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