IDENTITY is at the heart of Howard Jacobson’s treatment of The Merchant of Venice.
Written as one of the series published by The Hogarth Shakespeare to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of the playwright, it might be casually regarded as an adjunct to Jacobson’s own exploration, last year, in the BBC television programme, In Search of Shylock.
But this is a book one can judge by its cover: the title and the author’s name are scrawled in scarlet letters, which drip to remind us of the crucial ‘jot of blood’; the jot with which Shylock’s Judaism is extinguished at the climax of the play.
Extinction is not Jacobson’s purpose.
Blood can have several meanings and Jacobson uses the word as a synonym for inheritance, in terms of racial, spiritual, cultural and emotional continuity.
Readers of The Merchant of Venice, and those who have seen the play performed, may wonder if Jacobson isn’t pushing his own thesis just a little too far.
We are accustomed to finding much more in Shakespeare than at first, or even at second and third, but admiration for Jacobson’s adroit and pithy slant on modern Judaism, and concurrent anti-semitism, can’t quite justify so determined a reading.
Instead, the invitation is to enjoy Jacobson’s prose, the words of a master stylist happily at work on a spree of his own devising.
Simon Strulovitch is a modern philanthropist, art collector and family man, at odds with himself and with contemporary attitudes to his Jewish heritage.
Visiting his mother’s grave, he encounters Shylock, whose intemperate furies are abated in the ‘company’ of his wife, Leah, buried deep beneath the February snow.
The element of fantasy established in these early pages lingers through the book, but this Shylock is never betrayed by reality.
He continues his conversations with Leah.
His life, actual and perceptible though it is, resides in a 400-year-old portrayal in fiction and, beyond that, in a 2,000-year-old prejudice.
His presence here is not ghostly, but powerful.
Each encounter with Shylock encourages Strulovitch’s flagging sense of antagonism and victimhood, their shared grievances expressed mostly through a captivating dialogue of retorts, explanations, asides and reflections.
Not to mention ‘The Speech’.
As a sceptical Jew since childhood, Strulovitch’s doubts have been more closely questioned by Jacobson in his Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question (2010).
But even those familiar with that book will be surprised by the twists now composed by Jacobson, whose most idle words have purpose, as well as point.
His mildest choices, for example, include giving the surname Shapiro as a possible original source of the name Shakespeare; the nod is to James Shapiro, a noted Shakespearean scholar.
Such self-indulgence aside, the tone of the book suggests an oblique concentration on Shylock’s own reminder to Antonio, the actual Venetian merchant, that sufferance is the badge of all his tribe.
Sufferance supports Strulovitch in a society in which he feels he remains an outsider, although it depends on his patronage and the amiable use of his wealth.
Despite a honeymoon in Venice itself, even his first wife is irritated by his ‘Yiddishims’, his insistence on his sad origins in Poland: ‘Your people are from Manchester. Isn’t that sad enough for you?’
Such clever mockery and racial self-depreciation give the novel its provocative brilliance. What does not transpose so brightly, although it has its glitter, is the community of characters essential to the context of both play and book: the Venetian milieu of Antonio, Portia, Bassanio, and their friends, who are all speculators of one kind or another (A Cheshire-based jeunesse doree to whom Jacobson has given roles and personalities, which, at a stretch, could represent their antecedents on the Rialto).
It is with this group that the plot swings into the issue of circumcision, discussed as perplexing custom or brutish mutilation,
notions with which Jacobson makes merry without quite diminishing the ritual significance of the practice.
There is even the metaphorical possibility of St Paul’s idea of a ‘circumcision in the heart’ as an alternative to surgical intervention.
This, and other options, are discussed with varying degrees of ignorance or disapproval, but these people are themselves so risible that their opinions serve only to allow their creator more malicious fun at their expense.
At the Old Belfrey, for example, suitors gather around Plury, a television celebrity legally known by a ridiculously long name, who suffers from being too rich, too sad, addicted to cosmetic surgery and ‘inflamed about the mouth, as though she had a perpetual cold sore…’
This environment is as sun-dappled as the Lido, and its idiocies are enjoyable, provided one abandons the idea that they are in any way linked to The Merchant of Venice, despite subtle nods in the Venetian direction.
There are love and friendship and bonds and pledges, and, of course, there is the pound of flesh, which, in this case, takes on rather a different sacrificial meaning.
When Strulovitch gets going on these subjects, or when Shylock lets fly with his righteous rages (‘If you wrong us, shall we not be revenged?’), it is impossible not to remember that the Christian virtues the Jews are told to emulate as superior were expounded by Jesus, who was a Jew.
These are the ironies of history on which Jacobson makes his gleeful pounce, without ever losing his grasp of what might be called a plot.
It is generally believed that Shakespeare never knew any Jews; only one had come to prominence — and that unfortunate — in his own era.
This was the Portuguese Rodrigo Lopez, who, at the height of his success as chief doctor to Elizabeth I, was accused — probably falsely — and convicted, of plotting to cause her death.
He was executed according to the horrible custom of the time, in 1594, a public event of great notoriety with which Shakespeare must have been acquainted.
Otherwise, although there was a small Jewish group permitted to trade in London, Jews had been banned in England since the 13th century.
Their especial estrangement depended, first, on the traditional Jewish/Christian abhorrence, and, then, on their commercial success, as necessary but loathed usurers, the lenders of money for profit.
If Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, in 1598, with an eye to popular taste, he failed in his intention, for it is not the merchant, Antonio, who survives as the enduring character in the play; it is the Jew moneylender, Shylock, who, to this day, remains as important a Shakespearean character as Hamlet or King Lear.
This is a truth Howard Jacobson understands. The suspicion is that he relishes it, as well, for, in this treatment, the fine young buccaneers of Venice are reduced to vapid, self-serving nonentities, adrift in a sea of unrealised potential.
Strulovitch gazes at Plury/Portia: ‘What did, however, strike him as odd was the look of hurt surprise — like a person drowning where there is no water — which the thousand cuts of surgery had lent Plurabelle’s every feature.’
Jacobson pours the quality of mercy through a large strainer, but Shylock’s fortitude and unswerving tribal fidelity are offered as a kind of redemption, a way, if you like, of forgiving Shakespeare. And of sending you back to him, not only just to check.