Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia Judaica (Thomson Gale).
The Jew’s participation in 17th-and 18th-century theatrical productions was at best insignificant. As a stage character, however, the Jew, portrayed by non-Jewish actors, became a popular figure in the European theatre. He was generally a villain, although occasionally, in plays by authors opposed to Jew-baiting, a supernoble being.
Jewish actors, until 1900, were isolated figures, facing prejudice and often abuse. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that Jews gained prominence as actors and directors in Europe and in the United States and made their mark as they had in other professions.
Negative Portrayals in England
The bleak period is typified by the theatre in England, where the Shakespearean age had made drama the most important art form in the country. Jews, who had been expelled in 1290, were little known in England until their return in the mid-17th century, but they were known on the stage. Early representations of Jews as villains gave way to stage characters who, because they were Jews, were either usurers or fools, and almost always ridiculous.
The first English secular play which included a Jewish character was The Three Ladies of London by R.W. (possibly Robert Wilson), published in 1584, in which a Jew, portrayed as decent and honorable, was nevertheless defrauded. Shortly afterward, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1591) and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1596), in both of which a Jew was the villain, set a pattern which was to endure.
There are on record 80 plays published in England from 1584 to 1820, in which at least one character was recognizable as being Jewish; most of them were written after 1700. After 1800 plays with Jewish characters appeared at the rate of almost one year.
One book changed the atmosphere for Jews in the arts and profoundly influenced their portrayal. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens drew Fagin as an unrelieved picture of evil, which set the tone in drama for most of the rest of the 19th century. The first adaptation of Oliver Twist reached the stage in 1838, the very year of the novel’s publication. Fagin was followed by an almost unrelieved procession of Jewish stage distortions, and even helped to popularize a lisp for stage Jews that lasted until 1914.