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Blood Relations

Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice

In Blood Relations, Janet Adelman confronts her resistance to The Merchant of Venice as both a critic and a Jew. With her distinctive psychological acumen, she argues that Shakespeare’s play frames the uneasy relationship between Christian and Jew specifically in familial terms in order to recapitulate the vexed familial relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

Adelman locates the promise—or threat—of Jewish conversion as a particular site of tension in the play. Drawing on a variety of cultural materials, she demonstrates that, despite the triumph of its Christians, The Merchant of Venice reflects Christian anxiety and guilt about its simultaneous dependence on and disavowal of Judaism. In this startling psycho-theological analysis, both the insistence that Shylock’s daughter Jessica remain racially bound to her father after her conversion and the depiction of Shylock as a bloody-minded monster are understood as antidotes to Christian uneasiness about a Judaism it can neither own nor disown.

In taking seriously the religious discourse of The Merchant of Venice, Adelman offers in Blood Relations an indispensable book on the play and on the fascinating question of Jews and Judaism in Renaissance England and beyond.

224 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Jewish Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature

Religion: Religion and Literature


“A work of stunning bravery and amplitude. We owe a debt of gratitude to Janet Adelman’s writing for the riches of its results.”

Stanley Cavell, Harvard University

“This book is well positioned to be the most important book-length study of The Merchant of Venice in all of the available scholarship. No one today is writing more trenchant criticism than Adelman. Her study of this deeply problematic play is fair and judicious while also passionately involved, learned and wide ranging while also attuned to painful moral issues.”

David Bevington, University of Chicago

“Janet Adelman’s brilliant book illuminates the pressing problem of social hatred with incredibly insightful analyses of the interior dimension of that hatred as well as the exterior demand of conversion. The book demonstrates why this play’s exposure of the terrible ‘knowledge we cannot bring ourselves to know’ has such deep cultural resonance.”

Regina Schwartz, Northwestern University

Blood Relations is the crowning achievement of an outstanding critical career. In Janet Adelman’s study of The Merchant of Venice, the genius for close reading that distinguished The Common Liar (her unsurpassed account of Antony and Cleopatra) is combined with the penetrating psychoanalytic insight applied to the ‘subterranean logic’ of texts in Suffocating Mothers; and both are enriched with a wealth of patiently researched historical detail. Building on the pioneer work of James Shapiro, Adelman significantly enlarges our awareness of the ways in which ‘Jewishness’—as a theological, national, and racial category—was constructed in Shakespeare’s time. Not only does this make Blood Relations a major contribution to current debates about early modern ideas of ‘nation’ and ‘race’: it also enables a wonderfully fresh analysis of the structure of relationships in The Merchant, in a reading that illuminates even the most neglected corners of this controversial comedy.”

Michael Neill, University of Auckland

“In this extraordinary book, Adelman reveals the full force of a disturbing Jewish presence in Shakespeare studies, one that justifies retroactively the anxiety that many Christian scholars initially felt on this incursion. Belmont will, indeed, never be the same. Responding, as she argues, to an earlier such invasion of Jews into Shakespeare’s England, The Merchant of Venice is revealed as a text of Christian theological anxiety with regard to the continued presence of Jews in the world. As significant in its way as the readings of The Tempest by scholars from the colonies and postcolonies, Blood Relations is a brilliant new moment in the history of the new historicism.”

Daniel Boyarin, University of California, Berkeley

"Blood Relations innovatively combines psychology, history, and theology. . . . Drawing on the work of previous studies, this book presents many suggestive local readings that reveal the depth of knowledge Adelman brings to Merchant."

M. Lindsay Kaplan | Renaissance Quarterly

"The book succeeds splendidly with historical rigor and with a stylistic straightforwardness that engages a range of theological and racial aspects of ancestry in this most controversial of Shakespeare’s plays. Much of her rationale on particular dialogue . . . could easily be incorporated into undergraduate or graduate courses; scholars working in the discipline, performance studies, or psychoanalytic discourse will find provocative new readings."

Everett G. Neasman | Christianity and Literature

"The prose is skillfully woven and its findings complement and verify other recent assessments of the gender, medical, political, and popular dimensions of early modern possession and exorcism. This book stands out as a meticulous reminder of the need to take theology seriously, especially when dealing with ephemeral qualities like human spirituality."

David Lederer | American Historical Review

"[The book] is learned, thoughtful, and provocative, providing insights not just about the play . . . but also about the nature of early modern identities and their relationship to the stage. Few critics can use psychoanalytic criticism with the subtle brilliance of Janet Adelman."

Andrew Hadfield | Comparative Drama

“Janet Adelman (1941–2010) was a major force of innovation in the field of Shakespeare studies and Renaissance literature. . . . As professor at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1968 to 2007, Adelman had a shaping influence on several generations of undergraduate and graduate students. Blood Relations, the final monograph in her illustrious career, extends Adelman’s groundbreaking studies of gender, psyche, and culture in Renaissance drama into problems of religion and ethnicity, combining historicism with psychoanalysis, feminism, and race theory in order to craft a nuanced account of the hermeneutic and political world of Shakespeare’s England. Like Kenneth Gross’s Shylock Is Shakespeare (2006), also published by the University of Chicago Press, Adelman is fascinated with the fate of the conversos—Jews who underwent forced conversion to Christianity in Spain in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Whereas for Gross the plight of the conversos signifies above all the passage of direct forms of Jewish identity into the innuendos and subterfuges of modern thought, for Adelman the conversos represent the possibility of English contact with actual Jews whose persistence ultimately indicated both the origins of Christianity in Judaism and the imperfect character of all conversion.”

Julia Reinhard Lupton | Modern Philology

"Adelman is one of the questioning voices reconsidering the certainties of early-modern writing. He incisive inquiry into what is perhaps Shakespeare's most contentious play for a modern audience is short and scholarly."

Plays International Magazine

Table of Contents

A Note on Texts
1 Introduction: Strangers within Christianity
2 Leaving the Jew’s House: Father, Son, and Elder Brother
3 Her Father’s Blood: Conversion, Race, and Nation
4 Incising Antonio: The Jew Within
Works Cited

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