THE BANISHED HEART A Novel about Shakespeare's Writing of The Merchant of Venice
"A Brilliant Stew of Time, Place and Insights" - 5 Stars on Amazon.com
For Paul Hoffmann, a Jewish student at the University of Berlin, life would be sweet if he could write poetry and, of course, graduate. But since the year is 1933, his life is about to take a very different turn — one that leads him back to Elizabethan England, where his idol, William Shakespeare, is having a crisis of his own. Shakespeare’s theatre company expects him to write an anti-Jewish play that will incite the public against Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, a crypto-Jew accused of planning to poison Queen Elizabeth. But there is a problem: Shakespeare knows that Lopez is innocent.
Will Shakespeare remain loyal to the truth and his friends in London’s crypto-Jewish community or sacrifice Dr. Lopez to further his own career? As Shakespeare struggles over his rewrites of the play that will be known as "The Merchant of Venice," questions are raised for Paul Hoffmann, as well: in a world where he can no longer be a German, can he find the courage to rewrite his own “script”? Buy it at Amazon.
Was William Shakespeare an anti-Semite? A few scholars examine the evidence in my article "Shakespeare on Trial," originally published in Mishpacha Magazine. Read it here.
An Excerpt from The Banished Heart: Chapter XI
William had not attended the jousting tournament. It was not that he disdained other forms of entertainment; he was simply too busy. It was hard work being the “new hope” of the London theatre, and he knew that he could not be “new” forever, unless he continued to surprise the audience with each new play and give them something that was truly novel. To remain the same was to fall backward, and to fall backward was to one day risk inhabiting the ale house seat of that malcontent Henry Chettle. Just the thought of it made William shudder.
Yet he felt as stale as a last year’s loaf. He hadn’t an idea in his head, not for a play and not for a sonnet. He had been staring at the same blank page all morning, and had nothing to show for it except a dull ache in his neck.
He went over to the window and opened it wide, hoping that a strong dose of bracing air would help. Below, the street was teeming, as usual, with life; it was a world rushing forward, and it all went so quickly, this thing called time. Already the street below him had changed, if not its scene then its cast of characters. New carters were coaxing their tired horses onward, new tinkers were shouting out their services. His thoughts wandered back to Stratford, where his son Hamnet was most likely sitting in the town’s grammar school. Perhaps he was secretly carving his initials into the ancient wood of his desk at this very moment, just as William had done before him, not so very long ago.
He was still thinking about Stratford when there was a knock at his door. He half-expected his son to walk in, but the visitor wasn’t Hamnet, although he was from Stratford.
“I’m on my way back home, Mr. Shakespeare,” said one of the town’s carters, whom William used as his messenger since the man was a trustworthy fellow. “Is there anything you wish to send to your family?”
William replied that he did have something to send. He wrapped several coins in a piece of cloth, along with a letter, and fastened the small bundle securely.
The carter, who was in his own way a sensitive person, hadn’t looked while William counted out the coins. But he now appraised the bundle that rested in the palm of his hand with a judicious eye.
“I happened to hear your mother mention that your father has been served with another fine.”
“For not attending church?”
The carter nodded. “Those fines add up at an alarming rate, seeing how there are so many Sundays in a year.”
“Tell my mother that I hope to send more money next month.”
“I’m sure she will be very glad to hear it. And if I’m not being too impertinent, sir, I think it would do your mother—and your children—a world of good to see you again. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you in Stratford.”
“Yes, I hope to pay a visit soon.” William took out another coin and gave it to the carter. “But I have a new play to write. It’s hard to get away.”
As the carter was leaving, another visitor entered.
“May I come in?” Richard Burbage asked.
“Of course.” William brought another chair to the table, while Richard set down a load of books that he had been carrying. “What’s all this?” William asked, picking up one of the volumes.
“Ideas for the new play. Father says he wants it to go into rehearsal next week.”
“Next week? I haven’t even started it yet.”
“I thought as much, which is why I’ve come round to tickle your imagination and whip up your wit—and I’ll spare you the other half-dozen hackneyed phrases that came from my father’s mouth as he sent me on my way. But the play has got to be up and running before that Jew is executed.”
“Don’t you mean arrested?”
“That’s bound to happen soon.”
“And there has to be a trial.”
“That’s why you have to write the play now. We want to time the opening with the start of the trial. But the trial won’t last long, from what I hear, and no one will be interested in our play after the Jew is executed, so let’s get to work.”
“How do you know the Jew won’t be acquitted?”
Richard laughed. “Stop trying to procrastinate and start looking at these books.”
William picked up one of the volumes and glanced at the title page. “Decameron—haven’t we used this before?”
“Yes, and quite successfully. Apparently there’s another story in it we might be able to use, something about a Jewish moneylender and a Moorish king.”
“Wonderful. I know as much about Moors as I know about Jews.”
“Nobody in the pit knows anything about them, either. So you’re in good company.”
Since Richard had settled himself comfortably in his seat, William did the same. “What’s the plot?”
“According to our resident Italian scholar and translator, Angelo …”
“And where would I would be without Angelo?”
“You’d be setting your love stories in England, and not Italy.”
“I can’t imagine anything duller than that.”
Richard raised his eyes from the page of notes that he had been perusing and grinned. “You’re obviously not spending your time in the right company.”
“Never mind. What’s the plot?”
“Why don’t you come along with me tonight? One of my lady friends is giving a party.”
Richard tucked away his grin and went back to business. “In Angelo’s opinion, there isn’t much of a plot. It’s just a discussion about three rings, and in the end the Moor and the Jew become friends.”
“We can’t have that.” William tossed aside the book and picked up another. “Il Pe—cor—ane. What does that mean?”
“That doesn’t sound promising either.”
“It’s just the name of the book. But there is a story in it that might work. It’s about a Jewish moneylender.”
“Speaking of money, when is your father going to pay me what he owes me for the last two weeks’ performances?”
“I thought he lent you some money a few weeks ago. Have you already spent it?”
“The way most people do. I removed a coin from my purse and gave it to someone else.”
“Who did you give it to? Most young men waste their money on drink or on their mistresses, but you don’t do any of that. So where does your money go?”
“Never mind. Just tell me the story.”
“Now that I think of it, I really don’t know anything about you.”
“Not true. You know that I have to write a play this week. The story?”
Richard magnanimously put aside his own curiosity for the sake of his father’s theatre (he would remind his father of that fact at a later time, such as when his father was berating him for spending too much time with his lady friends and not enough time on the family business) and took another look at his notes, before saying, “It starts with a wealthy woman who lives in Belmont Castle and she has a husband who needs money—a man who needs money, that should speak to you, William. Hold on, you’re not married are you? Secretly supporting a family of nine on your meager earnings from The Theatre?”
“Nobody wants to see a play about a married couple. What other books have you got there?”
“So you’ll change it. Turn the husband into a lover.” Richard’s eyes lit up, tickled by his imagination. “That’s it! He’ll be a young lover who needs money to marry the wealthy woman he loves.”
“Better,” William reluctantly conceded.
“Now, a friend of the husband—I mean, the lover—goes to a Jewish moneylender …”
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Richard.
“Nothing. It just seems that evil moneylenders are a recurring theme in these Italian stories, and I wonder why. Doesn’t everyone chase after money? Wouldn’t you rather be rich than poor?”
“Don’t wander off the subject,” said Richard, who knew very well that his father loaned out money to the company’s actors and authors with interest, even though it was a crime to do so under English law. “The point is that if your Jew is a moneylender, he’ll be different from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. So stop wasting time and listen to this. This Jewish moneylender agrees to lend the friend of the lover the money, but he demands a pound of flesh as payment, if for some reason the borrower can’t pay back the loan.”
“A pound of what?”
William rolled his eyes.
“Well, why not?” Richard asked.
“Richard, what would you do if one day you woke up and discovered that you were a Jew?”
“Throw myself into the Thames.”
“Be serious for a moment. Why is it that everyone is always so willing to believe the worst about the Jews? The author of this book, for instance, where did he hear this story? How do we know that it’s not all a pack of lies? Have you ever heard of such a thing happening in real life? The theatre should hold up a mirror to nature. It should …”
“Don’t go off on a tangent again. A blood-thirsty Jewish moneylender will make for good drama. It will put warm bodies in The Theatre’s cold and empty pit. Lots of bodies.”
“You know how I hate it when writers hack people to pieces on the stage.”
“You did it yourself in Titus Andronicus.”
“Only because I was just getting my start. All this blood and violence—what does it have to do with art?”
“Not a thing, which is why you make more money from your plays than from your sonnets.”
“When I get paid.”
“You’ll get the rest of your money when you hand in the new play.”
“So that’s it. Your father is holding my ducats ransom.”
“William, I don’t think you understand the seriousness of the situation. Every other theatre in London is already in rehearsal with their play about a Jew. If we don’t have one, too, Father will be furious.”
William stood up and struck a pose, to make a more powerful statement. “I’m sorry, Richard, but I cannot write a play about a pound of flesh. It’s too gruesome.”
“What do you do when you go to a public execution? Close your eyes?”
“I’ve never been to one.”
“I’ll take you with me to the Lopez show. They’re saying he’s going to get the full treatment—hanged, drawn, and quartered.”
“In that case, a play about one miserly pound of flesh might be too tame for our audiences.”
Richard scrutinized The Theatre’s most promising playwright through his lazily half-opened eyes, which saw more than most people saw when their eyes were wide open. “What’s gotten into you, William? You’ve never had so much trouble writing a play before. Why is this one causing you problems?”
“My heart just isn’t in it.”
“Banish it. Keep your thoughts focused on all those shiny ducats that will soon be filling your purse.”
William sat down and reached for another book. “Isn’t there anything else in this pile?”
“William, listen to me. No one cares if this one isn’t a masterpiece. Just write something—anything—and Father will be happy. Besides, it will only be on the boards for a few months at most, and then it will be forgotten. Treat it as if you were asked to write a Christmas pageant for the Queen—a light entertainment, a merry jest.”
“Yes, why not?”
“Richard, what would you do if one day you discovered that I was a Jew?”
“I’d throw you into the Thames. Now, sit down and write. You’ve already got a good start: a rich heroine, a lover who needs money, and an evil Jewish moneylender who stands between them. All you have to do now is …”
“I know. Fill the stage with dead bodies before the final speech.”
Richard had gone, leaving William to fill up the blank pages. But there were more scratched out words than useable ones, and even he was beginning to wonder what was wrong with him. He couldn’t even decide if the play should be a comedy or a tragedy. Every time he got going with a love scene filled with a suitable amount of fluffy poetry, the gruesome image of the pound of flesh intruded, casting a grisly, laugh-stopping pale over the proceedings. But when he tried to envision the play as a tragedy, he ended up laughing out loud. There just wasn’t anything sublime about having a hunk of flesh hacked out of a person. A dagger to the heart, a sword run clear through the chest—those were noble ways to die. But carving up a person as if he were a side of beef was ludicrous. And so he went back to writing a comedy, for a while.
A modern psychologist might have offered the opinion that Mr. Shakespeare’s problem was not just one of dramatic construction. In his subconscious mind, the image of the Catholic and the Jew had become blurred. Both were feared and despised in Protestant Elizabeth’s England, which is perhaps why Richard Burbage could be so sure that the Portuguese-Jewish Dr. Lopez would be found guilty even before he was arrested and tried. The half of the doctor that was a Jew had a long history, at least in the public imagination, of being a poisoner of cups and wells. The half that had been a Portuguese Catholic, before the doctor turned Protestant, might have had a shorter history in the public mind as a master of rebellion, but it was a bloody one. Although not every Catholic in England was busy thinking up plots to kill the Queen, there were enough hotheads running about to heat up the epoch for everyone, including those who were only remotely connected to the old religion.
Or, perhaps it wasn’t religion that was the problem, since William didn’t consider himself to be a particularly religious man. He liked the old-time Catholic rituals and rites, which appealed to his sense of drama and mystery. But he also liked the more easy-going ways of the Protestants, who not only let the existing theatres remain open but encouraged the companies to produce their plays. So perhaps it was the topic of money that bothered him. Like the young lover of the play, William also needed money—not to marry, but to support his wife and children. He was also supporting his parents, now that his father had gone into a mysterious decline. John Shakespeare had grown almost childish during the last few years. Not only did he refuse to go to church, but he quarreled with his neighbors over nothing. And then there was the issue of the coat of arms. For some reason, the elder Shakespeare had gotten it into his head that he needed—nay, deserved—a coat of arms, and his son the famous playwright was going to help him get it. And it may as well be mentioned here—since if it is not, there are others who will whisper it about, anyway—that John Shakespeare had also been a moneylender, in Stratford, like the Jew in the story; what was more he had been prosecuted for the crime of lending money with interest. Perhaps, then, it was only natural that the son should feel squeamish about creating a villain whose despised profession so closely mirrored one practiced by his father.
A third possible interpretation, for those preferring to discard religion and money, was that it was the sting of the insult that prevented William from accessing his imaginative powers. Richard Burbage might have thought he was doing his playwright a favor by telling him that his play didn’t have to be a masterpiece, but for an artist like William Shakespeare, that was the death knell. If it wasn’t going to be a masterpiece, why bother to write it? He was no hack writer who aimed low to please the nether-most region of the pit. Any playwright, even Henry Chettle, could write a rabble-rousing play about a Jew. The world didn’t need a William Shakespeare for that. No, for him to get excited about a new project, he first had to believe that he was about to do something great, something that would be remembered, preferably until the end of time.
It’s very likely the psychologists and literary critics can think of other reasons why William could not progress with his story, but just because he is stuck in a creative quagmire there is no reason why our story must be stuck, too. Let us just say that a day passed, perhaps even two, and still he sat at his table, writing and scratching out, and writing and scratching out again. We will therefore leave him for a short while, and direct our gaze to, as the printers like to say, another part of the forest.