Shapiro, James S. 1955-

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SHAPIRO, James S. 1955-


Born 1955. Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1977; University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1982.


Home—New York, NY; and Thetford, VT. Office—Columbia University, 1150 Amsterdam Ave., 606B Philosophy, Mail Code 4954, New York, NY 10025. E-mail—[email protected].


Author and educator. Columbia University, professor of English. Fulbright lecturer at Bar Ilan University and Tel Aviv University.


Bainton Prize for best book on sixteenth-century literature, for Shakespeare and the Jews; National Endowment for the Humanities award; Huntington Library award; Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture award.


Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1991.

(Co-editor) The Columbia Granger's Index to Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1993.

(Co-editor with Carl Woodring) The Columbia History of British Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1994.

(Co-editor with Carl Woodring) The Columbia Anthology of British Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Shakespeare and the Jews, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.

Author of regular column for Chronicle for Higher Education. Contributor to journals and periodicals such as New York Times Book Review, Shakespeare Bulletin, Shakespeare Studies, Renaissance Drama, Criticism, English Literary Renaissance, and Studies in English Literature.


Comparative literature expert James S. Shapiro has focused his research and writing on the subjects of theater and cultural history. His works have explored, in depth, topics related to English renaissance drama and anti-Semitism in drama, particularly in Shakespeare and the famed passion play of Oberammergau, Bavaria.

Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare is "a cogent analysis of the mutual influences among the three greatest English Renaissance dramatists," remarked Frank Ardolino in Sixteenth Century Journal. Shapiro focuses "almost entirely on language, specifically on verbal echo and adaptation of one playwright by another," noted Anthony Parr in the Huntington Library Quarterly. Shapiro identifies "parodic intertextuality" as the major link in the influence that Marlowe's broadly drawn drama, "overreaching characters, and unruly themes" had on the works of Jonson and Shakespeare, Ardolino noted. As Jonson and Shakespeare were crafting their parodies of Marlowe's works and characters, they were also overcoming the "anxiety of influence" imposed by Marlowe's plays and establishing their own authorial voices as distinct from their predecessor. On the other hand, Shakespeare's interaction with Jonson did not appear in his plays but rather in critical commentaries, prefaces, and dedicatory poems. "Parody is usually seen as a comic imitation of a predecessor's style, but for Shapiro it provides a theory of emulative influence by which a writer textually recollects his struggle with his predecessor or contemporary," Ardolino observed. Virginia Mason Vaughan, writing in Shakespeare Quarterly, found Rival Playwrights to be particularly useful to Shakespeare scholars, stating that Shapiro's "pathbreaking study" of the three dramatists "establishes a model for the study of Shakespeare's craft as he practiced it within a marketplace where fortunes and reputations could be made or broken overnight." The book displays "few awkward seams or gaps," Vaughan remarked, concluding that Rival Playwrights is "a rare commodity in contemporary criticism—an important analytical study that is accessible not only to scholars but to theater professionals and lay people as well."

In Shakespeare and the Jews, Shapiro delves deeply into the attitudes and prejudices against Jews that prevailed during Shakespeare's time. He refutes the myth that Jews were banished from England by King Edward I in 1290 and did not return until Oliver Cromwell readmitted them in the 1650s. Although greatly diminished to a population of a few hundred, Jews in fact continued to live in England during this lengthy period. In this cultural context, extended over 350 years, what Jews came to represent was that which was not English. Jews "functioned in literature largely as an alien species or bogey or myth, of particular use for putting the fear of God into children," observed Lawrence Lipking in the New Republic. "And the myth hardly changed when real Jews came on the scene. Even as late as Fagin in Oliver Twist, these outcasts preyed on innocent, homegrown Christians," Lipking continued. "That was their role in English literature, insofar as they had any role at all."

With Shakespeare and the Jews "Shapiro advances a complex and questionable thesis: In early modern England, the British nation was struggling to find an identity, and resolving the Jewish question was crucial to this effort," commented David Zesmer in the Chicago Tribune Books. Lipking observed that "what seemed at stake, for any opponents, was nothing less than their own right to be English. Hence Jews had to stand for whatever England was not." Patric Kuh, writing in the Los Angeles Times, remarked that "our understanding of 'Englishness' is so established by now that it is necessary to read a fine cultural historian like Shapiro to understand how fluid it once was."

From a modern sociological viewpoint, the plays of the Bard "create a disturbing picture of Shakespeare's England," remarked Dinitia Smith in the New York Times. Even after Jews had returned, Smith continued, "England was still flooded with stereotypes of threatening Jews, and they were inevitably reflected by Shakespeare when he wrote 'The Merchant of Venice.'" Shapiro examines a number of archival sources, including diaries from the Renaissance period, English Parliamentary records, religious tracts, broadsides, sermons, and literary works to construct the picture of Jews as seen in Shakespeare's time. Shylock the money-lender served as the villain of the Merchant of Venice, but emerged as a much larger figure due to the resonance of centuries of fear, distrust, and hatred of Jews in England. Shylock's insistence on receiving "a pound of flesh" evoked images of Jewish circumcision and forced conversion of Christians to Judaism through the ritual. He carried the heavy freight of accusations of Jewish blood sacrifice, ritual murder, cannibalism, child abduction, usury, and of smelling different than Christians. "The most enduring valuable quality of this book is its engagement with the powerful, contradictory, and irreducible issues raised by the play," noted Jason P. Rosenblatt iof Shapiro's work n Philological Quarterly. "Shapiro is aiming not to supply a rigorous argumentative structure … but rather to reconstruct so far as possible a Renaissance audience's experience of 'The Merchant of Venice' in the light of its preconceptions about Jews." Indeed, "What Mr. Shapiro shows convincingly is how deeply Shakespeare's play dug down into the fantasies, anxieties, and pleasures of its audience," commented Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Times.

"So, the obvious question: Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite?" Kuh asked. "Shapiro argues that it is impossible to apply nineteenth-century terminology to a sixteenth-century person. He also argues that it doesn't matter whether he was or not. Anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism are not points of literary critique." Shapiro "has provided us with a valuable approach to one of Shakespeare's most challenging and elusive masterpieces," Zesmer concluded.

Shapiro analyzes other issues of anti-Semitism in drama in Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play. The residents of Oberammergau, Bavaria, have produced and performed the play almost every decade since 1634, when the village elders vowed to God that they would perform a passion play every ten years if Oberammergau was spared devastation from the Black Plague then sweeping across Europe. In the approximately 350 years since, the play has been consistently performed and has become inextricably enmeshed in the cultural history and identity of the village. However, the play has also generated considerable criticism because It routinely portrayed Jews as the villains of the story of Christ, responsible for the death of Jesus. Making things worse, German dictator Adolf Hitler praised the play's anti-Semitic message after attending the 1934 performance, and many Oberammergau villagers and performers were members of the Nazi party. The effects of the controversies, improved relations between Jews and Christians due to the Vatican II encyclical, and efforts by Jewish groups resulted in a revised play in 2000, with updated scenes that eliminated much of the offending material. Shapiro, who spent a year in Oberammergau as the play was being prepared for its 2000 production, offers "a highly readable study" of the history and current state of the play, noted Thomas E. Luddy in Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Shapiro's "fascinating story" of the play will "contribute enormously to our understanding of the power of theater to transcend entertainment and engender alarming beliefs."



Choice, April, 1994, J. Hafley, review of The Columbia History of British Poetry, p. 1291; April, 1996, N. Lukacher, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 1314.

Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2, 1996, Karen Winkler, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. A8.

College English, December, 1996, Marilyn L. Williamson, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 957.

Comparative Drama, fall, 1996, Grace Tiffany, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 415.

Comparative Literature, fall, 1997, Richard Halpern, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 371.

Criticism, spring, 1997, Suzanne Gossett, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 275.

Decatur Daily, July 23, 2000, Belle Chenault, review of Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play.

Huntington Library Quarterly, autumn, 1994, Anthony Parr, review of Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, pp. 383-392.

Journal of English and Germanic Philology, July, 1997, Jay L. Halio, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 446.

Library Journal, November 1, 1993, Tim Gavin, review of The Columbia History of British Poetry, p. 90; February 15, 1996, Ellen Kaufman, review of The Columbia Anthology of British Poetry, pp. 155-156; May 1, 2000, Thomas E. Luddy, review of Oberammergau, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1996, Patric Kuh, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 3.

National Review, July 17, 2000, Linda Bridges, review of Oberammergau.

New Republic, February 26, 1996, Lawrence Lipking, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 32.

New York Review of Books, June 12, 1997, Peter Holland, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 50.

New York Times, December 19, 1995, Dinitia Smith, "It's No More Mr. Nice Guy for Shylock (or Shakespeare)," p. C15; August 11, 1996, Stephen Greenblatt, review of Shakespeare and the Jews.

Notes and Queries, December, 1997, John Drakakis, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 552.

Philological Quarterly, winter, 1998, Jason P. Rosenblatt, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 107.

Publishers Weekly, June 12, 2000, review of Oberammergau, p. 68.

Renaissance Quarterly, spring, 1998, Andrea Solomon, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 306.

Review of English Studies, November, 1997, J. G. Saunders, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 504.

School Library Journal, May, 1996, review of The Columbia Anthology of British Poetry, p. 152.

Seawanee Review, winter, 1997, Stephen Bluestone, review of Shakespeare and the Jews.

Shakespare Quarterly, spring, 1993, Virginia Mason Vaughan, review of Rival Playwrights, pp. 110-111.

Sixteenth Century Journal, summer, 1992, Frank Ardolino, review of Rival Playwrights, pp. 360-361; winter, 1996, Eric Sterling, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 1118.

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, spring, 1997, Lars Engle, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 432.

Tikkun, January-February, 1997, Bradley S. Berens, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 70; March-April, 1997, Michelle Ephraim, "Greenblatt and the Jews," p. 64.

Times Literary Supplement, October 11, 1996, Bryan Cheyette, review of Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 29.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 7, 1996, David Zesmer, "The Merchant of Anti-Semitism? An English Professor Proposes a Social and Theological Context for Debating a Continuing Question about Shakespeare," p. 6.


Association of Contemporary Church Historians Web site, (October, 2000), review of Oberammergau., (August 20, 2000), Scott Shackelford, review of Oberammergau.

Columbia University Web site, (August 26, 2004), "James S. Shapiro.", (September 1, 2004), review of Oberammergau.

Random House Web site, (September 1, 2004), interview with Shapiro., (September 14, 2000), Charles Wright, "Behind the Scenes at Oberammergau."*