Author Q&A: Howard Jacobson

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The Manchester-born Man Booker Prize-winning novelist provides the second in a new series by writers who have re-imagined Shakespeare’s works. With Shylock is my Name (Hogarth Shakespeare, £16.99) Jacobson gets to grips with The Merchant of Venice.

Why did you set the book in the Cheshire Triangle?
Some of the action of The Merchant of Venice is set outside the city, in Belmont, a rarefied, expensive fantasy-place, where fortunes can be made and hearts lost. I could think of no better equivalent than Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, home to the northern jet-set – footballers, show business people, wealthy solicitors and the like, who are keen to remain in touch with Manchester while not wanting to admit they live there. When I was growing up in Salford and Cheetham Hill, North Cheshire seemed a place of great extravagance and privilege. They even spoke more nicely there than we did. I mean no disrespect to the Golden Triangle when I say I found it easy to imagine modern versions of the Merchant’s businessmen and playboys swanning about there.

You’ve said the play is the most challenging of Shakespeare’s work for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish to adapt. How did you tackle those challenges?
With trepidation. It’s impossible to say much more than that. But you remember that Shakespeare took over other writers’ material and relished keeping the ball rolling, by which I mean keeping the old stories he borrowed alive and vivid for another age. So why shouldn’t I do the same? The story of Shylock and the pound of flesh predated Shakespeare, so there can be no argument against its postdating Shakespeare. And because so much has happened to Jews since the play was first acted at the end of the sixteenth century, and the significance of the pound of flesh has been examined and re-examined so often in that light of more recent history, the story resonates differently to us. That said, much remains the same: daughter problems, money rage, sorrows of the heart, betrayal, racial antagonism, etc. By writing of these as contemporary matters – true to today, and not as a twist on then – I felt I could write an independent novel that remembered Shylock, Portia, Antonio and the rest of them, not as characters in a play but as people of flesh and blood, still funny and still tragic.

Did you find your perspective on the Bard has changed since you co-wrote Shakespeare’s Magnanimity in 1978?
Thank you for mentioning my first book, but no. Except in the sense that every time you see or read a Shakespeare play you find it greater than you did the time before.

And has your opinion of The Merchant of Venice changed over time?
Yes. It was a play that embarrassed me as a schoolboy, not because it was anti-Jewish, but simply because it had Jews in it. I think our English teacher got me to play Shylock. Which made me self-conscious. And because of that self-consciousness I avoided it for years. I thought it was a single-issue play. But isn’t. It is a tragedy that calls itself a comedy, a play that delights in making its audience uncomfortable.

The obvious question – what do you make of the charge that Shylock is an anti-semitic characterisation?
It’s a natural enough charge, but it’s mistaken. The play makes Jew-hating look vile, and those who hate Jews the most are the most despicable. Indeed, that embarrassment of which I’ve spoken, wasn’t embarrassment in the face of anti-Semitism, but almost the opposite – I was embarrassed by what felt like special pleading on behalf of Jews. This doesn’t mean that Shylock is a sweetie. But then few of the characters who really engage Shakespeare’s sympathies ever are.

Photo: Keke-Keukelaar

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