From 1290 until the 1650s, Jews were not permitted to settle in England. However, marranos/anusim–Jews from Spain and Portugal who had converted to Christianity in name only in order to avoid death–were welcomed. Scholars have therefore speculated that William Shakespeare’s model for The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock was Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a marrano accused of the ultimate treachery. Here is his story:

Born in Crato, Portugal in 1525, Dr. Lopez settled in London in 1559. He practiced medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and soon had many distinguished patients. In 1586, Dr. Lopez was appointed Physician-in-Chief to Queen Elizabeth I.

Court politics in the age of Elizabeth were complex and devious, and international affairs were a labyrinth of alliances. Protestant England and Catholic Spain were constantly trying to out-maneuver each other. As part of an expanded investigation into a plot to assassinate Dom António, the pretender to the Portugese throne (who lived in England), Dr. Lopez was accused by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, of conspiring with the Spanish to poison the Queen.

The evidence against Dr. Lopez was extremely circumstantial. However, Dr. Lopez confessed under torture in the Tower of London that he had been approached on the matter of poisoning the Queen, but only while befriending the Spanish Court at the behest of British espionage. Lopez was convicted. After four months of hesitation due to her own doubts of his guilt, the Queen signed the execution papers. On June 7, 1594, Dr. Lopez was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Questions about Dr. Lopez will always remain. No matter how loud his protestations of innocence, or of religious belief (he publicly declared himself a Christian), Dr. Roderigo Lopez was marked forever in history as the Jewish physician who sought to poison the queen.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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