes her status as the close reader of the law and of the body that invalidates Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh. Moreover, while Lampert comments upon Jessica's brief disguise as a boy on her way to shedding Jewish identity in conversion to Christianity, she does not discuss how this resonates with her discussion in chapter 2 of the normative masculinity of the Christian subject.

Chapter 6: Conclusion

In the book's concluding chapter, Lampert revisits the rationale for including both medieval and early modern texts and contexts in her study, noting that her project is, in part, to challenge the traditional divide between the two disciplines and to show how Shakespeare's representation of Jewishness draws upon earlier formulations. Lampert quotes Michael Ragussis, who "calls Merchant the "ur-text of the representation of Jewish identity in England." What this book has attempted to show is that ur-texts are made, not born. Merchant weaves together in powerful ways central strands in the much longer Christian traditions of the figures of woman and Jew..." (172). The book succeeds in showing that The Merchant of Venice grows out of rich literary and theological traditions, as well as a dense history of anti-Jewish discourse.