Jews in Literature
Jews in Literature
Jews have been a presence in continental literature since the Middle Ages and in American literature since the nineteenth century. Christian writers, as scholars point out, have been fairly consistent in representing Jews in terms of the ethnic stereotype, but that trend has been shifting in the second half of the twentieth century toward a more complex and realistic characterization. In literature as well as in western culture, Jews have been traditionally portrayed as foreign, mysterious aliens associated with money (especially money-lending) and power in society. Shylock, one of the central characters of William Shakespeare's drama The Merchant of Venice (1600), perhaps best exemplifies this kind of characterization.
Modern critics have actively investigated the attitude of many major writers toward Jews as evidenced in their personal writings as well as in their works. For example, Maud Ellmann has explored the image of Jews projected in the works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, finding implied anti-Semitism in the case of Eliot, and very overt anti-Semitism in Pound's poetry and radio speeches delivered during World War II. Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), has been the subject of numerous studies, notably by Harry Girling. Ronald Granofsky has connected elements of anti-Semitism in the writings of D. H. Lawrence with his ideas regarding race and masculinity. Pointing out both conscious and subconscious strains of anti-Semitism in the writings of Virginia Woolf and Stevie Smith, Phyllis Lassner has discussed the two writers' responses to the coming of World War II. In a similar vein, Susan Rubin Suleiman has examined Jean-Paul Sartre's Refléxions sur la question juive (1946), discovering buried anti-Semitic elements in this essay criticizing the treatment of Jews in France.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, the image of Jews in literature has been transformed by the Holocaust, a watershed event for Jews and many gentiles who have struggled to find a way to express their thoughts and feelings about the horrific events of World War II. When critics discuss Jews in literature in this century, they usually refer both to Jewish characters in literature and to Jewish authors. In the case of either group, the Holocaust has proven a defining moment in history. After the events of World War II, gentile writers have written more sympathetically about Jews in European and American society. Some critics have noted that Jews have become a symbol of persecution, endurance, and moral courage in late-twentieth-century literature. Many Jewish writers, on the other hand, have undergone a painful personal journey to re-examine their identity and heritage. They have also written about the paradoxical process of trying to find a language and a literary framework for writing about events that seem to be, by their very nature, unimaginable and unutterable. Scholars have praised such writers as Elie Wiesel, Nelly Sachs, Ernst Weichart, and Hermann Kasack for their courage in articulating the Holocaust experience. Much critical attention has been focused on the portrayal of the Holocaust in literature—whether personal accounts by survivors, in documentary and historical writings, or in prose fiction and poetry. Such scholars as Lawrence L. Langer, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Edward R. Isser, and Michael André Bernstein have explored various aspects of the literature of the Holocaust, from implications for Jewish writers' religious faith to the enacting of Holocaust experiences on stage.
Lo me-‘akshav, Lo mikan [Not of This Time, Not of This Place] (novel) 1963
Badenheim (novel) 1939
Dangling Man (novel) 1944
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1969
Draussen vorder Tür [The Man Outside] (novel) 1947
The Titan (novel) 1914
The Hand of the Potter (novel) 1918
T. S. Eliot
The Wasteland (poetry) 1922
After Strange Gods (essays) 1934
Notes toward a Definition of Culture (criticism) 1949
Haus Deutschland: oder Die Geschichte eines ungesühnten Mordes (novel) 1992
E. M. Forster
The Longest Journey (novel) 1907
Loyalties (novel) 1922
A Gun for Sale (novel) 1936
Brighton Rock (novel) 1938
Watch on the Rhine (drama) 1941
The Sun also Rises (novel) 1926
The Wall (novel) 1950
Laura Z. Hobson
Gentleman's Agreement (drama) 1946
The Trumpet Unblown (novel) 1955
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Panitz, Esther. “Alienation and the Cult of the Individual.” In The Alien in Their Midst: Images of Jews in English Literature, pp. 162-70. Rutherford, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1981.
[In the following excerpt, Panitz presents a summary of the changing image of the Jew in English literature from the time of Geoffrey Chaucer to the twentieth century, and concludes that stereotypical thinking about Jews still remains.]
The certitude that had been part of Browning's life reinforced his cheerful eagerness. Yet in the midst of all that pleasant ambience, the earlier frustrations and conflicts of the Victorian Age grew into the nativisms and doubts of the twentieth century. Scientific skepticism and an emphasis on empiricism helped erode individual morality, which had been based on accepted social values. In the political arena, imperialism, which had once engendered a sense of pride in England's customs and institutions, came to be regarded as a system of induced slavery. Economically, living standards improved for British workers because of the increased power of the Labor Movement. However, unionization alone was not the key to a happier, more meaningful existence for everyone. To compound the difficulty, a belief in the classless society as the ideal state did little to secure man's goals or purposes in life. Similarly, substituting the group for the individual did not solve...
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SOURCE: Haynes, Stephen R. “Introduction.” In Jews and the Christian Imagination: Reluctant Witnesses, pp. 1-11. Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Haynes examines the conception of Jews in the imagination of Christian writers, focusing on what he suggests are largely unconscious attitudes toward them.]
[The Jews] are our supporters in their books, our enemies in their hearts, our witnesses in their scrolls.
Augustine, On Faith in Things Unseen
The history of the nation of Israel is indeed unlike that of any other nation throughout human history. No other nation has been so blessed by God and yet so hated by Satan. The factors of satanic persecution, divine judgment for sin, and divine blessing honoring the promises to Abraham are all evident throughout Jewish history.
John Ankerberg and John Weldon, One World: Biblical Prophecy and the New World Order
Why this extraordinarily neurotic way of reacting to anything to do with Israel—and to quite a lot of things to do with Jews elsewhere?
Norman Solomon, “The Context of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue”
“Jews are news.” This phrase is...
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SOURCE: Nochlin, Linda. “Starting with the Self: Jewish Identity and Its Representation.” In The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, edited by Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb, pp. 7-19. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.
[In the following essay, Nochlin explores the representation of Jews in the visual arts and the underlying assumptions, cultural and literary, that they reflect. She concludes, however, that there are no sweeping generalizations that can be made about how Jews are depicted in art.]
“Why do they hate us so much?” This is not merely an anguished cry torn from the heart—although, of course, it is that, too—but rather a perfectly rational question to ask in the face of the plethora of hostile, denigrating, and debasing representations of Jews—the Jew, Jewishness—collected and analyzed in the texts of this volume. That these representations are often contradictory—Jews are too smart and innately incapable of genius; Jewish women are natural wantons and asexual or frigid; Jews underhandedly control the international banking community and yet pollute the great cities with their fetid, crime-ridden slums; Jews are over-intellectual but over-emotional, hyper-rational but superstitious—does nothing to mitigate the force of their collective assault. On the contrary, it would seem to imply that we are and have been so hated that only mutually exclusive...
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SOURCE: Erdman, Harley. “Introduction.” In Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity 1860-1920, pp. 1-13. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Erdman explores the influence of Jewish stage stereotypes on artists and audiences in the period between 1860 and 1920, showing how various artists both fulfilled and reshaped expectations of their performances.]
The actor David Warfield used to tell a story about his professional debut as part of a second-rate West Coast company in the late 1880s. The play was Tom Taylor's Victorian melodrama The Ticket-of-Leave Man, a quarter-of-a-century-old English play that by then was an American stock repertory staple. The role was Melter “Aby” Moss, Jewish henchman and counterfeiter. When Warfield recounted the story to a journalist in 1926, after a long career that saw him celebrated first as the foremost Jewish “delineator” of the day and later as “the greatest living actor in English,” he recalled the trepidation that accompanied the breakthrough of being cast in such a crucial role:
I had no idea of the character of Morse [sic] but as he was a Jew, I supposed of course he must have an exaggerated nose. Now, I had no experience in mechanically simulating noses—no idea of the stuff of which such things were made. I should of course have used the regular...
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SOURCE: Schechter, Robert. “Rationalizing the Enlightenment: Postmodernism and Theories of Anti-Semitism.” Historical Reflections 25, no. 2 (summer 1999): 279-306.
[In the following essay, Schechter examines the roots of anti-Semitic thought, beginning with François-Marie Voltaire in the Enlightenment and continuing into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]
The Jews of France did not wait for postmodernism before criticizing the Enlightenment. In response to an anti-Jewish libelist who in 1786 accused the Jews of being “superstitious,” Isaiah Berr Bing of Metz defended himself and his coreligionists in a published letter:
I do not know what you call superstitious; is it to show the most inviolable attachment to a religion in which you do not dare ignore the mark of divinity? Is it to observe very scrupulously all that it prescribes? If it is in that that we appear superstitious to you, I shall willingly admit that we are, that I hope quite sincerely that we shall always be; in spite of the progress of fashionable philosophy, in spite of its aversion for the ceremonial, and for everything that it cannot, as it were, touch with its finger.1
Yet it would be mistaken to characterize Bing as somehow against the Enlightenment. Indeed, in his pamphlet he drew liberally from the philosophes, postulated the natural...
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Criticism: Representing The Jew In Literature
SOURCE: Fisch, Harold. “The Twentieth Century.” In The Dual Image: The Figure of the Jew in English and American Literature, pp. 80-97. New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1971.
[In the following excerpt, Fisch explores the treatment of Jewish characters in various twentieth-century literary works and suggests that in these works the Jew emerges as “a symbol of the moral victory of the human spirit.”]
LIBERALS AND REACTIONARIES
When we turn to the twentieth century we note that in spite of the generally soberer presentation of Jews the mythological outline remains. In E. M. Forster's early novel, The Longest Journey (1907), the Jewish Hegelian philosopher from Cambridge, Stewart Ansell performs a task in relation to the hero Rickie similar to that of Deronda in relation to Gwendolen in George Eliot's novel. He is the cultural and moral catalyst. He exposes the emptiness and triviality of the English upper class, its petty hypocrisies, and serves as a kind of lay-confessor to Rickie who is seeking moral integrity but constantly lapsing into self-deception and weakness. It is Ansell who screws him to the sticking point and forces him, simply through the effect of character and example, to be true to himself. In the great central scene where the accounts are cleared (there is always such a scene in a Forster novel) Ansell occupies the front of the stage: “He...
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SOURCE: Girling, Harry. “The Jew in James Joyce's Ulysses.” In Jewish Presences in English Literature, edited by Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller, pp. 96-112. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Girling presents a detailed examination of the character of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's novel Ulysses, focusing on Joyce's conception of Bloom's typical and atypical Jewish traits.]
Unlike the Jews discussed in the previous chapters, the Jew in James Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is usually thought of as an Everyman figure. Not that he is going about looking for his soul, like the central character of the medieval play of Everyman. Rather he is like the man in the street, but larger and plumper than life; he is nothing and everything at the same time. He is a fairly faithful husband with a constant hankering towards an adulterous intrigue; he earns enough to get by, though he has to resort to various stratagems to stay afloat; he has quite good taste in music, but his chief interest in art is in trying to find out whether marble goddesses have a nether orifice; he has lots of acquaintances and no particular chums; he is fairly greedy and a bit fastidious; inclined to avoid trouble except when he is suddenly a hero; a father pining for a dead son who miraculously is endowed with a spiritual heir; a restless traveller who comes home as...
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SOURCE: Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “The Jew in Sartre's Réflexions sur la question juive: An Exercise in Historical Reading.” In The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, edited by Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb, pp. 201-18. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.
[In the following essay, Suleiman discusses Jean-Paul Sartre's Réflexions sur la question juive in the context of French attitudes toward Jews in the 1940s. Suleiman points out anti-Semitic elements in Sartre's language even as he is criticizing anti-Semitism.]
… that book is a declaration of war against anti-Semites.
Sartre is transformed in the third part of his essay into the antisemite against whom he rails in the first part.
In a sense, this essay will be nothing more than my attempt to fill in the gap between those two statements, both of which I consider true. Can a “declaration of war against anti-Semites” become itself, at least in part, anti-Semitic? The idea, although paradoxical, is not totally surprising: in the heat of battle, much can easily stick to your skin, without your always knowing whether it is your muck or your enemy's.
Sartre was not an anti-Semite, nor did he harbor any love...
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SOURCE: Ellmann, Maud. “The Imaginary Jew: T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.” In Between “Race” and Culture, edited by Bryan Cheyette, pp. 84-101. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Ellmann identifies elements of their stance toward Jews in the works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, concluding that the two poets “projected their own darkness” upon them.]
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
—T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion”
T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, like Coleridge and Wordsworth, tend to be coupled in literary history and hence to be regarded as accomplices. There are many similarities between them: both rejected the “huge looseness” of the United States, together with its liberal individualism, and fled to Europe in pursuit of pastures old. Both adopted a radical conservatism which, in Pound's case, led to fascism; yet both wrote poetry whose experimentalism poses a puzzling contrast to their political authoritarianism. The most damning resemblance, however, is the antisemitism revealed by both in varying intensities. While Eliot denied the presence of antisemitism in his poetry and attempted to conceal its symptoms in his prose, Pound's prejudices grew increasingly fanatic, culminating in his fascist broadcasts for Rome Radio during World War II.1 Although he was arrested for treason and incarcerated...
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SOURCE: Lassner, Phyllis. “‘The Milk of Our Mothers' Kindness Has Ceased to Flow’”: Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, and the Representation of the Jew.” In Between “Race” and Culture, edited by Bryan Cheyette, pp. 129-44. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Lassner points out ambivalent images of Jews in several works by Virginia Woolf and Stevie Smith, respectively, noting that the coming of World War II was a milestone event in both writers' thinking about Jews.]
Among the constantly shifting boundaries of canon formation, perhaps no other text so represents the intersection of gender, modernism, and anti-militarism as Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas. In its experiments with genre and form, it constructs a history and theory of fascism through a feminist pacifist polemic. Invoking the figure of Antigone as muse of women's war resistance, Three Guineas argues that the history of continuous conflict is evident in the ethos of the patriarchal family and state. Written at the moment World War II is about to begin, even its timing has revolutionary appeal. Three Guineas impugns myths of a united nation's victory over the external enemy by exposing as an internal danger England's failure to integrate women into its political economy. Woolf's method interrogates the very logic of a nation's polity as she calls for internal insurrection rather...
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SOURCE: Granofsky, Ronald. “‘Jews of the Wrong Sort’: D. H. Lawrence and Race.” Journal of Modern Literature 23, no. 2 (winter 1999): 209-23.
[In the following essay, Granofsky traces Lawrence's anti-Semitic attitudes to his ideas about race, culture, and masculinity.]
In The Captain's Doll, a novella from the early 1920s, D. H. Lawrence takes his protagonist, Captain Alexander Hepburn, from post-war occupied Germany to Tyrolean Austria in amorous pursuit of the much younger Countess Johanna zu Rassentlow, familiarly known as Hannele, after the captain's wife has died under suspicious circumstances. The two travel together to a mountain glacier and stay at a hotel full of tourists, among whom are “many Jews of the wrong sort and the wrong shape.” As is often the case in Lawrence's fiction, it is unclear here whether the comment is the narrator's free indirect rendering of the thoughts of the protagonist or the narrator's own description separate from Hepburn's perception. In any case, these Jews are people who, on the one hand, are condemned for pretending to be something they are not—“so that you might think they were Austrian aristocrats, if you weren't properly listening, or if you didn't look twice”—but, on the other hand, are appreciated somehow, for “they imparted a wholesome breath of sanity, disillusion, unsentimentality to the excited ‘Bergheil’...
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Criticism: The Holocaust In Literature
SOURCE: Langer, Lawrence L. “Acquainted with the Night.” In The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, pp. 31-73. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Langer explores some ways in which various writers transformed their experience of the Holocaust into art.]
Who will write us new laws of harmony? We have no further use for well- tempered clavichords. We ourselves are too much dissonance.
In the beginning there was the Holocaust. We must therefore start all over again. … What it was we may never know; but we must proclaim, at least, that it was, that it is.
The journey from documentation to art, from the gross horrors of the Holocaust to their imaginative realization in literature, is a devious and disconnected one, full of unexpected detours through terrain scarcely surveyed by earlier critical maps. Writers themselves have gone astray in this uncharted landscape, a circumstance best illustrated, perhaps, by Peter Weiss's The Investigation, an attempt to create with a minimum of alteration from the testimony of witnesses at the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt between 1963 and 1965 a series of dramatic scenes which would convey the authentic reality of that experience by using only the language of history, the words of the men and women who themselves endured—as...
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SOURCE: Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. “The Holocaust as a Jewish Tragedy 2: The Covenental Context.” In By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature, pp. 116-48. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
[In the following excerpt, Ezrahi examines the way several Hebraic writers treat the Holocaust in their works, emphasizing the trauma and great personal and religious cost of turning such an experience into art.]
ELIE WIESEL AND ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER: FROM REALITY TO LEGEND
The major tensions which the Holocaust activated in Jewish beliefs and ethics as well as the engagement of traditional elements in the search for appropriate forms of expression are discernible in a body of European literature encompassing diverse languages and audiences. The novels of Elie Wiesel are perhaps the most widely read fictional representations of the clashes between inherited religious and moral values and the enormity and inscrutability of contemporary reality.
With the exception of his first book, Night, an autobiographical chronology of deportation and of existence and survival in the camps, and a few stories in Legends of Our Time, Wiesel's narratives are located on the periphery of or retrospective to the concentrationary universe. Dawn, The Accident, and The Town beyond the Wall are set in the aftermath of the war, yet treat as morally...
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SOURCE: Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. “History Imagined: The Holocaust in American Literature.” In By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature, pp. 176-216. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
[In the following excerpt, Ezrahi explores the responses of postwar American writers to the Holocaust, emphasizing a conflict many of them experienced between their creative imagination and obligation to historical truth.]
When six millions are slaughtered, in effect twice or thrice that number are [killed]. For the Jews [on all the other continents] die with them. All those that have not yet [perished] are not dead simply because they do not know what has happened. … A cold shiver passes over me when I think of their remorse when they do get to know, after the War. … Oh, merciful and gracious God! If the circumstances had been reversed, we the Jews of the great European religious academies would have known what was taking place! We would have shrieked to the high heavens and shaken the whole world to its very foundations.
Itzhak Katzenelson, Vittel Diary
The European writer—Jew or gentile, survivor or observer—could hardly escape the visions of a Holocaust which was enacted on his native soil. The Poles, as Rudnicki demonstrates, inhabit a land which was physically devastated by military attack and spiritually violated...
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SOURCE: Bernstein, Michael André. “Unrepresentable Identities: The Jew in Postwar European Literature.” In Thinking about the Holocaust after Half a Century, edited by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, pp. 18-37. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Bernstein suggests that the Jew has not been treated in all his complexity in postwar European fiction, but rather as a representative of a “cemetery culture.”]
Ignorance about those who have disappeared undermines the reality of the world.
—Zbigniew Herbert, “Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision”
Initially, the tale may seem all too familiar. After so many similar narratives, this story's trajectory from the gradual, piecemeal reconstruction of a family's devastation at the hands of the Nazis to bitter disappointment at the postwar German legal system's callous refusal of justice, let alone of repentance, for that murderous brutality moves us less by its scrupulously assembled details than by our always freshly triggered incomprehension at the sheer repetition of such facts. This time, the first incarnation of the story is as a combination memoir, detective story, legal brief, and carefully restrained cri de coeur by journalist Peter Finkelgruen in his 1992 text, Haus Deutschland: oder Die Geschichte eines...
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SOURCE: Isser, Edward R. “The Antecedents of American Holocaust Drama.” In Stages of Annihilation: Theatrical Representations of the Holocaust, pp. 32-43. Madison, WI: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Isser discusses American drama written about the Holocaust, noting that themes and imagery were often softened and diluted to make them more acceptable to theatergoers.]
The Holocaust is an ineffable occurrence that defies the capabilities of the human imagination. Dramatic representations of the historical catastrophe must transform, or as Adorno has said, transfigure, the terror so that it can be endured by an audience. In the American theater this is accomplished usually by the imposition of melodramatic modes upon the historical model. Sententious messages, moral exemplars, uplifting endings, and heroic sacrifices are used to bring order out of the chaos; to make the unimaginable approachable and the unbearable manageable. Lawrence Langer refers to this as the Americanization of the Holocaust, and asserts that such representations “permit the imagination to cope with the idea of the Holocaust without forcing a confrontation with its grim details.”1
The process of Americanization can be traced to the antifascist plays of the 1930s and early 1940s. These works, written by some of America's best known playwrights, bridged the cultural...
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Antler, Joyce. Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture. Hanover, N.H. Brandeis University Press, 1998, 301 p.
Collection of essays that explores the image of Jewish women in film, television, literature, and the culture at large.
Ben-Joseph, Eli. Aesthetic Persuasion: Henry James, the Jews, and Race. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 252 p.
Explores Henry James's attitude toward Jews and the question of race in the contexts of his work, society, and history.
Clendinnen, Inga. Reading the Holocaust. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 227 p.
Examines the experience of the Holocaust from both the victims' and the perpetrators' points of view using an historical and anthropological approach.
Cohen, Arthur A. The American Imagination after the War: Notes on the Novel, Jews, and Hope. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1981, 36 p.
Discusses the works of Jewish writers in the post-World War II United States, focusing on their response to their jewishness and to the Holocaust experience.
Gross, John. Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992, 355 p.
Explores the origin, development, continuing...
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