For 21st-century Shylock, It's Still Not Easy Being a Jew

Author Howard Jacobson speaks to Haaretz about his satirical remake of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice,' Jewish pay-back and anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's time and now.

Al Pacino stars as Shylock in the film version of "The Merchant of Venice."

Award-winning British novelist Howard Jacobson, often preoccupied in past books with modern Jewish identity, has in his latest project reimagined the person who is perhaps literature’s most famous Jew.

“Shylock Is My Name” (Hogarth) is part of a series of retellings of Shakespeare by prominent writers, commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard.

Jacobson transports the story of “The Merchant of Venice” to 21st-century England where the characters are also rich and privileged – and mostly disagreeable. Shylock becomes Simon Strulovitch, a wealthy Jewish art dealer who is angry, misunderstood and embroiled in a troubled relationship with his daughter.

To add an extra layer of irony, the original Shylock also makes an appearance, and the two men have coffee together and discuss their many shared woes.

Portia is re-worked as spoiled, manipulative heiress Plurabelle, who dabbles in reality television. Bassiano is Barney, a young, empty-headed mechanic who becomes her lover. Antonio is transformed into D’Anton, a melancholy gay art connoisseur who think the Jews have brought it all on themselves. (He and Plurabelle like to play a game called “Jewepithets,” where they compete to invent the most insulting terms for Jews). Gratiano is Gratan, a dim-witted, Nazi-saluting soccer player who Strulovich’s wilful teenage daughter is threatening to marry.

The famous demand for a pound of flesh becomes one for a more modest but highly symbolic mutilation: circumcision.

British author Howard Jacobson, author of "Shylock Is My Name," being published as part of a series of works marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
Jenny de Young

Jacobson’s stylish prose and waspish wit sets the story out as a satire of contemporary Britain in which anti-Semitism has mutated but remains, hidden under a thin veneer of intellectual sophistry. He corresponded with Haaretz via e-mail to discuss “Shylock Is My Name.”

Is it harder to write a story ‘borrowed’ from another? Did you feel the weight and responsibility of re-telling a classic, especially one carrying the historical burden of accusations of anti-Semitism?

"Yes, but it helped to remember that Shakespeare himself took freely from other writers. Once I was up and running I had no qualms. It felt like keeping an old story going, a sort of duty to make sure the ball remained in play — though how I passed it, to whom I passed it, what sort of spin I put on it, was entirely up to me. This was liberating and suited my intellectual temperament because the writing became a critical act as well — a conversation not just with the play but with the way the play’s been read and performed in the past.

"How I would have proceeded had I found the play anti-Semitic I don’t know; but I found it no such thing — by which I don’t mean to say that old, hateful attitudes to Jews don’t stick to Shylock and partly influence the way Shakespeare, who wouldn’t have met many, or indeed any Jews, conceived him. But his mind is too large, and his sense of the exigencies of drama too subtle, for him to harbor a mere prejudice."

As a Jewish writer, what particular challenges or even advantages did you encounter when writing the story of Shylock? Do you think it could have been done by a non-Jew?

"I wouldn’t dare say only a non-Jew could have taken this play on — not least as it was a non-Jew who wrote the originating work — but I suspect only a Jew could have thought of taking it on the way I did. There’s a Jewish urgency, I think, in the way Shylock and Strulovitch interrogate each other’s Jewishness; a specifically Jewish fondness for the delight they both take in disputation and their mutual understanding of what being a Jewish husband and a Jewish father entails. Would it make any sense to say that as I wrote these scenes I felt a familial warmth, the presence of a sort of emotional shorthand that people who share a history both draw on and enjoy?

The cover of Howard Jacobson's book, one of a series of retellings of Shakespeare by prominent writers.
Jenny de Yong

"It’s possible, too, that I felt free as Jew — maybe even obliged as a Jew — to indulge an animus toward the contemporary versions of those Venetian anti-Semites whom Shakespeare despises, right enough, but maybe a Jew must despise even more. If the zest of my satire has a degree of pay-back in it, then it’s Jewish pay-back."

Was it hard to structure a book and find a moral center with a cast of characters who, in the original, are so often deeply unsympathetic?

"See above. Shylock is the moral center of the book, as — though more fitfully — is Strulovitch. Shylock gets there by virtue of the deep seriousness he brings to remembering. Strulovitch cannot burn with such even indignation, and is often ludicrous as he pursues his daughter around the country, dragging her away from encounters he considers unsuitable; but in his thoughts about the covenant of birth, and what Judaism enjoins on a man as a husband, a parent and a child, he struggles honorably, I think, to live a conscientious life.

"In portraying the ‘Venetian’ characters as having no conception of what moral seriousness is, I simply take the cue from Shakespeare, though I make merrier with them than he does. Toward Portia and Antonio and their self-righteous, thuggish friends, Shakespeare entertains a sort of flat disdain. They steal from Jews and spit on them. In retaliation, a Jew is likely to hanker for something stronger than disdain."

The book is a biting satire, skewering so many aspects of modern life: reality TV, social media, obnoxious celebrity. How do you maintain sympathy and avoid caricature when developing these kinds of characters?

"I’m not sure it’s always necessary to maintain sympathy or avoid caricature, especially when you’re dealing with characters you consider minor or contemptible. I’m an admirer of Rabelais, Ben Jonson, Swift, Dickens, etc., writers who revel in exaggeration, rage and parody. Literature can do many things. It can engage you in psychological subtlety and ambivalence. It can be meditative and sorrowful. But it can provide entirely different pleasures as well. And there can be enormous pleasure in reading a writer laying waste to all around him — laughing at folly, deriding pretension, spoofing solemn conventions. Dickens was forever being accused of caricature. But it was his writing that was larger than life, and in a writer what but the writing matters?

"In fact, I’m not concerned in this novel to satirize modern life. Those I parody are not ‘obnoxious’ by virtue of their wealth or celebrity, but by virtue of their ugly attitudes to Jews. Without spelling out the causes and effects, Shakespeare very deliberately contrasts the high idea Portia and Antonio, etc., have of themselves — their monied fastidiousness, their sanctimoniousness, their elegant protestations of sympathy for one another’s every pinprick of disquiet — with their gross, sadistic conduct to Shylock, whom they call the Jew.

"I felt bound, whatever setting I gave them, to continue in the spirit of that contrast. Now brutally cuffing the perfunctory Jew-dislike expressed by the heiress Plurabelle, now more subtly satirizing the aesthete D’Anton’s refined distaste.

"But I also saw this novel as an opportunity to argue with received readings of this play where they seemed to me fallacious. Not in essay form, but in sprightly farce. I was taught, for example, to revere Portia, though there is nothing in the play to support such a reading, except perhaps her mercy speech, which in reality is just plastered on to her and proceeds from nothing in her nature that we see before or after — unless it can be said to demonstrate her lofty hypocrisy: an eloquent plea for mercy which she takes delight in not showing herself. Rarely can the same person have argued so sweetly for forbearance and then made such a show of sadism."

The book is very firmly rooted in a recognizable British reality, albeit one with elements of parody. What made you introduce the "magic realism" of Shylock and Strulovich actually meeting and interacting?

"I don’t really want to call it ‘magic realism,’ because it wasn’t in that spirit that I imagined Shylock as a living presence — not a modern man, but not a relic either, someone existing in the contemporary world, fully alive to it, but not susceptible to its vicissitudes. His story has stopped, but his mind hasn’t.

"I had thought, to begin with, that I would find a modern equivalent to him, and indeed embarked on that path with Simon Strulovitch, but quickly realized there could be no equivalent to Shylock. He has too much weight, too much history, too vexed a reputation and — in my telling, anyway — too much to say for himself. But as soon as I saw him in the cemetery — and that was how he came about: I stumbled upon him among the graves — I knew I needed to retain Strulovitch as well, the modern Jew in conversation, and sometimes in conflict, with the old; a Jew uncertain of what he feels about being Jewish and can’t decide whether it’s difficult to be Jewish today or not, encountering a Jew with no such doubts, for whom Jew-hating was an inescapable, daily fact, not a flickering anxiety."

'An impulse to spit'

Looking at the issues of identity explored in your book — and your wider writing on anti-Israel sentiments on the British left — do you think this is any sense of a whispering, fashionable anti-Semitism in the British literary establishment? Or is this a relic of a bygone age?

"In the British literary establishment, I think not, except for where the particular poet or dramatist — the theater has more than its share — is wedded to an anti-Zionist narrative. Anti-Semitism, in so far as it exists in Britain today — and never being sure to what degree it does exist is Strulovitch’s conundrum — is likely to be entangled in anti-Zionism. This isn’t to say that every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite — it is imperative to make that distinction — but it might be that every anti-Semite is, if only opportunistically, an anti-Zionist. So there’s a new vocabulary for hating-Jews.

"It was easier for Shylock. He knew where he stood. They spat on him. You can’t spit and then say you have nothing against Jews personally. Now, if there is an impulse to spit, it will be resisted; but there is nothing to stop inordinate loathing of Israel. Today, with clear conscience, you can loathe Israel but love the Jew. Whether that’s as much fun as spitting I can’t say."

Why does Shakespeare seem to stand up so well to updates, and are there any other classics you’d like to rewrite?

"He stands up so well because the largeness of his intellect and imagination freed him from the ideological contingencies of his time. He is purely an artist, conviction- and ideology-free, discovering meaning in language and in the process discovering what language can do. When we return to a Shakespeare play we are astonished to encounter words still at work on meaning, still evolving, as though they need our experience to complete their expression. And so it will always be. Only when we have no more need of words will we have no more need of Shakespeare."

"Other classics I’d like to rewrite? I doubt it. But it’s a bit soon to decide. I’m resting."