08 July 2016

On "Shylock is My Name"

I realize that if I don’t take notes and then think about through the notes about what I have  reading reading, the novel (or any reading) passes from my mind and though it may not be lost, certainly gets buried somewhere until there appears some need of something I almost recall. Winnicott says something like this in his essay [‘Primitive Emotional Development (1945!): “What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories and then, last of all, interest myself in looking to see where I stole what. Perhaps this is as good a method as any.” So might it be for me.  
            Such was certainly the case with Howard Jacobson’s retelling of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the latter certainly for Jews one of the most troubling of narratives. I remember dear Dr. Wise trying to explain away the anti-Semitic nature of the play be declaring it a comedy and describing Shylock as a comic figure because he would not change! In the process dear Dr. Wise glossed over the insidious references throughout the play to Jews and Judaism. I thought then it was a bold attempt but I had my doubts. Roger Simon once wrote an essay addressing a Yiddish version of the play that succeeds in raising Shylock from his degradation to some triumph.
            For me at this point Jacobson’s book accomplished at least three extraordinary things that I have been considering for years. The first concerns the implicit anti-Semitism that pervades society, in the case of this book, of British society, Shylock says, “the individual Jew brings the collective Jew that Christians see. Person to person they can be very nice . . . A German apologized to me in a cemetery once. But when I extended my hand he seemed afraid to take it. Why? Because at that moment it wasn’t the individual Shylock’s hand, it was the hand of the collective Jew.” Shylock is, as he tells his deceased wife, “all lesson,” even to his foil, Simon Strulovich, into whose house and problems Shylock enters. Admittedly, throughout the novel I was not always certain that Shylock was not merely an aspect of Strulovitch’s imagination as he wrestled with the issues that The Merchant of Venice had raised: the place of Jews and Jewish thought in a Christian world; of the debts owed to Judaism by Christianity (and even the world) to Jewish thought; and even the meaning of the central stories to Jews. I think these issues surround the nature and identity of the Jew both to him/herself and to the world. For Shylock, the Jew to a large extent is what definition the Christian world assigns to the Jew. When Shylock demands his bond of Antonio, he says, it is because “I am become the embodiment of [your] contempt. Prepare, then, to face the consequences not of who I am but of who you are. It is as the bond and only the bond that I speak. The villainy you teach me I will execute,” he declares. “I will be who you have made me.”
     A second aspect of this novel by which I am intrigued concerns the conversations that take place between Strulovitch and Shylock (or within Strulovich’s consciousness with Shylock of The Merchant of Venice) as his foil. Judaism has long been considered a patriarchal religion and its story told through the sons. For the entire history of Judaism in this novel is retold through the concern the fathers have with their daughters, Beatrice and Jesssica. Though Abraham’s binding of Isaac becomes important in the discussion, the issue is raised to address whether Abraham was truly willing to sacrifice his son even as Strulovitch is prepared to exact his bond to ‘save’ his daughter. The question concerns what actually means when Strulovitch requires his bond: his pound of flesh in the shape of a circumcision. To Strulovitch’s question about Abraham’s willingness to kill his son even though there is nothing in his character that would suggest his ability to do so, Shylock answers, “A particular precipitating circumstance led him so afar on the road to murder, is all one can say. But did he have murder in his heart, even then? We cannot know. He cannot know himself. The story stops, and will remain stopped for all eternity.” And Strulovitch responds that Abraham’s precipitating circumstance for his action was not a murderous intention but God, and Shylock answers that his precipitating circumstance for demanding his bond was the same: God.  Strulovitch has demanded his bond the pound of flesh--for his daughter’s hand, but whether he actually means to exact that bond remains a question, even as whether Abraham would have finally sacrificed his son. As Abraham’s binding of Isaac figures centrally in Jewish thought, so that same event is now reconsidered through the daughters and inspires discussion on the nature of God and human from the perspective of Judaism and the Christian view of the Jews from Christianity’s hateful prejudiced position.
     Finally, for now, when Strulovitch wonders to Shylock why he shouldn’t exact his bond, Shylock ironically offers Portia’s famous response from The Merchant of Venice and identifies it as implicitly Jewish:  Shylock says:
You ask on what compulsion you should be merciful, you who have received no mercy yourself from him I ask you to show mercy to--you ask why you should requite what you have not received--and I say to you: Be an exemplary of mercy; give not in expectation of receiving mercy back-for mercy is not a transaction-but give it for what it constitutes in itself. Show pity for pity’s sake and not for the profit of your soul. Eyes without pity will become blind, but it is not only in order that you may see that you should practice it. Pity is not compromised by profit or deserts, it does not minister to self-love, it is not a substitute for forgiveness, but builds its modest house wherever there is need of it. And what need is there of it here, you ask, where justice alone cries out for what is owing to it. The need is this: God asks it. What pertains to him, must pertain to you, otherwise you cannot claim that you are acting justly in His name. And will God love the sinner more than the sinned against? No he will love you equally. No man can love as God loves, and it is profane of any man to try. But you can act in the spirit of God’s love, show charity, give though it is gall and wormwood to give, spare the undeserving, love those who do not love you-for what is the virtue merely in returning love?-give to those who would take from you and and, where they have taken, do not recompense them in kind, for the greater the offense the greater the merit in refusing to be offended. Who shows rachmones [compassion, mercy, empathy] does not diminish justice. Who shows rachmones acknowledges the just but exacting law under which we were created. And so worships God.”
I find this beautiful.


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