Shakespeare, Judaism, and Shylock Is My Name: An Interview with Jaecheol Kim

by Nicolas Silva

Jaecheol Kim, “Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name and the Badiou-Agamben Debate on Paul the Apostle,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 64.3 (2022): 284-308

Alyssa Bradac as Gobbo, Jennifer Findley as Jessica and Michael Nehring as Shylock in Shakespeare Orange County production of The Merchant of Venice

Readers will be familiar with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. But could you briefly introduce us to Howard Jacobson, his novel, and the Hogarth Shakespeare project?

Howard Jacobson is a living British novelist illustrating Jewish lives in Britain. He received the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for his novel The Finkler Question. He studied English literature at Cambridge with F. R. Leavis and later taught at the University of Cambridge. Jacobson is also a Shakespeare scholar, and he published a scholarly work on Shakespeare entitled Shakespeare’s Magnanimity with Wilbur Sanders. With his experience as a writer and scholar, Jacobson became an author suitable for rewriting Shakespeare’s Jewish work, The Merchant of Venice. When I first discovered that Howard Jacobson was bringing Shylock Is My Name to the world, I was excited not simply because he is Jewish but because he is an author who is familiar with Shakespeare and modern critical receptions of his works. Hogarth Shakespeare Project is a series by the Hogarth Press to situate Shakespeare’s works in modern contexts. The Hogarth Press hired gifted (and familiar) authors such as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, and Jo Nesbø to reimagine Shakespeare’s dramas into novels. As of now, the Project has produced six adaptations including The Gap of Time (Jeanette Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale), Vinegar Girl (Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew), Hag-Seed (Margaret Atwood’s The Tempest), Macbeth (Jo Nesbø’s rendering of Shakespeare’s work with the same title), Dunbar (Edward St. Aubyn’s King Lear), New Boy (Tracy Chevalier’s Othello) and, of course, Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name. I’ve read most of these works, with my favorite being Tracy Chevalier’s adaptation of Othello, entitled New Boy. It is amazing to experience an Othello through the lens of an elementary school in 1970s Washington DC. The tragic imagination of Chevalier’s rendering is indeed powerful.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

In what ways might the The Hogarth Shakespeare project, with works such as Shylock Is My Name, change the way readers approach Shakespeare’s plays?

Reading Jacobson’s novel will completely change your view of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The “Merchant” in the title of Shakespeare’s original work is Antonio, a Venetian Christian, rather than the Jewish Shylock. In many ways, inevitably, Shakespeare’s play narrates the events from the Venetian Christians’ perspectives. I don’t feel comfortable with the last act of Merchant in which inner-circle Christians enjoy a splendid feast after exploiting and banishing Shylock. With this ending, I’ve always questioned: is this really a comical resolution that is supposed to be enjoyable? This question naturally led me to ask: “what if a Jew wrote this play?” Jacobson’s novelistic imagination satisfactorily answers my questions. After reading Shylock, I find myself reading and teaching Shakespeare’s Merchant or Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta from the perspective of Jewish characters, Shylock and Barabas. Perhaps these sorts of changes in perspectives are applicable to all the novels produced by the Hogarth Project.

Herbert Stoppelaer, Shylock and Tubal (c. 1767)

How might Shylock Is My Name become a useful tool for students studying Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice?

My students often tell me that when they hear the word “Jew,” they first imagine giant companies such as Starbucks or Facebook established and run by Jewish CEOs. Korean society is much more homogeneous than that of the US, and it is not easy to make them grasp the racism or multiculturalism that American students might understand or feel. My students, in other words, often do not see anti-Semitism as racism still being practiced everywhere in the world. Upon first arriving at my Shakespeare course, some of my students feel Merchant is a story of ancient Europe only explained with a conditional phrase, “back then.” It is, for them, a story of an ancient world where Jews were kicked and abused. However, after reading Jacobson’s work they understand the subtle ways anti-Semitism is being practiced today. I do not teach Jacobson’s novel in my Shakespeare course, but I frequently discuss the novel with students in my office hours. These students typically are curious to discuss the ways today’s Jewish jokes subtly allude to what happened in Auschwitz, debunking in the process the sadistic enjoyment found in those jokes. Unlike Shakespeare’s Merchant, Jacobson’s Shylock is a post-Holocaust work. While few people kick and spit on a Jewish person in our post-Holocaust society, jokes about their Jewishness continue to persist. Such jokes are no less cruel. After reading Jacobson’s modern adaptation, my students better understand Shylock’s situation in Venice, ultimately realizing that his problem is still ongoing today.

Courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, Venice

Readers today tend to associate Shakespeare’s Merchant with anti-Semitism. As a Shakespeare scholar yourself, what strategies do you offer your students to help them navigate the play’s problematic treatment of Judaism?

I don’t doubt that Shakespeare’s Merchant deals with anti-semitism as the critical responses and its adaptive history prove it. However, what should be noted is that Shakespeare’s play itself is much more ambiguous, and we can’t decisively conclude that Shakespeare’s play is anti-Semitic. After all, isn’t it Shakespeare’s oeuvre that allowed us to criticize anti-Semitism and to imagine a novel like Jacobson’s Shylock? And yet, of course, as a professor, it is my responsibility to help my students navigate the anti-Semitism portrayed in Shakespeare’s play. Usually, I open my discussion with the Jewish history in England and begin with the Expulsion of Jews from England that happened in 1290 during Edward I’s rule. My students are all puzzled when they learn that there was not a single Jew openly practicing Judaism in England around the time when Shakespeare was producing Merchant. Then I move on to Elizabethan history narrating what happened to new Christians such as Dr. Roderigo Lopez, Elizabeth I’s court physician and a converso. Even if he did not practice Judaism, at least not officially, his personal history in Shakespeare’s England was nevertheless tragic. He ended up being executed by his political enemies for his alleged poisoning of Elizabeth, which he never did. His name, Lopez, etymologically suggests “wolf,” and Shylock in the play is frequently referred to as a “wolf.” Here perhaps we see that the history of Elizabethan anti-Semitism is textualized in Merchant. “Always historicize” isn’t a Jamesonian motto only, but it is, for me, the most important teaching strategy. When I open my seminar with Elizabethan history, students begin to grasp why Shakespeare wanted to create this “virtual Jew” when there was no Jew openly practicing Judaism. Today, not many students understand the difference between Judaism and Christianity along with the huge incommensurability (along with shared features) between the Old Testament and the New Testament. For example, during the Middle Ages and well into early modernity, Christians persecuted Jews because they crucified Jesus Christ, believing they are cursed for it. This is called their “first curse.” However, rather than being stated in Jewish Scripture, the first-curse theory is stated in the New Testament and would have therefore been unknown to Shylock. Thus, I always begin discussion with theological issues and Christian biblical hermeneutics before discussing early modern anti-Semitism. This teaching strategy provides a good start for any student reading Merchant.

Gondolas docked in Venice

Have your students’ insights and perspectives shaped your own readings of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Merchant? If so, how?

Of course, I learn a lot from my students, and they are a great source of inspiration. One of my smart students produced an intriguing essay on the revenge narrative in Merchant. In her reading, Merchant is a revenge tragedy seen from Shylock’s perspective, but nobody discusses the play in terms of the great tradition of English revenge tragedy. Her essay sought to discover why Shylock cannot exist as a heroic revenger like Hamlet, Hieronimo (in The Spanish Tragedy), or Bosola (in The Duchess of Malfi), despite frequently mentioning his plans for “revenge.” She argues in her paper that critics have excluded Merchant from the great tradition of revenge tragedy in the English Renaissance because of an anti-Semitic belief that a Jew like Shylock cannot be a revenger/hero like Hamlet despite his eloquence and unconquerable will. This reading entirely changed my view on Jewish narratives produced in this period, including Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, as well as my understanding of revenge narratives produced in this period. 

Thomas Gray, Shylock and Jessica (1868)

As your article points out, both The Merchant of Venice and Shylock Is My Name enable discussions of complex theological debates, namely those surrounding Paul the Apostle. What should readers know about these debates?

The Badiou-Agamben debate on Paul the Apostle shaped my essay on Jacobson’s novel. I decided to write about Jacobson’s work because I thought the author writes as if he knew the contemporary theoretical debates on Paul by Badiou, Agamben, Zizek, and Derrida. While I read Shakespeare’s Merchant, I do not think of these debates much because Paul’s theology is not so prominent in Shakespeare’s work as it is in Jacobson’s. Leading critics of political theology such as Julia Lupton have already unearthed the Pauline philosophy found in Shakespeare’s work, so I knew I would need to find a different approach to this topic. Jacobson’s work was different: there are some direct references to Paul, with Jacobson seemingly taking part in the theoretical debates on Paul. Badiou discusses that in his two works, The Incident at Antioch and Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Paul laid the foundation of radical universalism that does not ignore or reduce incommensurable differences. However, Agamben’s reading of Paul is different. His philosophy shows, as his signature discussion of homo sacer demonstrates, Jews live in his post-Holocaust world as an irreducible remnant, an idea that my reading of Jacobson’s work endorses. Besides, if Badiou’s Paul claims a universality that embraces differences, Agamben’s Paul is a theologian who caused a further division in the Jewish identity as Paul himself is (with the Christian theology he founded) a non-Jew. I like Badiou’s philosophy but am more persuaded by Agamben’s view, criticizing the pitfall of universalism and its underemphasis of Jews’ own distinctive right to live. We can’t possibly understand Shakespeare and Jacobson’s Jewish narratives without mentioning Pauline theology.

Venice, September 1993

What is the value, for readers and academics alike, in being sensitive to theological debates in Shakespeare’s plays and their adaptations?

I find political theology a widely accepted discourse in early modern studies today. For many academics, discussing the theological underpinnings of Shakespeare is widely fashionable, as Shakespeare scholars want to discuss the way theology is secularized and politicized in Shakespeare’s imagination. I think this critical movement is coterminous with the rise of biopolitics. Carl Schmitt, a Nazi jurist, named his most important legal theory political theology, and philosophers of biopolitics such as Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito (perhaps I can include Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt here) all attempted to unearth the theological fashioning of Schmittian politics. As a jurist and political theologian, Schmitt was deeply intrigued by early modern English literature because he thought his political theology was developed in seventeenth-century England. It is well known that he is an important glossator of Thomas Hobbes, especially with the idea of sovereignty. Likewise, it is equally well known that Schmitt was an avid reader of Shakespeare. He produced a monograph entitled Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play, now a key text for early modernists who study political theology. It is endlessly intriguing to see a Nazi jurist justifying his philosophy through his reading of Shakespeare. Some years ago, besides, Shakespeare and the Catholic theology during the English Reformation formed the biggest debates among early modernists. Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory, for instance, is a seminal work that moved Shakespeare studies to the realm of theology. We often forget this, but Shakespeare lived in the middle of the English Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and this political struggle accompanied intense theological debates. Without understanding Shakespeare’s contemporary theological discussions, we can’t possibly understand his works—especially his Jewish narrative.

Frank Howard, Portia Pronouncing Sentence (c. 1830-31)

In Merchant, Shylock’s unwavering demand for a “pound of flesh” is rooted in his frustrations with anti-Semitism. How has the nature of Shylock’s frustrations changed for post-Holocaust readers and writers, such as Jacobson?

Jacobson’s adaptation hilariously changes the meaning of “a pound of flesh” by metaphorically associating it with castration. Early modernists are not tired of discussing the semantic affinity between circumcision and castration in Shakespeare’s own time. Before Portia appears in the court saying “a pound of [Antonio’s] flesh” should be the flesh nearest to Antonio’s heart, many spectators actually might have imagined that Shylock is planning to castrate Antonio. This is often associated with Antonio’s queerness. This anti-Semitic imagination that associates circumcision with cutting “a pound of flesh” is maximized in Jacobson’s narrative. The novel’s protagonist, Simon Strulovitch, wants to circumcise D’Anton, Jacobson’s Antonio, as the main source of anti-Semitism in his novel. I do not want to spoil the ending of this novel, but I can say that Jacobson hilariously uses this anti-Semitic association of circumcision with castration as a fascinating rhetorical device.

Canal in Venice at night

What do you believe are the most important aspects of The Merchant of Venice that any successful adaptation must effectively capture and portray?

The most heart-rending moment of Merchant is Shylock’s “I am a Jew speech.” In this speech, Shylock properly expresses his anguish, anger, pain, and humanity. To avoid being anti-Semitic, a good adaption should maximize Shylock’s speech by fully conveying the semantic features without any reduction. In a film adaptation of Merchant produced in 2005, Al Pacino properly expresses all the effects with his passionate delivery of the “I am a Jew” speech. As I’ve stated earlier, I am troubled by the last act of Merchant where small numbers of Christians enjoy a highly unrealistic romantic union set in Belmont. Shylock has disappeared from the play by this point, and we have no idea what exactly happens to him except that he is thoroughly exploited by Christians. I believe that Shakespeare intended a non-realistic aspect of the ending at Belmont to satirize Venetian Christians’ persecution of Shylock. Any non-racist adaptation cannot possibly conclude the narrative without emphasizing these satiric effects. Today, Antonio’s sexuality also attracts critical attention, and like Shylock’s Jewishness his sexuality deserves to be properly handled.

Manchester skyline at night.

Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech in Act 4 is a central moment in The Merchant of Venice. As a riposte to the vengeful Shylock, it becomes a point where the play’s theological commentary on Christianity and Judaism rises to the forefront. Throughout your work as a Shakespeare scholar, and in light of adaptations of the speech in works such as Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name, how has your reading of this speech altered?

My favorite part of Jacobson’s novel is Shylock’s eloquent delivery of Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech. Portia’s speech seems to repress Shylock’s vindictive desire, and in fact many critics discovered the rich theological tradition in Portia’s speech. For a long time, Shakespeareans have used Portia’s speech to emphasize the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as the incommensurability between Christian forgiveness and Jewish revenge. However, Portia’s speech is founded on Jewish philosophy. Julia Lupton taught me how much  Portia’s speech is close to a Deuteronomic line—‘My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass’ (Deuteronomy 3:32). It looks like Jacobson also shares this idea, and he believes that Portia’s speech is founded on the Jewish idea of rachmones, an important quality of God in Jewish thought. In Jacobson’s adaptation, Portia’s eloquent speech is delivered by Shylock, emphasizing the mercy and magnanimity of Jewish thought. I discuss this theological issue at length in my piece, but it is Jacobson himself, not me, who completely altered the meaning of Portia’s so-called “quality of mercy” speech.

Jane Vivian, A busy canal scene.