This Day in Jewish History / Dramatist Who Created Role of 'Good Jew' Dies

Richard Cumberland gave life to Sheva as an antidote to the Jewish character who is solely a 'spectacle of contempt, and a butt for ridicule.’

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On May 7, 1811, the English dramatist and civil servant Richard Cumberland died. In his 1794 play “The Jew,” Cumberland provided London audiences with a depiction of a virtuous and charitable Jewish moneylender, a man who is moved by the misfortune of others – even when they are not his co-religionists – and it is his generosity that saves the day for the young couple in the drama.

Richard Cumberland was born February 19, 1732. His father, Denison Cumberland, was an Anglican cleric who served as bishop of two Irish dioceses. His mother, Joanna Bentley, was the daughter of Richard Bentley, a classical scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Cumberland was educated at schools in England, and at age 14 began studying mathematics at Trinity College. Early in his career, he served as private secretary to the Earl of Halifax, who was president of the board of trade. He held other government positions as well, and in 1780 was sent secretly to Spain to try to negotiate a separate peace between that country, which was actively supporting the American colonies in their War of Independence, and Britain. His mission apparently failed over the inability of Spain and Britain to agree on the future ownership of Gibraltar.

Cumberland began writing even while he was a government official, and over a prolific career he wrote 54 plays (not all of which were produced), including four operas. He fits into the sentimental, humanist tradition that came into vogue in this era, and he himself acknowledged that he was interested in characters from “the outskirts of empire,” so that he wrote with sympathy about colonial subjects of Britain.

Several of Cumberland’s plays offer depictions of Jews. The earliest of these, a comedy called “The Fashionable Lover” (1772), included a moneylender named Naphtali, who, although a minor character, possessed some of the less flattering stereotypical attributes of a Jew. The writer also engaged in a polemical discussion about the merits of Christian versus Jewish theology with a self-educated scholar named David Levi, who had himself responded to the efforts by the theologian (and chemist) Joseph Priestley to convince Jews to convert.

Even at his least sympathetic, however, Cumberland was never hostile to Jews, and in the moneylender Sheva, in “The Jew,” he actually set out to produce a character who would serve as an antidote to the device of a Jew being brought to the stage solely to be made a “spectacle of contempt, and a butt for ridicule.”

Sheva is a usurer who is so moved by the plight of a young couple in love, Frederick and Eliza, that he secretly invests money in Eliza’s name, and then presents her with a gift of 10,000 pounds, so that Frederick’s father will give his blessing to their match.

Sheva was based on an earlier Cumberland creation, a moneylender named Abraham Abrahams, who featured in a series of stories he wrote a decade earlier. It is Abraham himself – apparently channeling his creator — who notes that “I verily believe the odious character of Shylock has brought little less persecution upon us, poor scattered sons of Abraham, than the Inquisition itself.”

“The Jew” premiered in May 1794 at London’s Drury Lane Theater, and it soon toured the United States. It was also translated into several languages, including German, French and Yiddish, and has also been staged with the title “Sheva, the Benevolent.”

Richard Cumberland died in London on this day in 1811. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.