Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic?

Howard Jacobson investigates Shylock, the Bard's most controversial character, in a new documentary

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In writing a novel based on The Merchant of Venice and giving it the title Shylock Is My Name, it might appear that I am doing for Shylock what demonstrators did for Charlie Hebdo earlier this year and making common cause with him: ‘We are all Shylock!'”

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With anti-Semitism seen again on the streets of Europe, there is certainly reason to be defiant. And if Shylock were to need rehabilitating, this would indeed be a good time to do it. In him, many readers of the play complain, the stereotype of the Jew as pitiless, murderous money-grubber finds its most dangerous expression. The Merchant of Venice enjoyed enormous popularity in 1930s Germany and Shylock, the feared and hated Jew of medieval superstition, was surely the reason. There are some who go so far as to wish that Shakespeare had never written the play at all.

I am not one of them. Myself, I think the only reason to wish that something had never been written is that it is written badly. What we cannot blame a work of literature for is causing offence, since offence is highly subjective and susceptibility to it will differ from reader to reader. There is probably no work that hasn’t offended somebody. More problematic is the accusation that a work stirs up malice, but even here the charge is hard to credit because malice is so much easier to stir up in some people than in others. Where the reader’s heart is already primed to hate, it won’t take much to poison it. And an unsubtle reading of any work of literature is the prerogative of the ignorant.

My novel is not a reclamation job on Shylock because I don’t think he needs reclaiming. Which is not to say that The Merchant of Venice is not an uncomfortable play. If I said it is not in the slightest bit anti-Semitic in spirit, but rather takes anti-Semitism as its subject, exposing its vileness at every turn, I would be making the play less challenging than it is.

Without doubt, Shakespeare exposes the malignancy of Venetian Jew-baiting. The melancholy merchant, Antonio, and his mercenerary, self-pitying cronies are among the seediest of Shakespeare’s creations. Even Portia, famed for her “quality of mercy” speech, is unable to muster much of it when it comes to meting out justice to “the Jew”. And Shylock has much right on his side. The trouble is, it’s legal right. Given that the immemorial Christian charge against the Jews is that they refused to acknowledge the meaning and message of Jesus Christ, but went on subjugating love to law, Shylock’s unbending determination to have his pound of Antonio’s flesh can look like a confirmation of the Jewish character in action.

Yes, Shylock has good reason to wish his tormentors harm. He owes them nothing. But the spectacle of a man meaning others harm is not pretty.

Definitively to choose  a side in a dramatic encounter is not the way to watch or read a play. It isn’t simply that our allegiances change; rather it is that, from moment to moment, we are set against our own inclinations, experience shame where we would like to experience loyalty and vice versa, and become swept up in emotions we would rather not recognise and certainly don’t welcome.

Such conflicted passions are what attracted me to the idea of making a novel out of The Merchant of Venice and a vexed hero for our time out of Shylock. Filming the problems of writing of it became filming the controversies the play continues to arouse. No two people feel the same about Shylock.

For me, though I might see him differently tomorrow, he is a man of principle and wit, tragically betrayed, altogether too clever for his adversaries, and on that account maybe too clever for himself.

If there are audiences who miss that – just as audiences in 1930s Germany did – it is because they choose to miss it. It doesn’t take a play by Shakespeare to diminish the humanity of those who are still yelling their hatred of Jews on the streets of Europe.

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Man Booker Prize-winning author Howard Jacobson investigates The Merchant of Venice, in Imagine… (today on BBC1 at 10:35pm)