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NPR Arts & Life

Man Booker Prize Awardee Recasts Complex 'Merchant of Venice' Character


Shakespeare's Skylock, the merchant of Venice, is one of the most compelling characters in literature - in history for that matter. Over the centuries the Venetian moneylender, who exacts his pound of flesh but exclaims, I am a Jew, hath not a Jew eyes, if you prick us do we not bleed, if you tickle us do we not laugh, and if you wrong us shall we not revenge has been used both as a stereotype for anti-Semitism and seen as a full-blooded human being who merits our sympathies for the bigotry he's had to bear. Howard Jacobson, the Man Booker prize-winning novelist, has recast this classic, something Shakespeare himself used to do, in the Hogarth Shakespeare series from Penguin Random House. Howard Jacobson's book is "Shylock Is My Name." And Howard Jacobson joins us from the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD JACOBSON: It's absolutely my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: You've referred to Shylock as Shakespeare's most difficult character and especially so for an English writer who happens to be Jewish.

JACOBSON: You always fear, if you're not recently familiar with the play, that when you go back you're going to see a Jewish monster. What if, after, all those people who said this is a hideous stereotype of a vile Jew, what if it will look as horrible as people say and - but it doesn't. It just doesn't. One cannot stop people reading a play the way they choose to and that those who have hated Jews have found things in this play that gives them sucker, that excites them, that makes them laugh. And Shakespeare's not to blame for that. There are some who say he is. But you just have to go on asking people to go back, look at the words, look at the text, look how the people - characters interact, look who the characters are who say those terrible things about Shylock. What does the play tell you about them?

SIMON: In your retelling, the central character is Simon Strulovitch, who is an art collector, philanthropist in Manchester, not Venice. And all these centuries later, being Jewish isn't an easy thing for him, is it?

JACOBSON: No, it's the business about being Jewish, the uncertainty of what it means to be Jewish for a Jew, the fear of being the object of the derision and worse than that of other people, all that seems to be still alive. And he was an opportunity when I had the idea. First of all, I invented Strulovitch as a kind of modern version of Shylock, but then realize there is no modern equivalent of Shylock. Shylock has to be there. And he has to be as much Shakespeare Shylock as my ability or my courage or my chutzpah would allow me to make him. So there was a wonderful opportunity to think about the way things had and indeed had not changed for Jews. And that's a center of the book really is this Jew of an earlier time and this Jew of now talk it out, talk it out, talk it out between each other.

SIMON: Shylock makes an appearance, as you suggest. He's hugely entertaining.

JACOBSON: Ah, well that's good.

SIMON: In fact, I wanted you - a speech he gives, I'd like you to share that if you could because it's been running through my mind continually.

JACOBSON: This is where Strulovitch and he are talking about how other people view them as Jews. And Strulovitch is saying, so, you know, where do they send you in their minds when they see you? And Shylock says, to Hell eventually, but in the meantime, to nowhere in particular. That's their point. We had a chance at a homeland and we blew it. Belonging was never what we were good at anyway. Being a stranger is what we do. It's the Diaspora, they are at pains to assure me, that brings out the best in us, which neatly sidesteps the question of what brings out the best in them? But they'll feel no embarrassment in proclaiming that the proper Jew is a wondering Jew, citizens of everywhere and nowhere, dandified tramps subsisting wherever we can squeeze ourselves in at the edges and in the crevices, precarious but urbane, like flaneur clinging to a rock face, expressing our marvelously creative marginality.

SIMON: That's a breathtaking speech. Can you see where it would also make a number of Jews, and not just Jews, comfortable?

JACOBSON: Yes. The thing about the subject of Jewishness is it's all discomfort. That of course - that speech you've got me to read, there's more sort of political echoes in all of that than in most of their conversations really because in that you can hear what people have said about and are saying about the Jewish homeland. And it's often said what do Jews need a Jewish homeland for anyway when you can just - you're so good at existing on those margins. You're much better like that. And there's many a Jew that fancies that idea. I fancy that idea. I love the idea that I am an outsider. I'm good when I'm, you know, I'm out writing like that. I can take a sideswipe. I can be sardonic. I can enjoy feeling that I'm a kind of Shylock figure. And then I see other Jews who don't feel like that and who enjoy the communality of Jewishness more, being part of the family, the rituals of Jewishness. And I think what's the best way to be a Jew? Maybe when I'm at death's door I'll decide I didn't enjoy being identified Jew quite so much anymore. Take me to the bottom of Abraham.

SIMON: The merchant of Venice has been analyzed in so many different ways over the years and especially for themes of bigotry. It's also a story about a father who worries about pleasing his daughter.

JACOBSON: Absolutely, it is. And this is the bit that interests me - the father and the daughter. And never forget that in those wonderful - in that wonderfully brief moment when we get to hear that there was a wife once and her name was Leah, and she's mentioned just in that very touching scene when Shylock learns that Jessica has run off, stolen his money, but worst of all stolen the ring that his wife gave him - I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. And I love that line. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. It's, what, eight words, and in that you just see the whole of - you just know from that one sentence that this was a man that loved his wife and that misses his wife. And the minute you have that thought, you realize how hard it is. He's not just a cruel father, another cruel father. And there are many in Shakespeare bringing up a daughter. He is a father bringing up a daughter on his own. It's also one of the most upsetting betrayals in literature, I think, her leaving. It's not just that she goes. A million daughters leave and then come home. She goes in such a horrible way. She steals. She steals that ring, which she must have known how precious that ring was. Even for Shakespeare, who makes you feel for everybody, it's very hard to feel much for Jessica.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask you about another line that stood out for me. Jews just because they are not amused. I hope that's not true. It would have to make me reassess my basic view of life.

JACOBSON: I've had a go at this several times when putting my mind as I've often done to what it is that makes a Jewish sense of humor. I think you have to assume always that the worst is going to happen. And some of the best jokes, the best Jewish jokes, are made in the face of the fact that the worst is going to happen. Shakespeare is our teacher in this. The great scene, I think, "Hamlet" is the gravedigger scene. In that moment Hamlet when Hamlet is talking to the skull of Yorick, the jester's skull, he's looking at the bones all around him and then he addresses the skull and he says, get thee to my lady's chamber. Tell her let her paint an inch thick. To this favor must she come. Make her laugh at that. And I've always thought that's the call to the comedian or the comic writer or the comic playwright. Make them laugh at something where laughter is difficult and where laughter is absolutely necessary. In the case of "Hamlet," death. And the Jews one has to say, for one reason or another, are expert. I won't say they're expert at death or at receiving death because everybody does, but they're expert at expecting death.

SIMON: Howard Jacobson, his book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series from Penguin Random House, "Shylock Is My Name." Thanks so much for being with us.

JACOBSON: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much. I've so much enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.