Why were Jews and Christians separated in Shakespeare's time, and how was the separation delineated in society?

Expert Answers
jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

During Shakespeare's lifetime (1564-1616), there were few to no Jews in England. The record of Jews living in England goes back to 1070, but Jews were expelled from England by Edward I in 1290. Even before Edward's Edict of Expulsion, Jews were treated differently than other people in England. They were subjects of the king, not of lords, and Jews often worked as money lenders during medieval times because the church did not allow money lending. This profession was one of the few open to Jews, and the king often taxed them heavily because he did not have to go through Parliament to collect taxes from Jews.

Unfortunately, Jews were disliked for being money lenders, and this situation resulted in a great deal of anti-Semitism across Europe. Jews were associated with the devil and with false ideas (such as the idea that they used the blood of Christian children in their Passover matzah). These types of anti-Semitic ideas are referred to as "blood libels." Many Jews were required to wear badges or identifying signs. When they were expelled from England, many Jews went to France or Poland. Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews into England around 1657, though a very small number of Sephardic Jews came in the years between 1270-1657. Shakespeare was unlikely to have known a Jew personally, though some of his characters, such as the Jewish money lender Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, are described in a way that some critics consider anti-Semitic.

The separation of Jews and Christians was often delineated through the creation of Jewish ghettos. Jews had to live in particular areas of cities. For example, the Jewish ghetto in Rome goes back to 1555. It was created by Pope Paul IV in the worst part of the city, which was flooded by the Tiber River. Jewish ghettos in many European cities became densely packed to the point of overcrowding, as Jews were not allowed to live outside the ghetto. In England, Jews did not live in an official ghetto but were crowded into the East End (in London) and specific areas in other cities. In addition, Jews were often forced to wear badges or special types of clothing that identified them as Jewish in a debasing manner.