Magazine article The Spectator

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

Magazine article The Spectator

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

Article excerpt

Wolf in sheep's clothing?

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF DOCTOR LOPEZ by Dominic Green Century, L17.99, pp. 402, ISBN 0712615393

In The Merchant of Venice, Gratiano describes Shylock as being possessed by the spirit of a wolf that was 'hanged for human slaughter'. Wolf . . . lupus . . . Lopez. It was only a matter of time before a commentator suggested that the passage alludes to the downfall of Elizabeth I's personal physician, Rodrigo Lopez, a Portuguese-born crypto-Jew who had been convicted of plotting to poison the queen and hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in June 1594.

The allusion, if there was one, is pretty oblique: it must have passed over the heads of many of the audience. What seems much more likely, is that the Lopez affair induced Shakespeare (or his company, the Chamberlain's Men) to consider the general possibilities of a Jewish theme. What seems certain is that it prompted a successful revival of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta - which may in turn have been what gave Shakespeare his original impetus.

Dominic Green has set out to reconstruct Lopez's entire life, not just the notorious final chapter. It was a long life, too - at the time of his execution the doctor was around 70, and he had been active on the fringes of diplomacy and in the half-world of intelligence for over 20 years. Green's book features a dizzy-making succession of conspiracies, intrigues, reversals, betrayals, wheels within wheels. It has a plot worthy of le Carre at his most labyrinthine. But Green keeps the story clear; and though he makes diligent use of primary sources, he also writes with colour, pace and a fine sense of drama. Under the circumstances, the odd patches of overwriting can be forgiven.

Lopez was born in the town of Crato, in central Portugal. His family were Marranos, Spanish or Portuguese Jews who had converted to Christianity under the threat of persecution, but who maintained their Jewish beliefs in private. He qualified as a physician and built up a successful practice, but when he was in his mid-thirties the Portuguese Inquisition caught up with him. Forced to flee, he settled in London, where - despite the ban on Jews which had been in force since the time of Edward I - there was a small and thriving Marrano community.

Before long he had been appointed resident physician at St Bartholomew's. He also began ministering to influential private patients, including Sir Francis Walsingham, the great spymaster. …

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