Ja­cob­son on Shy­lock

Jews are em­bar­rassed by The Mer­chant of Venice, says Howard Ja­cob­son. That’s why they call it an­ti­semitic

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOHN NATHAN

AC­CORD­ING TO Howard Ja­cob­son, The Mer­chant of Venice is not an­ti­semitic. Em­bar­rass­ing maybe, but not an­ti­semitic.

“I never re­ally thought it was,” the author said. “When I was one of 20 Jewish boys at the non-Jewish school we were at, we did The Mer­chant of Venice and we be­came all very self-con­scious about the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech and all that.

“In fact, it wouldn’t at all sur­prise me, though I’m not go­ing to say this hap­pened, if one of the teach­ers said, ‘Ja­cob­son, Isaac­son and Gold­berg, you’re Jews, you read this’.

“But we used it as a sort of joke speech. When­ever any of our par­ents said some­thing was an­ti­semitic, which they al­ways seemed to be do­ing to our ado­les­cent eyes, we would go ‘Yeah, yeah, Hasn’t a Jew eyes’.”

Mr Ja­cob­son was re­flect­ing on Shake­speare’s play — and his own retelling of it in his lat­est novel — ahead of a BBC1 doc­u­men­tary called Shy­lock’s Ghost broad­cast next week.

The film, which is the lat­est in the Imag­ine se­ries pre­sented by Alan Yen­tob, sees the Man Booker Prize-win­ning author travel to Venice’s 500-year-old ghetto which, had Shy­lock ex­isted, would have been his home.

From there Mr Ja­cob­son and Mr Yen­tob ex­plore the myths that lie be­hind “the pound of flesh” that Shy­lock de­mands of the de­fault­ing An­to­nio, and in­evitably the charge that Shy­lock is an an­ti­semitic char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of a Jew.

Mr Ja­cob­son ac­knowl­edges that his view of the play is by no means de­fin­i­tive. “In the film I in­ter­view lots of Shake­speare­ans, in­clud­ing James Shapiro and Stephen Green­blatt, and both them say no, it is an an­ti­semitic play. But Green­blatt says it may be an­ti­semitic, but nonethe­less… and in that ‘nonethe­less’ is every­thing that in­ter­ests you about Shake­speare. “The whole busi­ness of mak­ing this pro­gramme wasn’t about, can we some­how save Jews from the hor­ri­ble things Shake­speare did? I don’t t hi nk th a t ’ s th e right way to read that play.”

So has mak­ing the doc­u­men­tary and writ­ing his novel, My Name is Shy­lock, changed his view of Shake­speare’s Jew? “It has, but not to the de­gree that it’s a lov­ing por­trait of a Jew when I pre­vi­ously thought it was hate­ful.” The film ex­plores Shy­lock’s per­son­al­ity as well as his Jewish­ness.

“What do you do with the fact that when the chance comes for Shy­lock to still kill An­to­nio, but at the cost of his own life, he re­fuses?” asks Mr Ja­cob­son. “In other words, is Shy­lock a coward? For Green­blatt, this is where Shy­lock re­fuses to be a sui­cide bomber. His ha­tred of An­to­nio is not so great that he will risk his own life. What’s one to make of that? How does that make sense of him?”

So are Jews wrong to see the play as an­ti­semitic? Not quite. For Mr Ja­cob­son, there is no right or wrong — rather it is all part of what he calls the “knotty” con­di­tion that goes with be­ing Jewish and watch­ing the play.

“The ar­gu­ment I have in my novel is about res­cu­ing Shy­lock not from Shake­speare but from the way Shy­lock has been read, not least by many Jews who have not got past the stage I was at when I was an ado­les­cent. I think a lot of Jews see in Shy­lock a pic­ture of the Jew that em­bar­rasses them, so that they move to­wards an an­ti­semitic play when I don’t think that’s jus­ti­fied.”

‘Shy­lock’s Ghost’ is on BBC 1 on Tues­day. ‘My Name is Shy­lock’ is pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary


An 1890 illustration of

Shy­lock ( right)

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