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Richard Cumberland

(1732 – 1811)

Richard Cumberland was an English playwright and novelist who tried to reverse the image of the Jew created by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. Educated at Cambridge, Cumberland began writing plays around 1759. His first stage Jew was Naphtali in The Fashionable Lover (1772). This was an unflattering portrait, but by the time he wrote The Jew (1794), his attitude had changed completely. In the person of Sheva, Cumberland brought a new kind of Jew to the English stage. Sheva, like Shylock, is a usurer, hustled and insulted by the gentlemen of the town as the meerest muckworm in the city of London. But by the end of the play the audience is made to realize that not one of the unflattering epithets really applies to him, and he is acclaimed as the widow's friend, the orphan's father, the poor man's protector, the universal philanthropist. 

In spite of touches of melodrama and sentimentality, The Jew did well on the stage and had an influence on the more serious drama of the period. It has been translated into Hebrew and Yiddish. Cumberland produced a collection of essays, The Observer (1785), in which he introduced the saintly original of Sheva, Abraham Abrahams. He also wrote an unsuccessful comic opera entitled The Jew of Mogadore (1808). Cumberland's philo-Semitism paved the way for other favorable depictions of Jews in English literary works.


L. Zangwill, in: JHSET, 7 (1911–14), 147–76; L.I. Newman, Richard Cumberland, Critic and Friend of the Jews (1919); M.J. Landa, Jew in Drama (1926); H.R.S. Van der Veen, Jewish Characters in Eighteenth Century English Fiction and Drama (1935); E. Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali (1960), ch. 3. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Katz, England, 343–45; W. D Rubinstein and H.L. Rubinstein, Philosemitism: Admiration and Support By Non-Jews in the English-Speaking World For Jews, 1840–1939 (1999), index; ODNB online.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.