By Jenni Frazer for the Times of Israel, February 2 2016
LONDON — Novelist Howard Jacobson never really liked the play, “The Merchant of Venice.” He was embarrassed by it at school, where he was obliged to read the part of Shylock. Embarrassed at the way it drew attention to his own Jewishness, and later, when he became an academic teaching Shakespeare, “Merchant” was not a play he touched.
So it was with a certain amount of wariness that Jacobson responded to an invitation from leading publishers, Penguin Random House, to be one of a group of international novelists asked to re-work Shakespeare’s plays in a festival to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.
Jacobson wasn’t wary about the invitation itself, but about the play he was asked to tackle. He would far rather have re-written “Hamlet” (which is being re-told by “Gone Girl’s” Gillian Lynn), or “Othello,” which has gone to the “Girl With A Pearl Earring” author Tracy Chevalier.
Instead, as his agent went back and forth between Jacobson and the publishers, it became clear that with all its poisonous vapour trail of antisemitism, “Merchant” was the one play the prize-winning novelist simply had to re-write.
The result is the wickedly funny novel, “Shylock Is My Name,” in which Jacobson takes the play apart and recasts it in 21st century Britain, where the reader experiences a rollercoaster ride through discussions of what it means to be a father, a Jew, and a merciful human being. And there is a delicious twist on what is meant by the taking of the pound of flesh – not carved from Antonio’s heart, but taken from a rather earthier cut.
Jacobson, 73, has something of a reputation in UK literary circles of being the Angry Old Man of letters. But these days he seems, to this writer, to be both mellow and supremely unconcerned as to what people think of him. For a long time he was “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” as other writers took literary prizes in his stead. But in 2000 and again in 2013 he won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse award and in 2010, his black comedy, “The Finkler Question,” secured him the Man Booker Prize — the top literary award in the English-speaking world.
He repeatedly insists that he is going to stay away from the subject of Jews but his most recent novel, “J”, was an anguished and painful look at the Jewish condition. In his dystopian version of the future, “Something Has Happened” – ie. the Holocaust.
He had just finished “J” – which was shortlisted for the Man Booker – and “wanted some fun” when he was asked to write his version of “Merchant.”
“My mother, who is 92, said, don’t do it. It’s sacrosanct,” he says, laughing. Sacrosanct to whom, Jacobson demanded. “To them,” Mrs. Jacobson replied, by which she meant the non-Jewish world.
‘My mother, who is 92, said, don’t do it. It’s sacrosanct’
But Jacobson – not for the first time, it must be admitted – ignored his mother’s advice. Given carte blanche by the publishers to write what he wanted, the novelist went back to the play to see what had put him off all those years ago.
“It wasn’t just Shylock. I always thought the casket scene was the silliest thing I’d ever read, I just thought it was childish. I never went near the play in all my years of teaching,” he says. Even Jacobson’s first book, the non-fiction “Shakespeare’s Magnanimity,” written with scholar Wilbur Sanders, doesn’t touch “Merchant.”
“So I went back and re-read the play and found that I still hated the casket scene and that I disliked Portia intensely. But Shakespeare, I think, didn’t like her either,” he says. He also felt Shakespeare did not care for the group of nobles surrounding Antonio, the Merchant – and Jacobson himself is contemptuous of the young men and women of Belmont.
With some glee he decided to render them as English middle-class anti-Semites “who have nothing but disdain for Jews.” Portia, he reckons, is the most anti-Semitic of the lot, having no compunction about feeding Shylock to the wolves when his bid for a pound of Antonio’s flesh goes horribly wrong.
Jacobson sets up a 21st century call and response in which the constraints of Jewish life are thrashed out between Shylock, unaccountably found murmuring to his dead wife, Leah, in a Manchester Jewish cemetery, and his fictional “hero,” Simon Strulovich, a wealthy art collector. Both men have parallels in their lives: Strulovich (named, Jacobson says, for a friend with whom he used to play table-tennis) has a wife who is also rendered silent. Kay Strulovich has had a serious stroke and cannot speak.
And both men have difficult daughters: Beatrice, Strulovich’s teenage daughter, is rapidly going off the rails, while Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, has gone off with her Christian boyfriend and repudiated her father entirely, selling his jewellery.
“And it’s in the play, she’s sold his ring for a monkey. Shylock says: ‘It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.’ That’s what Moses came down the mountain for, to tell us Jews, we’re out of nature. No more monkeys for us. That to me is Belmont, a wilderness of monkeys, and the difference between Jews and Christians.”
Portia is rendered risible by being named “Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine.” Anna Livia Plurabelle is a character in James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” but Jacobson says he drew his inspiration from “ridiculous names which pop stars give their children.”
Jacobson soon became immersed in the play and the scholarship which surrounds it.
“It is so touching when you read just that one line about the turquoise and Shylock being a bachelor. And suddenly you think, of course, Shylock was a young man, he was in love. And he’s bringing up his daughter without a wife”.
How different, Jacobson speculates, would Shylock have been if he had been married. “He could have done with a woman. He could particularly have done with a woman when it came to redeeming this bond from the Christians. She would have said to him, ‘Leave it, Shy, just leave it.’ Instead…”
Jacobson himself is famously uxorious and – happily married to his third wife, Jenny De Yong, maintains – “I have to be married. If I’m on my own for a day, I disintegrate.” Having Shylock and Strulovich, two men on their own, as mirror images of each other, would, he felt, give them “much to talk about.”
For Jacobson, all interest in the play stops when Shylock, defeated, leaves the stage and he has been known to leave productions of “The Merchant of Venice” at that point. “When Shylock goes, I go,” he says. But he insists that he does not think of the play as antisemitic, and equally that his mission was not to rescue or rehabilitate Shylock. He just likes him as a character.
“He has a quick mind, a funny turn of phrase. He’s not a tragic hero because he makes a calculation, as to whether he is willing to give up his life in pursuit of the bond. Tragic heroes don’t make calculations”.
He could, I think later, have been describing himself.
Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock Is My Name’ is published as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series by Vintage for Penguin Random House on February 4, 2016.