Shylock Speaks

In “Shylock Is My Name“, Adam Kirsh (Director of the MA program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University) reviews Shylock Is My Name, “the new book by the great English novelist Howard Jacobson… [and] the second title in a series called Hogarth Shakespeare, in which contemporary writers reimagine Shakespeare plays.” Jacobson’s novel is a modern re-telling of The Merchant of Venice, through a thoroughly Jewish lens.

Kirsch describes Jacobson’s novel as “a clever and entertaining installment in Jacobson’s ongoing inquiry into what it means to live as a Jew in English, and Western, culture.” To give you an idea of how obsessed Jews are with their place within Western society (aka Christendom), Kirsch writes of Jacobson:

From the beginning of his career, but especially in the last decade or so, Jacobson has been an obsessive analyst of the relationship between the Jews and the English. The Finkler Question, which won the Booker Prize in 2010, is about the friendship between an Englishman who wants to become a Jew and a Jew who is ashamed of being one. Jacobson’s next book, J, imagines a post-apocalyptic England in which people have repressed the memory of having perpetrated a second Holocaust. To Jacobson, it is this oscillation in gentile feelings about Jews—from obsessive interest to obsessive hatred, but always somehow obsessed—that makes English Jewish identity so absurdly difficult.

With respect to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Kirsch writes:

At the heart of English thinking about the Jews, of course, stands Shylock, the most influential Jewish character in English literature. Shylock dominates the play in which he appears, The Merchant of Venice—indeed, he is bigger than the play, having become one of those literary characters who seem to live independent lives. The reason is that Shakespeare writes about him with the very same ambiguity of feeling that Jacobson diagnoses. On the one hand, Shylock is an allegory of what Christianity sees as Jewish vices: He is greedy, vengeful, and committed to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of mercy. Portia’s great speech to Shylock, reminding him that “the quality of mercy is not strained,” is one of the most famous literary expressions of Christian ideals, provoked by the refusal of the Jew to act like a Christian.

Yet the other immortal speech in The Merchant of Venice is Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” which powerfully undermines the play’s own portrayal of the Jew as merely a stereotype, an allegory of stubborn “Judaism.” Asking “if you prick us, do we not bleed,” Shylock insists on his individual reality, his full humanity. He rejects the idea that his religion makes him innately different from Antonio, or Portia, or the other Christian characters who both exploit and torment him. And Shakespeare deepens our sympathy with Shylock by showing how deeply hurt he is by the Christians’ greatest victory over him—Lorenzo’s abduction of his daughter Jessica. The play makes us so vividly aware of Shylock’s individuality that his fate—the moneylender is bested by Portia in a legal argument, humiliated, robbed, and forced to convert—is not quite the “happy ending” it is structurally meant to be. In editions of Shakespeare’s works The Merchant of Venice is classified as a comedy, but the more attention you pay to Shylock, the more it feels like a tragedy.

Jewish paranoia appears to be replete in Jacobson’s novel:

In one scene, Plury, as her friends call her, and D’Anton play a game called Jewepithets, in which they come up with increasingly insulting names for Jews—“the Hebrew,” “the moneybags,” “the inexecrable dog.” It is a Jewish paranoid fantasy of how non-Jews talk behind closed doors, and Jacobson’s portrait of the whole English gentile world is informed by this kind of consciously overblown, yet inescapable, paranoia.

Imagine if there existed a Director of the MA program in White Identity Studies at Columbia University, wherein the program analyzed modern texts, television shows, movies, and the like through a White Identitarian lens, something that is currently forced underground through sites like Counter-Currents.

Imagine a thousand similar Depts popping up across academia.

Imagine how prolific and constructive that would be, how Culture would be able to shift and change, if only through nudging.

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