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Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice.

Janet Adelman. Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice.

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. xii + 226 pp. index. bibl. $35. ISBN: 978-0-226-00681-9.

This book offers a profound consideration of the theological conundrum expressed in The Merchant of Venice that "the Jew is not the stranger outside Christianity but the original stranger within it" (3). In the play, this anxiety is activated by conversion, which dissolves distinctions between Christian and Jew, but also registers in what Adelman sees as Christianity's guilt at disavowing and displacing Judaism. Chapter 1 examines contemporary views of London conversos and aliens, parsing these categories in Sir Thomas More, Three Ladies of London, and John Foxe's Sermon preached at the Christening of a Certaine Lew. Conversos trouble categories of religious identity because of suspicions that they remain essentially Jewish. In a series of rich, detailed readings, Adelman demonstrates that while More expresses sympathy for the stranger-Jew, Three Ladies and Three Lords propose that openness to stranger dangerously erodes differences between foreign Jews and English Christians. Conversion plays a similarly mixed role in Foxe's Sermon, which expounds on the election of the Gentiles and the final conversion of the Jews through the prooftext of Romans 11. However, the doctrine of election disturbingly implies that no essential difference exists between Jews and Gentiles; Foxe responds by racializing Jews and emphasizing their violence to reinstate Christian distinction. These issues are effectively brought to bear on Merchant, where the problem of reestablishing a dissolved Jewish difference similarly turns on race and anti-Christian violence.

Chapter 2 explores issues of conversion, paternity, and guilt in the play and in the "theo-psychology" of Christianity (41). Close readings of biblical texts and commentaries on Abraham's name, Jacob and Esau, and the prodigal son offer resonant perspectives on the play. Adelman reads the statement "I'm a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer" (2.2.99-100) to suggest that Launcelot functions as a Jew converting to Christianity. Through his speeches, she considers Christianity's vexed paternity in Judaism, and conflates it with the fraternal struggle of supersession. Launcelot's guilt at leaving Shylock adumbrates Christians' guilt for their election over the Jews.

Chapter 3 focuses on the roles of parentage and blood in Jessica's conversion to explore ideas of English nationhood. Adelman contends that Jewish identity resides in the Jewish womb, both for Jessica and the "unassimilated Jew within the Christian" (70). Her argument shifts to Jessica's Jewish father, whom Salerio blackens to distinguish from a whitened, converted daughter. Adelman maintains that the play links the pregnant Moor to Jessica in order to confirm the latter's inheritance of her dark father's blood and mark her marriage as miscegenation. In assigning Shylock's "countrymen" the names of Noah's offspring, the play engages with contemporary discourses of national identity. Evoking Foxe, Adelman explains how a new definition of sacred nationhood based on land boundaries replaces an older "Jewish" construction defined by blood and ancestry, but is also dangerously open to alterity. She concludes that Jessica's difference must be fixed in order to exclude her from "the new nationhood that would replace the sacred nation of the Jews" (98).

Chapter 4 understands the Jew's circumcised body as castrated and feminized. Read through the play and the Genesis narrative of Dinah, this Jewish body is figured in Jessica, but more significantly in Antonio, the "tainted wether of the flock" (4.1.113). Shylock's attempted incision threatens to expose "an already-existing shame and sexual taint," Antonio's homoerotic desire for Bassanio (112). To forestall this dissolution of difference between merchant and Jew, the play distinguishes Christian blood, and alludes to chimerical discourses of Jewish ritual murder. The closure of Merchant depends on Shylock playing the Christ/Christian-killer to cover up the Jew in Antonio. Portia effects this closure because "her" disguise signals the boy acting her part, and allows her to "assign the threat of an obsolete femaleness to the Jew" (133).

Blood Relations innovatively combines psychology, history, and theology; however, the argument is often tangled by its multiple methodologies: psychology proceeds via imaginative associations that are often irrational--productive for interpreting literature and sometimes theology, but often contrary to the logical imperatives of history. Drawing on the work of previous studies, this book presents many suggestive local readings that reveal the depth of knowledge Adelman brings to Merchant, nevertheless, its larger arguments are sometimes marred by contradictions and unpersuasive claims.


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Author:Kaplan, M. Lindsay
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
Previous Article:Shakespeare's Women: Performance and Conception.
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