Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Ira Regis: Comedic Inflections of Royal Rage in Jewish Court Tales

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Ira Regis: Comedic Inflections of Royal Rage in Jewish Court Tales

Article excerpt

"Hitler was part of this incredible idea that you could put Jews in concentration camps and kill them . . . How do you get even with the man? How do you get even with him? . . . You have to bring him down with ridicule, because it you stand on a soapbox and you match him with rhetoric, you're just as bad as he is, but it you can make people laugh at him, then you're one up on him . . . It's been one of my lifelong jobs- to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler."1

Mel Brooks, from an interview on 60 Minutes

For Mariti Nissinen, my gracioiu) host at the University of Helsinki


The world's literature frequently connects the office of kingship with the display of anger. Calchas, "Bird-Reader Supreme," says to Achilles: "You will support me and protect me in word and deed. I have a feeling I might offend a person of some authority among the Greeks, and you know how it is when a king is angry with an underling" (Il. 1.85- 88). 2 Herodotus tells a story in which Cyrus loses a horse to the turbulent River Gyndes and is so incensed that he threatens the river itself, promising that "he would weaken it so much that in the future, women would be able to cross it easily without even getting their knees wet" (Hut. 1.189). 3 Ira regia (royal anger) is a common subject in the literature of the Middle Ages as well, playing a prominent role in Jordan Fantosme's ChronoeL·,4 for instance. Or penally clauses in medieval royal diplomas threaten the king's anger to anyone who might disobey royal commands.5 Examples could easily be multiplied.

The connection between royal power and royal anger was not lost on Jewish storytellers either.6 Ira regi) appears frequently in the biblical and Jewish "court tales" (see Gen 40.2; 41.10; 2 Sam 12.5; Esth 1.12; 2.1; 7.7; LXX Esth, D.7 [cf. Alpha-Text Esth 5.5];7 Dan 2.12; 3.13, 19; Bel 8, 218). Lawrence Wills defines the court tale (or "wisdom court legend") as "a legend of a revered figure set in the royal court which has the wisdom of the protagonist as a principal motif."9 In these tales, various denizens of the court (queens, courtiers, priests, and mantic experts) become objects of the king's ire, typically through their own failure or unwillingness to obey the king's commands.

The motif of royal anger in the court tales, however, has not received much independent attention. Scholarly literature mentions the motil 's frequent occurrence in the genre, but little extended analysis has been done on this literary feature and its development.10 To this point, Tessa Rajak has undertaken the most extensive analysis of royal rage in Jewish literature. In particular, she analyzes angry rulers in Jewish-Hellenistic narrative (not just the court tales) against the backdrop of Greek conceptions of the tyrant.11 Rajak writes,

As conjured up in Greek writing, whether it be tragedy, history, or philosophy, the tyrannical ruler is endowed with a range of recurring negative and excessive traits arising from his unbridled emotions - arrogance, pride, and contempt for subjects, suspicion and envy, luxury and lust, indulgence, cruelty, and bloodthirstiness.12

According to Greek literature, the good ruler, unlike the tyrant, is governed by reason rather than passion.13 Rajak sees within many of the Jewish-Hellenistic stories "a potentially subversive voice."14 She writes that "such works of the imagination fuelled the idea that the innate capacity of rulers, manifested in their self-destructive and excessive reasons, made principled resistance a real possibility and sometimes a necessity."15

Rajak 's groundbreaking essay has made a tremendous contribution to the study of royal anger by providing a bird's eye view of how the broad and diverse corpus of Hellenistic- Jewish literature treated royal anger. I want to suggest, however, that a closer, more detailed examination of how this motif has developed in Jewish court tales may provide evidence as to its role among diasporic Jews as they negotiated their identity in the shadow of foreign rule. …

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