1594: Rodrigo Lopez, Shylock inspiration?

On this date in 1594, a 70-year-old Portuguese physician was torn apart at Tyburn before a jeering London mob for attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth I.

Born around 1525 to a family of conversos — Jewish converts forcibly converted to Christianity — Rodrigo Lopez (alternatively, Lopes) went abroad because the Spanish Inquisition menacingly suspected him of secretly maintaining the faith of Abraham.*

For us, the man’s true doctrines might be a matter for his god. In the 16th century, Lopez never could outrun his Jewishness.

Establishing himself in London in 1559, nearly the precise midpoint of his life, Lopez built a thriving medical practice, eventually rising in 1586 to the attendance of Her Majesty herself. England in those days was scrapping with the mighty Spanish empire, one front of which was endlessly byzantine diplomatic intrigue. It happened that Elizabeth gave harbor to a Portuguese pretender (Lopez had attended him, too), whose circles the Spanish were naturally endeavoring to infiltrate.

Some nefarious machinations in this ambit that came to light in 1593 opened an investigation characteristically heavy on the torture, and Lopez’s name came up. Allegedly, the doctor was negotiating to take Spanish gold for slipping the Queen a mickey.

Lopez doesn’t seem to be any less capable of greed or intrigue than anyone else at court, but poison? It was doubted at the time, the prosecution itself a product of the courtly rivalry between Essex and Cecil.** Despite a confession (extracted by torture, like the accusations), even Elizabeth never seems to have really bought the charge: she held Lopez more than three months after his sentence before finally permitting the punishment to go forward, and pensioned his family when the treason conviction entitled her to confiscate their property.

The London mob entertained no such nuance. When Lopez was hauled to the scaffold this day for his public butchery — still protesting that he “loved the Queen as he loved Jesus Christ,” derisively taken as a backhanded confession by spectators who didn’t doubt the practicing Protestant was really a Jew — it elevated popular anti-Semitism to fever pitch.

Hath not a Jew eyes?

Lopez, or at least the popular mood of Jew-baiting current after his trial, is thought to have helped inspire William Shakespeare’s use of the Shylock character in The Merchant of Venice — one of the most controversial and captivating of all the Bard’s creations, a villain far more compelling (and sympathetic) than the play’s lightweight good guys and one whose place in the Shakespeare canon and the fabric of Elizabethan England is still vigorously debated.

Is Shylock a vicious caricature? A sublimely three-dimensional human? Both? Wherever the “real” William Shakespeare stood on the matter of religious equality, he put one of literature’s great apologias for it in Shylock’s mouth:

* Insincerely converted Muslims and Jews were a choice target of the Inquisition in the 16th century; many thousands were driven to emigrate. For the fate of some other crypto-Jews who fled to Spain’s possessions in the New World, see here.

** Lopez’s Javert, the Earl of Essex, lost the power struggle a few years later … and with it, his own head.

On this day..

2 thoughts on “1594: Rodrigo Lopez, Shylock inspiration?

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