Shakespeare Capitalized on Public Execution (1994, 1999)

[The following is a revision of a potboiler designed for June 7, 1994.]

Was Shakespeare a capitalist pig? Is public taste for the horrific in entertainment any different now than it was in Elizabethan England? Aficionadoes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm St. read on. 

In February 1594, London was electrified by the beginning of the trial of Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s physician. Lopez was charged with conspiring with Spanish agents to poison the Queen, as well as assassinate Antonio, pretender to the throne of Portugal. Lopez had accepted a costly jewel as a gift from Spain and was circumstantially convicted. But the Queen believed him to be innocent and signed his death warrant with great reluctance.

On June 7th, amidst widespread outrage, Lopez was executed at Tyburn, the site of public executions. His last words, “I die for my Savior as I die for my Queen,” were memorable in that he was a Jew who had converted to the Church of England. Only the ghoulish could have savored Lopez’ cruel punishment, a standard prescription for serious crimes.

At sunrise, with a large crowd in a bloodthirsty mood on hand, Lopez was led up to the scaffold and placed under the gibbet. He was not allowed the benefit of a blindfold. Lopez was then hanged, and afterwards emasculated, drawn, and quartered. (Those familiar with the film Braveheart will have an idea of the procedure.)

History is inclined to make Lopez innocent. It appears, unfortunately for the doctor, he had ill-advisedly gossiped that Essex had a venereal infection. And Essex extracted the ultimate revenge.

No sooner had the trial of Lopez begun than the Admiral’s men revived Christopher Marlowe’s old play, The Jew of Malta, written about 1589. The Jew of Malta concerns the character of Barabas who commits a catalogue of crimes, including the poisoning of his daughter and an entire abbey, and finally plunges to his death in a boiling cauldron. Since the Admiral’s chose to revive at this time an old play having a Jewish poisoner as its central character, it is obvious that they were attempting to cash in on the trial of Roderigo Lopez.

We learn from Henslowe’s Diary that the first revival performance was given on February 4th, 1594, and no less than fourteen times afterwards, a considerable number in those days, demonstrating that the play was very popular. Its popularity was no doubt enhanced by the performance of the Admiral’s leader, the beloved Edward Alleyn, in the title role. By 1595, interest in Lopez had died down, and no further performances of The Jew of Malta are recorded. 

Not to be outdone, the Chamberlain’s men decided to see if they too could capitalize on the horrors inherent in the execution of Lopez. For this purpose, at two o’clock on June 7th, Henslowe tells us, only a few hours after the butchering of Lopez, they performed Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s bloody spectacle of murder, rape, and mutilation set in ancient Rome.

Many scholars have found Titus so repulsive that they have tried to absolve Shakespeare from the writing of it. The “sweet Swan of Avon,” they argue, could never have written a play so contemptible of human life. Indeed, much of the writing is markedly inferior to Shakespeare’s and  through the centuries a host of scholars have attributed much of the play to George Peele.

There is also some external evidence which tends to downplay Shakespeare’s participation in the drama. As early as 1687 Edward Ravenscroft reported a stage tradition that Shakespeare “only gave some master touches to one or two of the principal characters.” Today, Titus is rarely performed or read.

In Titus Andronicus there is clearly enough to satisfy to the limit the taste of a public with an appetite for horror. Titus was performed countless times by a succession of acting companies in London, and on tour throughout England, for many years. In other words, horror in Shakespeare’s time, just as today, earned top box-office receipts.

While scholars may blanch at the subject matter, Shakespeare’s company obviously needed plays such as Titus because they made money. There was even a name for these reliable plays— a “get-penny.” In this respect, whether Shakespeare wrote or only touched-up Titus is of little consequence. He certainly sanctioned it. If the subject matter was grotesque, he could objectively overlook that fact because his livelihood was at stake. He and the Chamberlain’s men, then, were no better or worse than the purveyors of commercial entertainment today, particularly those producers who make television movies about the likes of Pamela Smart and Amy Fisher. The film treatment of the Son of Sam is expected. Can the saga of Jeffrey Dahmer be far behind?

The events of and around June 7, 1594, clearly indicate that acting companies were ready to capitalize on current events. Were they capitalizing on other issues as well? Inevitably, in the case of The Jew of Malta, the question of racism rears its ugly head.

Marlowe’s Jew is a one-dimensional portrait of evil. Barabas perpetrates crime after crime and eventually goes to his death unrepented. Such a character is easier to loathe if he is somehow different from the people in the audience. Englishmen had an aversion to foreigners. There were the centuries-old rivalries with Spain and France. Jews had been expelled from the country. Henry VIII’s break with the Pope fueled English chauvinism even further.

By making his central character a foreigner, Marlowe catered to the average Englishman’s political sensibilities. Secondly, since there were few Jews in Tudor England, Jews would be little understood and therefore an easy target. It’s not difficult to think the worst of, or to laugh at, those we don’t know. Indeed, there is the old adage that when disaster strikes us it’s a tragedy; when it strikes someone else it’s a comedy.

Racism involves stereotyping. If Marlowe’s Jew was in some way stereotypical of what was known or thought about Jews at the time, then racism is implicit. Alas, the evidence exists. As late as 1609, again testifying to the lasting popularity of the play, the playwright William Rowley made reference to “the artificial Jewe of Maltaes nose.” Evidently Edward Alleyn wore a large fake nose, and it is to this feature that the character Ithamore makes derogatory references intended, no doubt, to raise laughter.

The Spaniard Lopez was a Jew as well as a foreigner. By performing The Jew of Malta during his trial, the Admiral’ men pandered to the public’s baser instincts— its chauvinism, racism, and love of horror. From Shakespeare’s later sympathetic portrait of Shylock, we can at least absolve him of having racist reasons for making capital out of Lopez’ execution. But there is no question that he and his company exploited the public’s taste for horror.