‘The Jewish Revenge’

One of Britain’s best-known novelists talks to FP about his radical reinvention of "The Merchant of Venice"

Merchant of venice RS
Merchant of venice RS

“It is morally and historically wrong not to know that Jesus was a Jewish thinker and that when you quote him against us you are talking vicious nonsense. Charity is a Jewish concept. So is mercy. You took them from us.”

“It is morally and historically wrong not to know that Jesus was a Jewish thinker and that when you quote him against us you are talking vicious nonsense. Charity is a Jewish concept. So is mercy. You took them from us.”

So goes a blistering speech by Shylock, the Shakespeare character brought back to life — literally — in a reimaging of The Merchant of Venice by best-selling British novelist Howard Jacobson. The new book, Shylock Is My Name, centers on a wealthy and secular British Jew named Simon Strulovitch, who struggles to come to terms with his 16-year-old daughter Beatrice’s decision to run away with a soccer player famed for giving the Nazi salute during a game. Strulovitch has a surprising advisor: Shylock himself, who walks up to him in a cemetery and eventually moves into his house. The book is, putting it mildly, very meta.

It’s fertile ground for Jacobson, whose novels explore his own complicated feelings about both Israel and Judaism — and his growing fears that many in Europe are using criticism of the former to mask their hatred of the latter. A columnist for the Independent, he believes the British and European media sometimes imply that violence carried out by Israel helps justify terrorist attacks against European Jews (in Shylock Is My Name, Strulovitch dryly remarks that he’s only a Zionist when he reads the Guardian.).

Jacobson is not as well known in the United States as he is in his native Britain, where he won the prestigious Man Booker award for his 2010 comic novel, The Finkler Question. He was shortlisted for the award for his dystopian 2014 novel, J, about a near-future England in which a new Holocaust was so successful that it didn’t simply eradicate the country’s Jews; it also deleted any memory or discussion of the genocide itself. Instead, the bloodshed — a mixture of state-sponsored attacks and mob-style violence that saw Jews killed in the streets — is simply referred to as the “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.”

In Jacobson’s new book, Shylock and Strulovitch have long conversations about the text and plot of The Merchant of Venice while also discussing Strulovitch’s quest to get his version of Shylock’s infamous pound of flesh from the soccer player. Along the way, he squares off with D’Anton (the book’s version of the play’s Antonio), a rich art collector who hides his anti-Semitism under a veneer of gentility, and the gloriously named Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine (the book’s version of Portia), an heiress turned reality TV star who hooks up Beatrice with the soccer player in the first place.

The play is familiar ground for Jacobson, whose first published work was an academic tome called Shakespeare’s Magnanimity (the book was co-authored with Wilbur Sanders; Shylock Is My Name is dedicated to him). Jacobson’s new novel is part of a series of reimaginings of classic Shakespeare works, commissioned and published by the Hogarth Shakespeare project to mark the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death. The publishing house has lined up an array of prominent novelists, each given their choice of which play to write about. American novelist Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is a version of The Taming of the Shrew set in modern-day Baltimore. Margaret Atwood’s reimagining of The Tempest comes out later this year.

In an interview from his home in London, Jacobson said writing a novel based on The Merchant of Venice allowed him to give Shylock something the character didn’t receive in the play: a final act. In the play, Shylock’s role ends after Act Four, when the character, stymied by his rivals, slinks away in defeat after failing in his quest and agreeing to convert to Christianity.

In the novel, by contrast, Shylock gets almost the literal last word in a stirring speech designed to refute the long-held canard that mercy is a Christian trait (and, by implication, not a Jewish one).

The Shylock who delivers that speech isn’t an old, frail man, as he is normally portrayed. In Jacobson’s hands, Shylock is handsome, defiant, and so charismatic that Plurabelle thinks to herself, “God, I love this man.… I fucking love him.”

Jacobson said the scene was his favorite in the entire book.

“Writing it gave me one of the greatest joys I have ever had as a writer,” he told me. “It was like the Jewish revenge.”

Highlights of our conversation are below, ranging from why The Merchant of Venice shouldn’t be seen as anti-Semitic to Jacobson’s fears of anti-Israel sentiments leading to anti-Jewish violence. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

* * *

Foreign Policy: What led you to take this approach, where somebody who has read the play is living a version of it but also talking to Shylock as a real person? There’s a lot going on at once.

Howard Jacobson: I used to be an academic that lectured on Shakespeare. My first book was about Shakespeare. There’s a part of me, when I was offered this project, that half wanted to write a criticism of the play and of how the play has been received, because I think the play is very, very misunderstood. I don’t think people know what this play is about. When I chose to make it more of a novel, I didn’t know I was going to have Shylock in the flesh. I thought I was just going to have Strulovitch. But I thought that would be too literal minded. So I started to imagine the thing and suddenly had this image of Strulovitch in the cemetery with Shylock. I just saw the two men. I just saw them, and I thought, “That’s the way to do it.” He’s not going to be a ghost. He’s just there, and we’re not going to bother ourselves with how a man from 500 years ago can be there. It was a metaphorical meaning in the idea of his being there, since we all talk about Shylock as though he’s a living presence, so just go with that and have the nerve. And once I thought that, I thought, “That’s it.” I saw the way into the book, and then loved it. I mean, I had no difficulty with it.

FP: I like that there’s no explanation given for how Shylock shows up. You just have to accept that he’s there and go with it.

HJ: I felt that if this book is going to live, it would be on the strength of the characterization of Shylock. He had to live, too. That was the hardest stuff to write, because I couldn’t make light of him. Somehow or other, he had to have a weight, a gravitas, a seriousness. That was where the sweat and the labor came in.

FP: You’ve said that you feel like the play is often misread. In what ways?

HJ: The way people read Shakespeare’s plays is, they take the characters’ evaluations of themselves at their face value. So Portia and her world celebrate their own courtliness, their grace, their elegance, but they’re actually vile. They’re bums. They’re cheap. Antonio and Bassanio, they think they live by a fine ideal of love for one another, but they are in fact opportunistic and materialistic. For me, this is not a play about a dastardly Jew and a set of lovely Christians. I don’t see it as an anti-Semitic play at all.

FP: There’s definitely a defiance to your Shylock that I don’t always get from the play.

HJ: No, you don’t always get it. The “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is often acted with Shylock wringing his hands and cringing. There’s no reason for reading like that. He doesn’t have to deliver that speech cringingly. It’s a funny speech, and he’s defiant. That’s the Shylock I wanted to bring out as against the usual caricature of a Jew that we’ve grown used to. And I think the reason for that caricature is that some Jews see in Shylock their own dread version of themselves. This is the Jew they fear they might be.

FP: There are occasional quips and puns, but this is definitely not a light book. Was that intentional?

HJ: I was surprised with what an angry book this became. But I don’t see how, if you’re a Jew, you can’t be angry about the subject and seeing Jews talked to like that, seeing Jews spat at. You simply have to be angry, and I like writing angrily. And the comedy, too, the satire, was probably more from anger than anything else, because it treats these people as contemptible.

FP: When your Shylock describes his life, the characters that we think of as characters in the play are real to him, but then there are moments where he talks about how his story basically ended when the play ended and what happened to him next was irrelevant, because his life stopped when the play stopped. You didn’t seem satisfied with that.

HJ: I felt very strongly that I couldn’t give Shylock any more life than he had. That would be preposterous. It would feel wrong. It’s not for me to give Shylock a second chance. But I do give him one little gesture. I give him one little speech, and I give him his triumph over Plurabelle, my Portia. In the play, he has no Act Five, and it’s a waste of time after he’s gone. The only liberty I take is that I give him an Act Five. That was my gift to Shylock.

FP: You’ve told me that you hadn’t thought of yourself necessarily as a person who is a Zionist, or pro-Israel, or even really devoted much to Israel as a political issue. Why did that change?

HJ: I wasn’t against Israel or anything; I was just never wildly interested in that, you know? I was an Englishman, and I was pleased that there was somewhere for Jews to go, and if I ever needed to, for me too to go, but I was, you know, living my life as an Englishman, wasn’t even thinking about being Jewish much. But over the last 15, 20 years, criticism of Israel has grown venomous, and it grows more venomous by the day over here. People say until I’m sick of hearing them say, “It’s not anti-Semitic to be anti-Zionist.” Well, we know it’s not necessarily anti-Semitic to be anti-Zionist. We know that. No one is saying it is, and it’s bad faith to go on insisting that. The point that one makes is that anti-Zionism can have an anti-Semitic face, might have an anti-Semitic face, and often does have an anti-Semitic face.

FP: What’s your sense of how high those levels of anti-Semitism are right now?

HJ: The issue of anti-Semitism is sort of vaguely in the air. We think, “Well, it’s worse in France than it is here.” It’s quiet at the moment, but I tell you something: If there’s another Gaza incursion, it will be on again here, and all hell will break loose.

FP: I love the line in the book where Strulovitch runs through various anti-Semitic slurs tossed at Jews — unbelievers, infidels, dogs — and then thinks it was better when they “at least didn’t deliver the final insult of accusing us of paranoia.”

HJ: Even raising the very real prospect that a person might be an anti-Semite, or calling them out for it when it’s clear that they are, inevitably brings the response back of, “Oh, you Jews. There you go again. You’re just always accusing us of anti-Semitism.” And it just sort of shuts down the argument. If you complain about it, you are being paranoid. That’s common these days. I enjoyed, in that world of Plurabelle and D’Anton and the rest of them, doing modern versions of the anti-Semite. The anti-Semite who wouldn’t really for a moment think of themselves as anti-Semitic. “Anti-Semitic, us?” And the answer would be, “Yes, you are.”

FP: There’s a scene in the book when D’Anton is able to prevent Strulovitch from winning approval to build a museum by going to a public meeting and playing up the pronunciation of his last name to make sure people knew it was Jewish.

HJ: It’s different in America, don’t forget, because of the commonness of Jewish names. You look at the credits to any film or anything, you think, “My god, look at all those Jewish names.” That’s nothing like so common over here, so when you hear the name, when hear your own Jewish name, and you are more conscious of it and sensitive about it. That’s part of the nature of being Jewish in this country. In America, there are far more Jews, and you’re much more part of the culture, and you can hold your head high. It’s different here.

FP: Here in the U.S., I’ve heard one or two of my Jewish friends privately tell me they agree with Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim comments because they love someone finally saying publicly what they believe but have never felt comfortable expressing. I had that in mind while I was reading the book, the way language choices can lead to stereotypes and then to hatred and then to violence.

HJ: Yes, I think you can sort of understand why a Jew might feel a measure of satisfaction, particularly given how much hatred of Jews, how much anti-Semitism, there is in the Muslim world. There didn’t used to be, but there is. Given that, I can see why a Jew might think, you know, “All right, well, you take a taste of it for a change. It’s all very well and good that you complain about Islamophobia, but what about your own anti-Semitism?” And so I could see you could take a momentary passing satisfaction, but two minutes of consideration would tell you that once any group is treated like that, any group might be treated like that. There should be no satisfaction for a Jew in seeing Muslims being talked about the way Trump talks about them. All Jews should set an example here and say, “No, we will not have that.” No matter what passing, fleeting satisfaction they might feel in their hearts, they’ve got to beat that. They’ve got to be better than that.

Photo credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.