Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1921
First produced: 1872
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First published: 1873
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Historical tragedy
Time of work: About 1195
Locale: Toledo and vicinity
Alfonso VIII, King of Castile
Eleanor of England, daughter of Henry II, his wife
Isaac, the Jew
Rachel, his daughters
Manrique, Count of Lara, Almirante of Castile
Don Garceran, his son
Dona Clara, lady in waiting to the queen
Few writers since Shakespeare have managed to use the dramatic form with the poetic clarity and tragic force exhibited by the Austrian playwright, Franz Grillparzer. Usually the form is too much for the content or the content overburdens the play, giving to exposition the prominence that the expression of passion should have. Grillparzer avoids these faults, and contributes new psychological and moral perspectives which give his work its distinctive quality. THE JEWESS OF TOLEDO tells of a monarch's lapse from duty because of his sudden passionate affection for a beautiful but vain young Jewess. With a simplicity of effect that defies analysis, Grillparzer makes the king's discovery of his own foolish bondage credible, without in the least detracting from the impression that Rachel, the Jewess, for all her faults, was undeniably charming and even to be pitied.
Isaac, a Jew, found himself in the royal gardens of Toledo with his two daughters, Rachel and Esther. Realizing that the king was about to visit the gardens and that no Jews should be there during the royal outing, he urged his daughters to hurry from the gardens. Rachel laughingly refused, declaring that she would stay and see if the king was as young and handsome as she had heard. Isaac answered that Rachel was like her mother, for his second wife had found the Christians charming and had had eyes for nothing but fine clothing, jewels, and banquets. Esther, on the other hand, was like her mother, Isaac's first wife, who had been as good as she was poor.
Rachel sang and danced about while waiting for the king. She told her father that perhaps the monarch would find her charming, would pinch her cheek, and make the queen jealous. Isaac, frightened more than ever, hastened to leave the gardens with Esther.
When King Alfonso appeared, he invited the crowds to draw near him. He explained that the people had made him king while he had been still a child, that they had rallied around him in order to depose his uncle, a tyrant, and that they had then taught him the duties of one who would be just and good. Count Manrique turned to Queen Eleanor and told her of the people's affection for their ruler. The count declared that the present king was the noblest of all who ever ruled in Spain, turning aside petty criticism with wisdom and justice. The king, half jesting, replied that he might be an even better king if he were forced to overcome some fault. He suggested that the protection of the people might have kept him from developing the moral strength a ruler should have.
The king also urged everyone to enjoy the respite between wars, for the Moors were about to start another attempt to invade Spain. He called his wife's attention to the English-type garden he had ordered; he was disappointed that she had not noticed it.
A messenger, Don Garceran, the son of Count Manrique, brought news of the military preparations being made by Jussuf, the ruler of Morocco. Don Garceran was making his first appearance before the king since being assigned to a frontier post for having stolen into the women's quarters of the palace to view Dona Clara, his betrothed.
When the king suggested that the peasants pray to God for victory, Don Garceran replied that the churches were crowded, such was the religious zeal of the people. One sign of mistaken zeal, however, was the rough treatment sometimes given the Jews.
As the king was vowing to protect the Jews and all other of his subjects, he received word that a Jew and two girls were being pursued by the guards. Rachel came running to the group for protection. When Queen Eleanor refused to take her hands, she threw down her bracelet and necklace as ransom and clasped the king's knees. King Alfonso asked Esther, who had joined them, whether Rachel was always timid, and Esther replied that her sister was often too bold, too much the clown. The king, attracted by Rachel, ordered Don Garceran to shelter her in one of the garden houses until night, when there would be no danger of mob action.
After Don Garceran had escorted Isaac and his daughters to a shelter in the garden, the king accosted Don Garceran, questioning him about the family, praising the Jews for their long history, and begging for information about the art of casual love. Isaac, scolding his daughters for not attempting to leave, came from the garden house. He told Don Garceran that Rachel was her old self again, laughing and singing, and amusing herself by dressing herself as a queen with some masquerade costumes she had found.
Vowing Don Garceran and Isaac to silence, the king entered the garden house in time to observe Rachel, dressed as a queen, pretending to address a portrait of Alfonso which she had removed from its frame. In the role of the queen, Rachel accused the king in the portrait of having been attracted to the Jewess. The monarch interrupted this play and assured the frightened girl that he did indeed like her and that after the war he might ask for her. He asked her to return the portrait to its frame, but she refused. At that moment the arrival of the queen and the royal party forced the king to hide in another room. Count Manrique would have discovered him had not Don Garceran intercepted his father and, in the king's name, put an end to the search.
When the king reappeared after the queen's departure, he realized how he had already shamed himself because of the Jewess, and he asked her to return the portrait and leave with Don Garceran. After she had gone, he found that she had put her own portrait in the frame. The king was instantly stirred by the picture as if some magical spell surrounded it. In confusion, he first ordered his servant to go after Don Garceran and demand the return of his portrait; then he decided to go himself. He also asked about the Castle Retiro where a former king had kept a Moorish girl, but he could not copy such baseness. Finally, giving in to his passion, he went after Rachel.
Later, at Castle Retiro, Isaac was dealing with petitioners to the king, forcing them to pay heavily for the privilege of having their messages conveyed. Rachel complained that King Alfonso did not give enough time to her, and she was upset because her dallying with Don Garceran did not make him jealous. Esther arrived with the news that Queen Eleanor, Count Manrique, and other noblemen were joining in counsel, apparently plotting a revolt against the king. The king, already feeling guilty about neglecting the preparation for war, quickly left with Don Garceran for Toledo. Rachel, convinced that the king had never loved her, found no satisfaction in her perfumes and jewels.
Count Manrique and the noblemen, with the queen present, considered how to deal with the Jewess. Buying her off with gold was suggested, but the king had gold to give her. Imprisoning her would be useless, for the king had the power to release her. Finally, Count Manrique turned to the queen, who softly suggested that death was the answer, death for the woman who had broken the laws of God. Don Garceran interrupted the proceedings with an order from the king to dissolve the meeting. Count Manrique, dismissing the nobles, told them to be prepared for action. He then urged his son to join the rebellion, but Don Garceran refused. The count and the others left.
The king then prevailed upon the queen to listen to him. In a heartfelt conversation he admitted his guilt, calling attention to the changes of heart and mind that are inevitable for man. But the queen was reluctant to place the entire blame on her husband. She accused the girl of using shameless magic. In anger, King Alfonso defended Rachel as one who, for all her faults, had never pretended to a lifeless virtue that made life empty of warmth. He criticized the queen for encouraging his nobles to conspire against him.
The king discovered that the queen had left while he was talking. In growing apprehension he pursued the vassals to Castle Retiro. He arrived too late. The castle was in ruins, and Isaac and Esther told him that Rachel had been killed. To fire his desire for vengeance, the king viewed her body, but the sight of her reminded him not of her charm but of her wanton guile. Reaffirming his duty to the people, he forgave Count Manrique and the others when they appeared, swordless, to learn their punishment. He made his infant son king, with the queen as regent, and set forth for war against the Moors. Esther, at first cynical about the quick atonement of the Christian king, was appalled to find that her father was more concerned about his gold than he was over the tragic event that had involved them all. She confessed that she, her father, and Rachel were as guilty as the Christians.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
Although THE JEWESS OF TOLEDO was first performed in 1872, the five-act tragedy had been completed in the 1850's, and the idea dated back to 1824, when Grillparzer read Lope de Vega's LA JUDEA DE TOLEDO, upon which THE JEWESS OF TOLEDO is closely based. Into it he wove not only his own experience of an overpowering sensual love, but also his observation of a major political scandal of the day, the passion of King Ludwig I of Bavaria for the Spanish dancer, Lola Montez, which ended in her banishment and his abdication. The play is thus doubly motivated, and has been criticized as falling into two pieces: a love tragedy and a political tragedy.
In fact, the two are inseparably intertwined. The fortunes of the state are inextricably bound up with the personal fate of the naive king, just awakening to the power of the senses. His English wife, Eleanor, is coldly virtuous, though not above jealousy, but it is Rachel to whose charms he succumbs so utterly as to neglect his duty as king. Rachel is a creature of impulse, not of deep emotion, and embodies the absence of moral obligation. Queen Eleanor places duty above all, but lacks warmth and sensuality. It is the king's tragedy and the tragedy of the state, that this division of attributes plad the tragedy ofnd his duty in conflict. His tragedy is, therefore, personal and political. The throne is as good as vacant as the king forgets his divinely ordained role, and the nobles and the queen have no choice but to act to restore the order of the state. In this play, all incur guilt, not so much legal as moral. Rachel pays with her life, and in a sense, so do the king and nobles, as the king embarks upon a crusade against the Moors to atone his guilt by committing his life to the judgment of God in defense of his state.