Isaac and Rebecca in Scott's Ivanhoe: A Study in Courage

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In Ivanhoe, his most popular novel, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) utilized the remarkable Jewess, Rebecca, and her father, Isaac of York, to expose the barbarity and the inanity of medieval England's "Age of Chivalry," especially its antisemitism. In so doing, he provided an antidote to the centuries-long tradition of Jew hatred in English literature.

Shakespeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe's Barabas in The Jew of Malta, late in the sixteenth century, perpetuated the medieval image of the hateful, evil, usurious Jew. If the ugly Jew's beautiful daughter did not share his opprobrium, it was because she rejected her father and Judaism, eloped with a Christian lover, and accepted Christianity. Throughout the ensuing two centuries, in novels and in the theater, the Jew played out this evil role or provided a source of humor as a contemptible fool. Even in today's Webster, the lexicon incorporates Jewish literary stereotypes as common nouns, namely, shylock, fagin and (S)vengali as usurers, child molesters, and personal manipulators.

Myriads of readers were unfamiliar with Jewish history, except for the Bible. In Ivanhoe, Scott not only introduced them to the suffering of Jews in medieval England, but by enlisting sympathy for Jews, he may even have served to ameliorate the view of many readers about contemporary British Jewry. While there is general agreement that Rebecca is one of the most magnificent heroines in all literature, the verdict on her father Isaac is not unanimous. Some claim that Scott has breathed into him not only humanity but also sympathy and understanding, even courage, while for others he is a throwback to Shylock, albeit a softened one. This is a dispute that will be explored later in this essay.

Scott, born in Edinburgh and a lifelong resident thereof and its environs, was among the most celebrated personalities of his time, rivaling even the Duke of Wellington in public adulation. Surprisingly, his initial fame did not come from his twenty-seven best-selling novels, the first of which, Waverly, was published in 1814 when he was forty-three years old. Rather, he was famous as the author of immensely popular romantic epic poetry, as the biographer and editor of the works of Milton, Dryden, and Swift, as the collector and editor of old Scottish ballads and tales, as the translator of current German poetry including a work of Goethe, as well as the author of journal articles of literary, historical, antiquarian, and general interest. Along with all this, he produced numerous stories, a multivolume biography of Napoleon, and voluminous personal correspondence. It is no wonder that he felt too busy to accept the offer of Poet Laureate of Great Britain with its various obligations.

Trained as a lawyer, he worked as a judge throughout most of his life, a vocation that provided plenty of free time and an underpinning income to the huge fortune that he amassed from his writings and his business ventures. But those business ventures turned sour late in life, resulting in his spending his last years writing furiously to try to work his way out of crushing debt.

He published Waverly anonymously lest its failure as a novel might undermine his reputation as a poet and a scholar, and despite its success, he continued to publish historical novels, a genre which he pioneered, under the nom de plume of "The Author of Waverly" until his twenty-fourth novel in 1827. Hence the sobriquet, the Waverly Novels. His authorship soon became an open secret, but he mischievously maintained the charade.

Scott suffered from polio as a child leaving him with a lifelong limp, but this did not impede him from being a vigorous long distance hiker and a skilled horseman. Indeed, he served as a cavalry officer in the home guard organized to deter a Napoleonic invasion. He married happily and sired four children to whom he was greatly devoted. In addition, he directed great energy to expanding a modest homestead into a huge baronial manor, Abbotsford, with acres of landscaped plantings and gardens. …