T. S. Eliot and the Jews

March 01, 2021

There recur in the work of ­T. S. Eliot two obsessions that make one cringe: his Jew-­hatred and his contempt for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The first is sometimes excused as a reflection of ambient prejudice, the second as critical crankiness. In fact, these obsessions have a common source. The characteristically Jewish contribution to Western literature is the tragicomedy, which reached one of its peaks in Hamlet. Just as he disliked the Jews in general, Eliot rejected what might be termed the Jewish sensibility in culture.

None of this would concern us if Eliot were not the author of some important poems and even more important lines. There is no question about Eliot’s rank among the leading English-language poets of the past century, nor about his critical acumen. The issue is the end to which he directed his ability.

If the canonical definition of anti-Semitism is hating the Jews more than is absolutely necessary, the word surely applies to Eliot. One finds the stray smirk about Jews in the verse of ­Belloc and Chesterton, but Eliot, as Anthony ­Julius observed, makes Jew-hatred into art. No other poet employed so great a talent to elicit as much loathing as Eliot did in the “Bleistein” poems. First published in 1920 and reprinted in all subsequent editions of Eliot’s poetry through 1963, “Burbank with a ­Baedeker: Bleistein with a cigar” depicts a “­Chicago Semite Viennese” tourist on the Rialto Bridge in Venice, a nod to Shylock. He is less than a rat: “A lustreless protrusive eye / Stares from the protozoic slime. . . . The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot.” Eliot revisited ­Bleistein in his masterwork, The Waste Land. The passage was dropped from the initial printings on the advice of Ezra Pound, who thought it too inflammatory, but it appeared posthumously in the annotated edition:

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!
When the crabs have eat the lids
Lower than the wharf rats dive
          Though he suffer a sea-change
          Still expensive rich and strange.

This reverie over a Jewish corpse parodies the tender account of the drowned Phlebas (“who was once handsome and tall as you”) that appears elsewhere in The Waste Land.

There have been any number of anti-­Semites among the important poets, but none evinces quite so much hatred—not Lope de Vega when he needles Cervantes over his Jewish heritage, nor Quevedo when he mocks Gongora’s long nose and alleged aversion to bacon, nor Shakespeare in depicting ­Shylock, who suffers and bleeds like all men. Eliot gloats over the piscine eyes of a crab-eaten Jewish corpse, lampooning Ariel’s Song in The Tempest. An antipathy upon which a talented poet lavishes such invention goes beyond mundane bigotry.

Eliot’s Jew-hatred was racial. It was not (as Harold Bloom claimed) “simply a mark of the authenticity of his Neo-Christianity.” This is evident from his imagery, full of horror at the stereotypical appearance of Jews, and is explicit in his 1933 lecture, “After Strange Gods.” In it he claimed:

The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.

The juxtaposition of the words “race” and “undesirable” as they apply to Jews had a distinct meaning in 1933. Eliot’s Victorian antecedents held no such views. On the contrary, Matthew Arnold named Heinrich Heine the true heir of Goethe (whom he thought the best modern poet and second only to Shakespeare), praising in particular Heine’s Jewish-themed poems “Princess Sabbath” and “Yehuda ­HaLevi.”

It is generally assumed that anti-Semites hate Jews not for what Jews actually are, but for what they imagine Jews to be. That was true of Ezra Pound, who imagined that Jews were usurers responsible for social crisis and war. Eliot, by contrast, hated the Jews for what they really are. In particular, he abhorred Jewish irony. Jewish humor has many facets, but its ultimate source is the paradoxical encounter of infinite God and finite man, in which there always lurks an element of the absurd. This is sharpened by the ironic distance inherent in the experience of exile. For two thousand years, the Jewish people have looked askance at the countries they inhabit. But even in their homeland they have understood themselves as spiritual strangers and sojourners in a fallen world. This is an existential dislocation, the knowledge that one is out of joint with a disordered world.

That brings us to Eliot’s other obsession. He published three attacks on Hamlet between 1919 and 1932, each stating a new reason to hate it. One is reminded of Aesop’s fable of the wolf whose shifting accusations against a lamb are easily refuted and finally irrelevant. Eliot’s first sally, “Hamlet and His Problems,” pronounced the play “an artistic ­failure” on the grounds that Hamlet lacks convincing ­motivation—is it revenge, or guilt over the behavior of his mother, or something else that Shakespeare does not quite clarify? Drawing on the dodgy scholarship of J. M. Robertson, Eliot argues that ­Shakespeare had revised and mangled an earlier revenge drama by Thomas Kyd. His 1927 essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” scolds Shakespeare for having the wrong philosophy. Years later, Eliot conceded that these two early efforts were marred by “callowness” and a “facility of unqualified assertion which verges, here and there, on impudence.”

Eliot’s mature statement on Hamlet appears in his 1932 Harvard lectures, in which he denounces ­Shakespeare for violating the “doctrine of Unity of Sentiment,” that is, for writing tragicomedy. In his final attack, Eliot makes no attempt to challenge ­Shakespeare’s plot construction or unearth an ur-Hamlet, but simply declares “Unity of Sentiment” an inviolable law, which Shakespeare has transgressed. “We like some farce as a relief from our sentiment, however salacious, and some sentiment as a relief from our farce, however broad,” he writes. “The audience which can keep its attention fixed upon pure tragedy or pure comedy is much more highly developed.”

Here, at last, Eliot discloses his real concern. Citing Philip Sidney, Eliot attacks the Elizabethan playwrights who jumbled comic relief into tragic plots and then applies the same criterion to Hamlet. But it was disingenuous of Eliot to lump Shakespeare’s masterpiece together with the mixed-genre banality of minor playwrights. Hamlet is one of a handful of tragicomic masterpieces that situate the existential crisis of the protagonist in a tragically flawed world. Such works do not mix comic and tragic episodes; instead, they are simultaneously comic and tragic throughout. If properly performed, they leave the audience unsure whether to laugh or to cry, or both.

Modern tragicomedy emerges from the dissolution of traditional political and social relationships, so that protagonists confront a “time out of joint.” They are tragic because their players cannot prevail against the adversity of their circumstances. They are comedic because human existence under such conditions appears absurd.

The first modern work called by its author a tragicomedy is also the first great work of modern literature by a Jew, Fernando de Rojas’s 1499 La Celestina, by universal acclaim the Spanish national tragedy, with a status in the Spanish-speaking world comparable to that of Hamlet. De Rojas was a forced convert in 1492, when Spain’s Jews were given the choice of conversion or exile. It was Europe’s first bestseller, with ninety editions in a half-dozen languages in the century and a half after its first appearance. Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, and Hamlet were its progeny in English-language theater a century later.

Another tragicomedy is the original Don Juan play, the Deceiver of Seville (1630) by Tirso de ­Molina, a Spanish monk of Jewish descent. The libretto of ­Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a dramma ­giocoso, was written by another Jew, Lorenzo da Ponte. Da ­Ponte’s version was one of more than 1,700 versions of the Don Juan story published during the next two centuries. The last great tragicomedy (and another object of Eliot’s scorn) is Goethe’s Faust, the most self-consciously biblical of all great works of modern literature. Its “Prologue in Heaven” paraphrases Job, and its portrayal of the death of Faust follows the Talmud’s Aggadah, or homiletic exegesis. Hamlet is unimaginable without La Celestina, just as Faust is unimaginable without Hamlet.

Classical tragedy acknowledges the inherent sadness of life subject to fate: It is better never to have been born, ­intones Sophocles’s chorus in Oedipus at Colonus. (A classic Jewish joke adds, “Yes, but who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand.”) Orestes and Oedipus offend the divine order, the first through conflicting loyalties, the second by ignorance. They expiate their sin through suffering, and divine order is restored. Tragicomedy, by contrast, presents us with a time out of joint, a disorder caused by evil—the murder of Hamlet’s father, or the depredations of Don Juan, a high aristocrat protected by the royal court. The comedic element stems from the absurdity of human existence in a disrupted order. Classical catharsis reconciles us to fate and invites us to return to ordinary life. Tragicomedy leaves us conflicted and reminds us that we, too, were born to set things right.

In classical tragedy, nemesis restores the natural balance of things after hubris has disturbed it. In Hamlet, by contrast, the natural order has broken down. It is not Hamlet, but the Danish monarchy, that is rotten. Hamlet’s soul was, as Goethe noted, “an acorn planted in a flower pot.” The power of tragicomedies stems from the portrayal of the existential crises of individuals in a world where order cannot be restored.

Hamlet contains numerous scenes that are both tragic and comic—for example, the murder of ­Polonius and Ophelia’s obscene songs. But the plot as a whole is tragicomic. It opens with soldiers posted on the battlements of Elsinore to watch for an imminent invasion by Fortinbras of Norway and concludes with Fortinbras’s appearance on a proscenium covered with the corpses of Denmark’s royal family. “Who’s in charge here?” the Norwegian asks in so many words. “Everyone’s dead. I guess I am.” ­Shakespeare’s audience would not have known whether to laugh or to cry as they anticipated the death of Elizabeth I and the ascension of James I. The lamentable practice of cutting the Fortinbras scenes out of stage productions to allow the audience to catch their last bus home ruins the play. Fortinbras’s unseen presence is central to the comedy, and his appearance is its punchline.

Hamlet finally decides to kill Claudius when, traveling to England (and presumably to his death), he meets the Norwegian army on its march to a skirmish on the Polish border. The prince compares his hesitation to avenge “a father kill’d, a mother stain’d” with Fortinbras’s wild ambition and contempt for death, and declares, “To my shame, I see / The imminent death of twenty thousand men, / That, for a fantasy and trick of fame, / Go to their graves like beds. . . . / O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”

Contrary to Eliot, Hamlet’s motivation is horribly clear. Caught between the decay of the Danish court and Fortinbras’s mad ambition, he cannot do what he was born to do—set things right. Instead, he acts out of existential despair and resigns himself to a bloody end. Hamlet pretends to be mad, but the world around him truly is mad, and finally it catches him up in its madness. What might have been Hamlet’s heroic attempt to restore the integrity of the Danish state becomes, instead, a nihilistic act of self-immolation. In his last soliloquy, Hamlet decides to end with a bang rather than a whimper. Eliot wrote for a generation that preferred the other option.

Eliot wanted to banish not only Hamlet’s existential question but its context. “In Elizabethan England we have conditions apparently utterly different from those of imperial Rome,” he inveighed in his 1927 essay on Shakespeare.

But it was a period of dissolution and chaos, and in such a period any emotional attitude which seems to give a man something firm, even if it be only the attitude of “I am myself alone,” is early taken up. I hardly need . . . to point out how readily, in a period like the Elizabethan, the Senecan attitude of Pride, the Montaigne attitude of Scepticism, and the Machiavelli attitude of Cynicism arrived at a fusion in the Elizabethan individualism.

Eliot wanted predictability and order. He wrote, “I prefer the culture which produced Dante to the culture which produced Shakespeare.” He preferred the work of Dante “because it seems to me to illustrate a saner attitude towards the mystery of life.” Of course, the world in which the actual Dante lived was upended by contention between papacy and empire, by the Guelph-Ghibelline civil wars of the Italian Republics, and by the enervation of the papacy after the arrest of Boniface VIII by Philip the Fair. The harmonious order envisioned in the Divine Comedy was for Dante a projection that would never come to pass, and for Eliot a memory of something that never was.

As a corrective to Hamlet, Eliot offers us the neo-classicism of Racine:

To my mind, Racine’s Bérénice represents about the summit of civilization in tragedy; and it is, in a way, a Christian tragedy, with devotion to the State substituted for devotion to divine law. The dramatic poet who can engross the reader’s or the auditor’s attention during the space of a Bérénice is the most civilized dramatist—though not necessarily the greatest, for there are other qualities to consider.

Racine’s play is tepid stuff: The Emperor Titus, who destroyed the Second Temple at Jerusalem, renounces his love for the Jewish Queen Berenice. Titus leaves to become Emperor and his jilted lover declares nobly (in John Masefield’s translation): “I know you love me. / I am not worth your trouble, nor deserve / That marrying me your Empire should be broken.” Eliot’s preference for Racine over ­Shakespeare evidently had less to do with aesthetics than with ideology.

La Celestina had already drawn the ire of the Puritan critic Anthony Munday in 1580, who inveighed against “the tragical Comedie of Calistus; where the bawdresse ­Scelestina inflamed the maiden Melibea with her sorceries.” By then the play was known to every literate person in Europe. Shakespeare surely knew it, as did every literate European of his time. The London printer William Apsley registered a translation in 1598, a year or two before Hamlet was written. The plot is simple: Calixto loves Melibea but cannot court her openly and employs the old whore and procuress Celestina as a go-between. The doomed romance ends in tragedy.

By contrast, the backdrop to La Celestina is never made explicit. But if we read the play through contemporary eyes, it is clear that the disruption of the world order that sets the tragedy in motion is the expulsion and forced conversion of Spanish Jewry. This is a point of controversy in scholarship, but Shon David Hopkin’s 2011 doctoral dissertation is persuasive. The Italian-Jewish scholar Samuel Tsarfati, physician to Pope Julius II, translated La Celestina into Hebrew in 1507. In an introduction, Tsarfati implies that Melibea, the young woman desired by Calixto, is a nueva cristiana, that is, of a converted Jewish family. His introduction begins with the “war of lovers” but shifts to the plight of the Jewish exiles of 1492:

Destitute and barefoot they go by the thousands,
Scattered on every corner, they wander to and fro;
I will tell their tales, their vagabond ways, and
     their travails
As they suffer a heavy load, like that of thousands
     of mules,
Who stumble, wither, and perish
With burdens too heavy for them.

Tsarfati juxtaposes the expulsion of half the Spanish Jews and the forced conversion of the rest with Melibea’s seduction:

And Melibea, with her friends and her lover,
I will lift up as a sign for all those that love and
     desire
so that my people will turn from the path of ­
     desire—
flee from its burning fire!
Extinguish it from your hearts,
and destroy it entirely from within them.
                    (Translation by Shon David Hopkin)

The temptation that Tsarfati urges his Hebrew-­language readers to renounce is conversion to ­Christianity, forced upon hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews in 1492. Tsarfati’s reading explains why in the play Calixto cannot marry Melibea—still a point of debate among scholars. Crypto-Jews went through the motions of Catholic ritual but would not marry Gentiles. Toledo families to this day distinguish between “old” and “new” Christians. Melibea is caught between two worlds. The suicide of a Jewish girl who cannot bear to convert in order to be with her Christian lover is a common topic in medieval and early modern popular literature (for example, the folksong “Es war eine schöne Jüdin,” later set by Brahms).

As with Hamlet, historical context, though helpful, is not what keeps the play evergreen on the Spanish-l­anguage stage. Celestina is a perverse old whore who invokes the help of Satan, but she is fearless and cunning. She is a conventional comedic figure transformed into a monster. In the drama’s pivotal scene, Celestina importunes Melibea on Calixto’s behalf. The procuress explains that Calixto has a toothache, and because Melibea is a devotee of the patroness saint of toothaches, Calixto hopes for a keepsake from her to alleviate his pain. Melibea is disarmed by the feigned innocence of the request, and set down the path to ruin. The encounter is as chilling as it is ridiculous. Low comedy and high tragedy unite in the same moment. Melibea is naïve and pathetic, but her love is real, and her despair leads to suicide.

Faust is the last of the high tragicomedies. Like Hamlet, Faust questions whether life is worth living. With reluctance he removes a vial of poison from his lips. He rejects the devil’s offer of money, sex, and fame, demanding instead to experience the whole of life with its joy and sorrow. Mephistopheles is bemused, and retorts that he has been chewing on this tough crust for thousands of years; “from the cradle to the grave, no man has ever digested the lump of sourdough” we call life. Faust does not sell his soul; instead, he wagers his soul that Mephistopheles cannot seduce him.

Arnold thought Goethe second only to ­Shakespeare; Eliot sniffed, “Of Goethe perhaps it is truer to say that he dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either.” When he accepted the Goethe Prize in 1954, Eliot admitted that he had been wrong about the poetry. Eliot was hostile to Goethe for the same reason he was hostile to Hamlet.

In Faust, it is the Lord himself who disrupts the stability of the cosmos in order to overcome human complacency. Of all the great writers, Goethe is perhaps the greatest offender against Eliot’s longing for certainty.

Eliot called Hamlet and Faust “mythic figures.” They are not mythic but modern. Hamlet’s existential question, reformulated by Faust, defines the modern condition. All of us ask it. Many of our contemporaries answer in the negative. The end of traditional society with its timeless certainty leaves us free to choose life or death. Most Western nations now face self-willed extinction through infertility, including many countries formerly characterized by traditional faith and large families. Melibea and Hamlet choose death. Faust, the modern Job, chooses life, declaring as his life ebbs, “Only he deserves freedom as well as life who must conquer them every day.”

Modern tragicomedy is not uniquely Jewish, nor is its humor exclusively Jewish; one finds the same ironic tone in Kierkegaard. But it is characteristically Jewish: Jewish in inception, and replenished by Jewish ­sources, most explicitly in the case of Faust. Shakespeare almost certainly never encountered Jews, who were banned from England by Edward I and readmitted only by Cromwell. The Jewish account of man’s existential predicament as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik portrayed it in The Lonely Man of Faith informed the definitive dramatic masterpieces of Spanish, English, and German literature. Modern man must choose between life and death, like biblical Israel on the eastern bank of the Jordan, and this ancient imprecation is embodied in the greatest literature of the West. 

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Originally published by First Things.

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