Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern English Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew

By Berek, Peter | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern English Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew


Berek, Peter, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern English Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew, by Matthew Biberman. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. Pp. xii + 260. Hardcover $89.95.

Reviewer: PETER BEREK

Matthew Biberman's book on masculinity and anti-Semitism reflects wide reading, imaginative ingenuity, and great ambition. But the book is better at identifying provocative issues than at convincing this reader that its argument hangs together point by point.

Early modern English literature is only a starting point for Biberman's argument. For him, representations of Jews both reveal and enable a series of turning points in Western culture. The first turn, from a classical conception of masculinity apparently synonymous with Christian knighthood to modern capitalist bourgeois subjectivity, seems to occur in the brief moment between The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice. Modernity then gives way to postmodernity at Hitler's holocaust, an event that, according to Biberman, empties anti-Semitism of content and makes it a purely aesthetic phenomenon. Biberman asserts that classical masculinity is in conflict with Christianity because of premodern culture's embrace of a gender ideal that excludes women. The "hypermasculine" figure of the Jew-devil offers Christian culture a way of stigmatizing excesses of masculinity by projecting them onto the Jew. As capitalism's more feminized version of manhood emerges at the start of the seventeenth century, a new, more "sensitive" man sees the feminized "Jewsissy" as the floor beneath which he cannot sink, just as the Jew-devil was a ceiling above which hypermasculinity could not rise (the structural metaphor is Biberman's). Yet the spectral presence of the Jew-devil haunts the Jewsissy, and nineteenth-century Gothic makes both available to Nazism.

This narrative of Western history is not on its face compelling; one wants evidence and details, which Biberman tries to supply. He does so in chapters that attend to specific, and largely literary, topics. Chapter 1 analyzes medieval and early modern representations of Jews in works such as Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale," the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, The Jew of Malta, and The Merchant of Venice. Chapter 2 talks about Jewish women: Marlowe's Abigail, Shakespeare's Jessica, and (astonishingly) Jonson's Dol Common in The Alchemist. Chapter 3 contrasts Donne and Milton. Donne's masculine poetry evinces "ecstatic discourse offered by a male to a male deity" (5); the more modern Milton heteronormatively acknowledges that a male poet needs a female (and therefore non-Christian, says Biberman) object of devotion. Modern heterosexuality, Biberman says, impedes men's intense identification with Christ and also mutes the demonization of the Jew. Discussing both Milton and Elizabeth Cary, chapter 4 argues that divorce was more available than usually thought in Renaissance England (Biberman cites no new legal or historical evidence). One version of divorce-Mariam's-renounces sexuality. But Milton and Cary's Salome see divorce as a way of changing sex partners, and in this sense links divorce, feminine carnality, and Jewish sinfulness. Thus divorce "secures the Jew-sissy's ascendancy in the cultural imagination" (5). Chapter 5 shifts to the twentieth-century "Milton controversy" and argues that T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism created Eliot's antipathy to a Milton whose grand style was in fact a polyglot, cosmopolitan Jewish babble rather than the plain speech of laudably Anglican Donne or Herbert. Chapter 6 reads Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula as rewritings of The Merchant of Venice that attempt to materialize the Jewdevil to replace the Jew-sissy. The book ends with a brief discussion of Otto Weininger's 1903 Sex and Character, which Biberman says calls for an elimination of both women and Jews in order to facilitate a reunion of God and God's creation. …

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