Alternate Meaning for the Word Jew

Author: Amanda Pokoj

Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, has been translated into numerous versions that include a variation in word use. The line, “My sweet ounce of man’s flesh, my incony Jew! Now will I look to his remuneration” (Shakespeare 3.4.115) contrasts through different versions of the play. In the New Oxford Shakespeare Edition (Modern Spelling) and the Villanova Emends & Reads Shakespeare Edition, the words, “Jew” and “Jewel,” are interchanged in this line. The word, “Jew,” can been used to describe a person of Hebrew descent, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In today’s society, due to historical reasons and distasteful humor, the phrase has become seemingly offensive to those of Hebrew lineage. The majority of these vulgar jokes are fueled by dishonest associations that have accumulated over long periods of anti-Semitism. The stigma of the phrase has led our society to deem the term, “Jewish,” as a safer, more respectable term to define someone of Hebrew descent.


However, Shakespeare’s use of the term, “Jew”, in his play, Love’s Labor’s Lost,apparently denotes a positive connotation. In both versions, the terms “Jew” and “Jewel” precede the term, “incony”, defined as “rare, fine, delicate, pretty” (OED). The line following the term, “Now I will look to his remuneration,” once again signifies a positive connotation of the phrase, “Jew,” with the mention of a reward. Using these context clues within the text, we can determine that the phrase was viewed as a complimentary term during the author’s time, rather than an offensive slang word for someone of Jewish descent. Additionally, we can conclude that the term is used in a positive light by defining the word, “Jewel,” which is used in place of it in another version. Today, when we think of the word “Jewel,” we think of a highly valued gem. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Jewel” as “an article of value used for adornment, chiefly of the person,” or “a precious stone,” further proving “Jew’s” endearing connotation in this line.


Before and during Shakespeare’s time, the term “Jew” was also used in a phrase, “Jew’s eye,” meaning a “proverbial expression for something valued highly” (OED). As Shakespeare used this phrase in other works, such as Merchant of Venice, it is possible that this is the meaning of “Jew” that he meant to offer in this line from Love’s Labor’s Lost. As he follows the word “Jew,” with a line that highlights the worthiness of a remuneration, this suggests that the “Jew” in this line is someone valued highly for their actions and deserving of a reward. Today, we associate the word, “Jewel,” with a highly prized treasure of great worth, which explains the reasoning behind the two terms being interchangeable in this line of the play. By closely dissecting this line, it is evident that Shakespeare’s intent was to describe someone highly valued for their actions and worthy of a reward.