Jewish Ivanhoe Essay

Isaac of York

Character Analysis

Isaac of York is a moneylender. He has a fortune of gold, which he keeps tightly locked up. From that horde, he shells out money to people who want to borrow it – Prince John, for one – and then waits to be repaid with a lot of interest. Obviously, this is a perfectly legitimate profession. We have enough credit cards and student loans to understand the value of Isaac's job. But Isaac comes in for a lot of hatred and violence as a result of his work. Why?

There are a couple of reasons why Isaac gets so much hate. First, he has a lot of what people want, which is money. Prince John and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf both threaten to torture him if he doesn't hand over his gold to them – and they have no intention of paying it back. So Isaac attracts a lot of envy and resentment for his wealth.

Really, though, the main reason so many of the characters in Ivanhoe hate Isaac is because he is Jewish. This novel is set in the 1190s, and the Middle Ages was a terrible time to be Jewish in Europe. The power of the Christian church during this era meant that a lot of Jews were horribly persecuted, especially in England. Isaac has learned to expect to be treated badly because of his religion.

Isaac meets every Christian certain that they are going to screw him over somehow. This suspicion makes him less fair as a businessman than he could be, and Isaac's poor business practices only make him even more hated. It's a vicious circle of suspicion and prejudice. Isaac sums up the injustice of his situation to Prior Aymer when they are both being held captive in Sherwood:

I pray of your reverence [Prior Aymer] to remember that I force my monies upon no one. But when churchman and layman, prince and prior, knight and priest, come knocking to Isaac's door, they borrow not his shekels with these uncivil terms. It is then, Friend Isaac, will you pleasure us in this matter, and our day shall be truly kept, so God sa' me? [...] And when the day comes, and I ask my own, then what hear I but Damned Jew! (33.40)

In other words, it's not like Isaac makes people borrow his money. Isaac loans money to everyone equally, no matter who they are. When his clients first approach him to borrow, they are always careful to treat him respectfully. As soon as the day comes to pay the bills, though, his clients call him a cheat and a usurer (someone who loans money at unfairly high interest rates). Isaac's religion gives the prejudiced people of the Middle Ages an excuse to treat him like garbage.

There is a scene in the show Mad Men when Rachel Menken, the Jewish owner of a New York department store, tells advertiser Don Draper, "Look, Jews have lived in exile for a long time. First in Babylon. Then all over the world – Shanghai, Brooklyn – and we've managed to make a go of it. It might have something to do with the fact that we thrive at doing business with people who hate us" (source).

Even though the settings of Mad Men and Ivanhoe are separated by eight centuries, Rachel Menken could almost be Isaac talking about the struggles of European Jews. Even in the face of truly hateful anti-Jewish threats – from Wamba "joking" about feeding Isaac pork to Front-de-Boeuf threatening to torture him to death – Isaac remains a successful businessman.

His success lies in the fact that he keeps working, no matter how much his clients abuse him. He is hugely stubborn, and he never gives up. Isaac sometimes seems to be a coward in Ivanhoe, like when he bows and grovels in Cedric's hall at Rotherwood or when he agrees to give Prince John money even though he demands an unfair amount from him. But though Isaac often appears timid, underneath his fearful mask is a tough heart and a spine of iron.

Scott's Anti-Semitism

Okay, so we have tried to present a fair analysis of Scott's sympathetic depiction of Isaac in Ivanhoe, but we have to admit, we still have some problems with it.

Scott reminds us over and over again that Isaac has to deal with terrible prejudice against his people. Since the Saxons and the Normans are openly horrible to him, Scott says, it's not surprising that Isaac has become a timid man. If you're surrounded by haters all the time, of course you're going to become paranoid and defensive. In these respects, Scott appears sympathetic to Isaac's troubles.

But there's a flip side to Scott's portrayal of Isaac. He also says that Isaac is greedy and a miser, which are both common, awful stereotypes about Jewish people. When Robert Locksley/Robin Hood negotiates with Prior Aymer to help save Rebecca, Locksley actually warns Isaac, "Do not thou interrupt me with thine ill-timed avarice" (33.67). In other words, Locksley is telling Isaac not to ruin his efforts to help Rebecca through his greedy desire to hang onto his money.

We know that Isaac is a devoted father to Rebecca, so is it really possible he would hesitate for one second to give up his money to save his only daughter? Yet that's what the novel appears to imply. Isaac eventually declares that he would give up his whole fortune to save Rebecca, but the very suggestion that he might not says something about the greed that supposedly underlies his character.

Scott quotes a Shakespeare line from The Merchant of Venice on this exact theme, in the epigraph to Chapter 22: "My daughter – O my ducats – O my daughter!" This quote suggests that Jewish characters (in Shakespeare's case, the moneylender Shylock) love money as much (or more) than their own flesh and blood. By giving Isaac the same characteristics that a lot of anti-Jewish portrayals might also use, Scott undercuts his own message against prejudice.

Ivanhoe Sir Walter Scott

The following entry presents criticism of Scott's novel Ivanhoe (1820). See also Sir Walter Scott Poetry Criticism and Sir Walter Scott Short Story Criticism.

Ivanhoe stands as one of Sir Walter Scott's most popular novels, and has had a major influence on the genre of historical fiction. The work is notable not only for its vivid depiction of characters and its adventurous narrative but also for the fact that it is the first of Scott's novels to be set outside the borders of Scotland and in the distant past. The complex narrative intertwines British legend with the Anglo-Saxon-Norman conflict in medieval England. Although Ivanhoe has long been valued for its fascinating and entertaining plot, more recent readers have studied the complexity of its treatment of chivalric culture. Ivanhoe combines historical realism with vibrant artistry, and reflects Scott's narrative skill and historical focus.

Biographical Information

When Ivanhoe (1820) arrived on the literary scene, Scott (born in 1771) was at the height of his career. He had gained popular acclaim with a romantic ballad entitled The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), which followed the less successful The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott's scholarly knowledge of British history and mythology pervaded several successful novels that followed: Waverley (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), Rob Roy (1818), The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), and The Bride of Lammermoor (1819). The novel Ivanhoe itself had a major impact on the genre that came to be known as historical fiction. After Ivanhoe, Scott published the novels Kenilworth (1821) and Redgauntlet (1824). Although Scott did not acknowledge his authorship of Waverley and the other novels until 1827, the public was well aware of his authorship by 1815. In this period, the critical and popular success of Scott's novels made it possible for him to rely on his publications for income (rather than on his training in the legal profession), and led to Scott's acceptance of a baronetcy in 1820. Scott was increasingly interested in establishing a national identity for Scotland (he was largely responsible for recovering the Scottish regalia in 1818), and this theme underlies the question of English national identity in the medieval period in the plot of Ivanhoe. Scott carefully constructed a life of the Scottish gentry, centering on the estate of Abbotsford. Scott's good fortune suffered a catastrophic decline in 1826 with the failure of the Ballantyne printing firm in which Scott was a silent partner. From this point until his death at the age of sixty-one in 1832, Scott was forced to use his literary income to pay off his debt, and he produced works that failed to match the splendor and elegant style of the earlier novels.

Plot and Major Characters

Ivanhoe, Scott's first departure from the Scottish countryside of the recent past, is set in Yorkshire, England, in the time of the Crusades. The plot of Ivanhoe begins humbly enough, with a conversation in a forest between a swineherd and a fool in the employ of Cedric, a Saxon noble who is the father of Ivanhoe. The swineherd and the fool encounter a cavalcade on its way to a tournament held at Ashby by Prince John, the Norman who has taken over the rule of the country while King Richard struggles to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims. Wilfred of Ivanhoe (i.e., the hero Ivanhoe), disguised as a palmer, has previously joined the cavalcade. He has returned from the Crusades but cannot return to his home because his father Cedric has disinherited him for his love of Rowena (who is a ward of Cedric and a Saxon noblewoman engaged for political reasons to Athelstane, a Saxon noble). The cavalcade also includes Isaac, a wealthy Jewish moneylender, and his beautiful daughter Rebecca. This entire party stays the night at Cedric's manor, where the templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert covets Rebecca and plots to steal Isaac's wealth. Ivanhoe's observations of Bois-Guilbert alert him to these dangers, and he warns Isaac and Rebecca; all three escape to Ashby. At the tournament, Rowena and Prince John preside over the proceedings. Ivanhoe, still disguised, triumphs over several opponents until he almost loses his life, at which point a mysterious knight (later revealed to be King Richard) intervenes. Rebecca falls in love with Ivanhoe, and she and her father nurse Ivanhoe back to health. As Isaac, Rebecca, and Ivanhoe return with Cedric through the forest to York, they are abducted by outlaws in the employ of Bois-Guilbert and are taken to a castle owned by the corrupt Norman baron Front-de-Boeuf. King Richard, the Saxon peasantry, and the legendary figure of Robin Hood unite to release this group from their imprisonment. They lay siege to the castle and engage in a fierce battle. Bois-Guilbert escapes from King Richard in this encounter, and then convinces the Church authorities that Rebecca is a sorceress. Her trial is decided by a duel between Bois-Guilbert and Ivanhoe, who steps forward to defend Rebecca's honor. Bois-Guilbert is killed through his excessive zealousness. King Richard arrives at the scene, having survived an ambush on the way with the help of Robin Hood. King Richard restores Ivanhoe to his rightful place and gives him permission to marry Rowena. The novel closes with a curious scene in which Rebecca bids farewell to Rowena (after the marriage ceremony between Rowena and Ivanhoe)—which illustrates one animating theme of the novel: the simultaneous diversity and amity of the foreign and the familiar.

Major Themes

Ivanhoe elaborates the contradictory elements of the chivalric code: its heroism and compassion on the one hand, and its glorification of selfishness and chaotic recklessness on the other. The novel is dominated by a "disarray of conflicting passions," according to an early review in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Although the plot of Ivanhoe is framed by two homecomings (Ivanhoe's return to Britain and his reunion with Rowena and Cedric), multiple conflicts transform the familiar, and complicate the old order: the Saxons struggle to maintain power in a Norman world; and the presence of Jews in the novel emphasizes the cultural and ethnic diversity of medieval Britain. The ideal of national unity through the synthesis of contrasting traditions is reflected in the increased value put on shifting from chivalric adventure and parochial superstition to the more stable order of cosmopolitanism and rational faith. Still, the novel clearly expresses the value of a certain chivalric code: the idea of nobility pervades the characterizations of Ivanhoe. At crucial junctures, nobility is associated with selflessness in turn associated with a certain passivity. For example, at the siege of Front-de-Boeuf s castle, Ivanhoe lies off to one side, injured and unable to fight. Thus chivalry must not be merely supplanted by a more rationally and economically-minded culture without regard for such values as nobility. Revealing Scott's ambivalent valuation of a romantic tradition, Ivanhoe presents a complex picture of the transition between an age of heroism and an age of reason.

Critical Reception

Despite its popular success, Ivanhoe was for a long time considered to be an adventure story suited primarily for young children rather than for serious readers of literature. However, certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics, exploring the complexity and subtlety of the themes and characterizations of the novel, agree that Rebecca is the most fascinating of the characters (among the one hundred and fifty three separately drawn figures), and that the relationship between her and Ivanhoe is much more interesting than the conventional match between Ivanhoe and Rowena. In addition, some modern critics have criticized the stereotypical characterizations of Rebecca and Isaac. The plot has also been criticized for glorifying chivalry and romantic adventure instead of expressing historical realism. Some recent critics have suggested that the realism of Ivanhoe lies not in historical accuracy but in the moral realm, in depicting the sorts of choices that Ivanhoe, among others, must make between noble (self-denying) and selfish actions. Because readers hear nothing of the inner thoughts of characters, this complex dialectic of cultural and moral values must be carried out through the action of the plot. Although some commentators praise Ivanhoe for the romantic spirit that guides the action as well as for Scott's richness and liveliness of description, others point to this romantic spirit as an inappropriate popularizing of history for the purpose of entertainment rather than moral education. Most critics agree that several anticlimaxes mar the fluid development of the plot: for example, the Saxon Athelstane dies but is brought back to life later in the novel. Despite these problems, Ivanhoe remains a testament to Scott's ability to bring history to life and to his foundational influence on the genre of historical fiction.

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