Q&A with Howard Jacobson
In his new novel, Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth), celebrated author Howard Jacobson—who won both the Man Booker Prize and Hadassah Magazine’s Harold U. Ribalow Prize for The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)—reimagines The Merchant of Venice as part of The Hogarth Shakespeare Project. The project commemorates the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death this year.
Q. Your Shylock exudes qualities, including great comic wit and a capacity to love and mourn, not characteristic of his Shakespearean forbear or his modern double, the bitingly cynical Jewish philanthropist Simon Strulovich. Why did you create differences between your Shylock and Simon?
A. I don’t agree that my Shylock possesses qualities that the original doesn’t. I think those qualities have been missed over centuries of bad reading. For me there is great comic energy in the Shylock of Shakespeare’s play and, though rendered in just a few small touches, a strong suggestion that he is a man of deep feeling, with the fondest memories of his dead wife. Only think of the moment when he recalls the ring that Jessica steals and barters for a monkey, the ring his wife, Leah, gave him. ‘Thou torturest me, Tubal. 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 wilderness evokes the desolation of Shylock’s heart.
Simon Strulovitch is also a man of deep feeling, but he is a different sort of Jew, living in a different world. I wanted the two men to have much to argue about in the matter of being Jewish, not least when it comes to the practice of Judaism, being a father and encountering hatred. I see Shylock as a spur to Strulovitch some of the time and a brake on his temper at others. Strulovitch is described as being an on-again, off-again Jew. That’s not a luxury available to Shylock—a Jew of another time. In another way, I imagine their conversation as the sort of argument many Jews have with themselves—the modern Jew in one corner of their head contesting with the more ancient Jew in the other.
Q. What introductory comments might you make for adolescents seeing or reading what you call this “troubling” play for the first time?
A. To the young I would say: Remember, this is a drama not a tract. It has the smell of life. The question of whether it is anti-Semitic or not will lead you away from the play’s vitality. Whatever Shakespeare knew or thought of Jews is irrelevant in the end. The play finds its own truth dramatically. And remember that in Shakespeare we are never to take characters at their own valuation of themselves. We shouldn’t take Shylock at his own valuation either. That pound of flesh—did he ever really expect or want it? Does he want it now or is he backed into a corner? Is the law on which he insists really the principle he lives by? Does he, in fact, play the Jew according to the Christian idea of what a Jew is? Is he punishing them with their own view of him, and in the process punishing himself? And if that’s the case, the play is not a comedy about a Jew getting his comeuppance but the tragedy of a man unable…to escape a role which, whatever the provocation, he ultimately chooses for himself.
Q. Are there other plays you might want to mine for their contemporary Jewish resonance, and not just Shakespeare’s—for instance, Christopher A. Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, which Shakespeare knew?
A. No, I’ve had a good time doing this but I don’t think I’d want to make a career of it. The Jew of Malta—which was known to Shakespeare and probably spurred him into writing The Merchant of Venice—is good pantomime fun but is already a sort of parody of itself, with a Jew so fabulously villainous he becomes a near-lovable antihero, and the Christians so grotesquely wicked that all one could do in the way of reinterpretation is save them from their Christianity, and I don’t feel that’s a job for me.
Q. Shylock Is My Name and The Finkler Question, among other of your writings, take on the challenging topics of both anti-Semitism and what’s called Jewish anti-Semitism. In a profile in Hadassah Magazine in September 2012, after you had won the Ribalow Award the previous year, you say that it’s always a “shock” to you that Israelis don’t talk “obsessively about Jewish identity and Zionism” as we in the diaspora do. How was the Hebrew edition of The Finkler Question (2012) greeted?
A. I’m not sure I know. I have a feeling that in Israel I am read more in English than in Hebrew. They have other fish to fry there, of course. The self-communings of an English Jew might well strike them as a touch remote, if not irrelevant to their concerns. It was, for example, many years before any of my books were translated into Hebrew at all. The reason Israeli publishers gave for this was that they were “too Jewish.”
Q. Of the many stage and film productions of The Merchant of Venice in the English-speaking world, are there any that stand out for their portrayal of Shylock in a manner you think both authentic as cultural history and effective in presenting Shylock’s complexity? If you were given an opportunity to direct a version of the play, whom would you select to play Shylock?
A. I think it would be invidious to name favorites. I’m not even sure I have any. The play is so susceptible to interpretation that it’s rare to see a production that doesn’t offer a startling new insight into some aspect of the play. At Stratford this last summer, Portia was played as so preoccupied by the relations between her new husband and Antonio that even in the trial scene, Shylock is barely more than afterthought for her. By this reading, Shylock is simply unlucky to have ever got caught up in Antonio and Bassanio’s emotional machinations. And in the Venice ghetto last year I saw a production in rehearsal—it is hoped to be in full production this summer—in which Shylock was played by a youngish actor. This had the effect of making him a formidable verbal opponent of the Venetian Christians—quick witted, fleet of foot and even dangerously flirtatious. I can’t think of any actor I would choose to play Shylock, but he should definitely be younger and juicier than is the norm. There is no justification for making him an old man.
Q. Over the years some have accused the prestigious Man Booker and Nobel Prize committees of succumbing to political correctness, or anti-Israeli sentiment—for example, not considering Philip Roth for the Nobel. When The Finkler Question won the Man Booker in 2010, were you surprised, and did anyone in the literary establishment or media suggest that it had been time to celebrate an English novelist who was Jewish?
A. Roth not winning a Nobel Prize while so many lesser authors run away with it is, of course, a scandal. He is the greatest novelist alive. But it’s always hard ascribing motives for such a thing. Political correctness (and worse) in the matter of Zionism seems likely, but there’s also the vexed issue of comedy to consider. Roth is funny and literary people hate funny. Funny breaks the near-religious trance into which many fall when they think they’re reading literature. Intelligent comedy makes great demands; it anticipates a high level of comprehension and large-mindedness, but contemporary readers are rushed for time and easily upset, hence the popularity of the inoffensive page turner. Where there’s complex comedy to relish, you can’t, and don’t want to, turn the pages quickly. Jewish funny adds another complication. The charge so often leveled against Jews, that they are too clever by half, conceals a further complaint—that they are too funny by half. Given all which, it amazes me, to be honest, when any Jewish novel wins a prize.
As for The Finkler Question, yes, it was a complete surprise when it won the Man Booker Prize. I was lucky in the sense of humor quotient of the judges. One or two Jewish commentators did say it was time for a Jewish novelist to be celebrated, but they were saying it sardonically, without any expectation it would happen. Nonetheless, I think there was a feeling in the educated Jewish community in England that it was good to see the English Jewish experience being validated. Some remain amazed it ever happened. I rubbed my own eyes for two years after. ‘Did that really happen?’ I asked my wife. She wasn’t sure herself it had.