Shakespeare’s Jewish Villain Finally Gets His Due

Howard Jacobson gives Shakespeare’s infamous Jewish villain a chance to explain himself.

Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

There are certain works of fiction in which the reader can discern a single, overriding authorial impulse at play, one that does not negate the work’s wider creative preoccupations or achievements but, rather, drives them. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for example, can be seen as a sustained attempt to rehabilitate the English statesman, Thomas Cromwell from centuries of opprobrium through a masterful literary re-creation of his character. This desire drives the work while being responsible for almost all of its (considerable) artistic achievements. In agreeing to re-write The Merchant of Venice as part of the Hogarth Press’ celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Booker-prize winning British author, Howard Jacobson has decided to try something similar for the play’s leading character, Shylock.

The book begins with two Jews standing in a cemetery in the North of England. One is Simon Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist with on-again off-again enthusiasms”—notable amongst which is his ambivalent attachment to Judaism. The other is Shylock. As he stands over the grave of his wife Leah (only alluded to in the play), Shylock’s humanity is given full, immediate force. “Life,” we are told “would have been unbearable had he allowed himself to forget, even for the smallest particle of time, the woman he had loved from the moment he first saw her.”

This then, is a Shylock that can love, articulately and unconditionally. Though he is no cooing pushover; he is, as Jacobson tells us, an “infuriated and tempestuous Jew”, neither forgiving nor forgetting as he broods on the courtship ring his dead wife gave him, stolen and sold by his daughter Jessica to buy a monkey, shortly before she converted to Christianity. “About his daughter, the least said the better,” we are told. Well, quite.

But Shylock is not the only one with daughter issues. As he had his Jessica, Strulovitch has his Beatrice, a precocious and beautiful sixteen-year old who garrulously resents her religiously unobservant father’s insistence that if she really must date (a thought he finds abhorrent) she date only Jewish boys. But this proves tricky, not least because Strulovitch lives in the Golden Mile, an area near Manchester home to the modern wealthy, which naturally consists of soccer players and reality TV stars, and all of their attendant temptations.

Foremost amongst them is Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine. The name is of course a deliberately labored parody of the ridiculous names celebrities give to their offspring, but it is more than that. Amongst this litany of absurdity it is only “Christine” that is explained—and therefore highlighted—to the reader (a nod to a ‘flighty’ model her father had married, apparently). Whatever Plurabelle is, she is irretrievably Christian.

And she is quite something. An heiress and the star of a successful reality TV show set in her mansion that combines the culinary with the confessional, she inhabits a world of moral disarray. We learn about her early life early on. Her gap year, that sacred year between school and university for British teenagers, was for her a “period in which to travel, meditate, meet interesting people”- as it is supposed to be - but it was also a chance to “have a breast enlargement and work done on her face.” It is barely a surprise to discover just a short while later that on her twenty-first birthday Plurabelle “attended a swinger’s party in Alderley Edge, having taken the sensible precaution of ascertaining first that her mother would not be there.”

Plurabelle is Shakespeare’s Portia and her mansion is the play’s Belmont. In her gilded world everything is inverted, and, as a conversation between her and the smoothly sinister D’Anton makes clear, the meretricious is prized over the serious, cliché over dialogue, surface over the interior. It’s all just so…Goyish:

“But are we the advantaged?” D’Anton asked. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

“That’s so beautiful,” Plurabelle said. “And so true. It makes me want to cry. Paulo Coelho often makes me want to cry.”

“A greater man than Paulo Coelho said that,” D’Anton surprised her by saying. She didn’t know there was a greater man than Paulo Coelho.

“Nelson Mandela?”

“St. Paul.”

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Into this mix is thrown the soccer player-cum-thug, Gratan Howsome (his name an echo of that classic English pub fighting cry “Have some!”). Howsome has a bad rep, not least for giving an on-the-field Nazi-like salute of the type popularized by Mehdi Mehdi, a “French Algerian ventriloquist who was in hiding from the French and Algerian police on account of the Nazi ideology his dummy espoused.” But Howsome has a thing for Jewish women and Plurabelle is determined to procure the beautiful and clever Beatrice for him.

This proves the catalyst for much of the book’s (often farcical) action. Procuring Beatrice for the wholly unsuitable Howsome is guaranteed to enrage Strulovitch who already has a long history of following his daughter around, dragging her out of parties and thumping teenage boys anywhere in her vicinity.

Fathers and their daughters are much discussed by Shylock and Strulovitch, both of whom have been wounded by their offspring. “It’s an invariable law that fathers love their daughters immoderately,” says Shylock. And Strulovitch agrees. “The universe decreed that fathers should love their daughters not wisely but too well,” he thinks to himself in response. The deliberate stealing of Othello’s words here (from the speech when Othello finally sees the damage his frenzied jealousy has brought to himself and his wife, no less) illustrates the utter dysfunction of the book’s father-daughter relationships.

Jews and Gentiles, fathers and daughters, them and us—this is a world of binaries, but one that nonetheless has one unifying theme:We are not the slightest bit alike,” thinks Strulovitch, “except in what we feel for our daughters. So what was it Gentiles saw that told them they were both Jews?”

That is indeed the question. If the book centers on two Jews it is as much about Christians, or at least the relationship between Jews and Christians, which Jacobson explores with acuity and often (bitter) humor. What is it to be a Jew in 21st century England? Jacobson asks. Well, first it is to be possessed of the everyday bugbears of British Jews. When Strulovitch pictures the contents of Howsome’s imaginary bookshelves he sees not just The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Der ewige Jude but also “bound copies of the Guardian”—the left wing newspaper largely reviled for its perceived anti-Israel bias by Britain’s Jewish community.

Then of course there is the question of Israel itself, which is intertwined with notions of strength and weakness, revenge and forbearance, making it the perfect subject for Shylock, so full of vengeance and yet so wronged, on which to digress. And digress he does: “A Jew does not take life,” he muses bitterly. “I am a hero to him by virtue of what I permitted to be done to me, not by what I did or might have done. Good Jew—kicked. Bad Jew—kicks.” In so doing Jacobson subverts some of the most famous lines of The Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us do we not bleed,” asks Shylock. “But,” he continues “if we prick back do we not shed blood?”

Even Strulovitch ponders on the subject, once again centering on contemporary British Jewish debates over Israel. “Jews had grown so careful now,” he thinks. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? No, we shall not. We shall take it on the chin and be grateful. Unless we’re in Judea and Samaria, where we’re accused of being Nazis. Cowards or Nazis—which was it to be?

For Shylock the question is more moral than metaphysical. “These famous ethics of ours have landed us in a fine mess,” he concludes. “If we cannot accept that we might murder as other men murder, we are not enhanced, but diminished.”

But are they, as Jews, as other men? In the eyes of the WASP, D’Anton, the art dealer and aesthete, who wishes (for reasons too complex to go into here) to buy a painting from Strulovitch, arguably not. In D’Anton (never mind his French name, which can be a staple of the most aristocratic English families) Jacobson gives the reader an incisive portrait of the English anti-Semite. D’Anton with his reasonableness and elaborate courtesies, his unfailingly politeness and exquisite taste, who is nonetheless “quietly confident” that if he offers Strulovitch “considerably more for the painting than he had paid, would the Jew be able to resist the allure of so quick a profit?”

More than this, though, Jacobson captures the linguistic subtlety of English anti-Semitism, which exists even at the level of syntax:

Had there ever been a Jew yet—just a question—that was not inflexible and vengeful?

It’s all there within the em dashes, the single clause that encapsulates the genteel style of this ancient prejudice in Britain, as D’Anton shies away from outright statement, cloaking the sentence in the veneer of honest enquiry.

It gets nastier, as it always does. As Plurabelle and D’Anton discuss Strulovitch the “Israelite, a werewolf, a castrator and a bloodsucker”, returning to the physical body of the ‘other’ (as these sorts of people always do), mulling over his “thick and wet” lips, while taking care to compliment (yet similarly objectify) the “full and voluptuous” lips of his daughter.

In the end, Strulovitch is driven to fury when Beatrice and Howsome elope to Venice. But, prompted by Shylock, he finds out that their relationship began a year earlier, when Beatrice was only fifteen. This discovery gives him leverage over Plurabelle and D’Anton, who he accuses of having acted as accessories in a criminal act. And this leverage sparks his transformation into a modern version of Shakespeare’s Shylock. If Howsome won’t convert to Judaism then Strulovitch will have his pound of flesh. As he tells Shylock, in the process stealing one of his most famous lines:

“Must I be denied my satisfaction?”

“If satisfaction is all it is. Yes.”

“Then I will change the word. Must I be denied my bond?”

So D’Anton agrees to be circumcised in Howsome’s place—a denouement to which the whole novel has been leading. Divided traditionally into chapters, the book’s final part is named simply Act V. This is significant. In The Merchant of Venice Shylock (who disappears toward the end of Act IV) is entirely absent from the final action. As he gloomily tells Strulovitch, he left without “a resounding exit line.”

Jacobson is determined to rectify this omission; he is determined to give Shylock his say. While the novel form may not allow him to give Shylock soliloquies he gives him plenty of monologues and in so doing allows Shylock moments approaching a tragic grandeur—the most memorable of which is his subversion of Portia’s famous ‘quality of mercy’ speech. In Shylock’s mouth the speech becomes both a Yiddish-infused set piece (he talks of rachmones—the Yiddish word for mercy) and something deeply ironic.

Of course Shylock doesn’t mean to talk Strulovitch out of getting D’Anton circumcised (“Affecting your resolution was the last thing on my mind”) but he has impressed the vapid Plurabelle no end. And this allows him to set the record straight for the Jews—in a final act that Shakespeare denied him.

“You are not what I thought you were,” she [Plurabelle] persisted.

“And what did you think I was?”

“I don’t know, but I would never have imagined . . .” Whatever it was she would never have imagined she couldn’t for the moment find the words for it.

Shylock helped her out. “That a Jew could be so Christian?”

She felt that he almost spat the words at her.

“No, no, that wasn’t what I intended to say. What I mean is that you looked so forbidding when you opened the door to me at Simon Strulovitch’s I didn’t dream you could be capable of such humanity.”

“That’s just another way of saying the same thing. You saw a Jew and expected nothing of him but cruelty.”

“I didn’t see a Jew. I don’t go around seeing Jews.”

“All right—you saw cruelty and gave it a Jewish face.”

In the end the Shylock of the novel is a product not only of Shakespeare but of Pirandello: he is a character in search of an author, or at least an author who will write him fully, fill in the blanks and give him a voice where once he was voiceless. And in Jacobson, after just over 400 years, he has found a mensch who has done—with considerable skill—exactly that.