I was drawn to the title of this book which appeared on a list of books that could be downloaded, and seized the opportunity to read it on my Kindle as I recognized the quote from The Merchant of Venice, and was intrigued to find out more about it.
I had studied Tudor England at school as well as English literature, and was hoping to expand my knowledge of those subjects. To my surprise, when I began to read the first few pages I found that I was reading about secret Jews in England at the time of Queen Elizabeth the First.
The theme of Jews in sixteenth century England, after they had been expelled from the country two hundred years earlier and had not been officially allowed to return, recurs throughout the book. However, the main subject deals with the English legal system of the time and its relation to the Magna Carta, and this is presented in considerable detail. The (partly true) events surrounding the plot to accuse and convict the queen’s physician, a Jew by the name of Rodrigo Lopez, also feature prominently in the book, and the way the author weaves the various fictitious and real characters and events together is truly worthy of admiration.
As I found out on reading the afterword, the author is a professor of jurisprudence and an amateur historian, and in the novel he displays his admirable erudition on both subjects to the full. We also gain insights into the wider society and customs of the time as well as the machinations, conspiracies and deceptions that characterize the conduct of the aristocracy, the royal court, and the legal system. The picture that the reader gains is of a highly complex and necessarily unfair society in which some attempts are being made to introduce greater impartiality and equality before the law.
I’m not certain that the average reader will appreciate this book, which as well as imparting considerable knowledge also requires a modicum of intelligence in order to enjoy the references to contemporary literature and culture. On the other hand, the informed reader can derive a great deal of pleasure from recognizing these references. The violence and brutality that attended the legal and social system of the time also casts a shadow over the events described in the book, and the course of events leading to the execution of Dr. Lopez are documented and described in detail.
There are several parallels to the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, and the events surrounding the actual trial and death of Dr. Lopez may well have served to inspire Shakespeare to write his play. The legal status of Jews in England at the time was precarious, to say the least, though the fact that Lopez was able to serve as the queen’s physician indicates that exceptions could be made. Fortunately, the author spares us a graphic description of Lopez’s death, although the mere knowledge of it is enough to give anyone nightmares.