Thursday, March 02, 2017

Shylock's Ghost: "The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, Is dearly bought; 'tis mine and I will have it."

Another hour well spent. How many of us have heard the phrase "a pound of flesh" without knowing the source?

Imagine: Shylock's Ghost (BBC One; Autumn 2015)

Alan Yentob travels to the ghetto in Venice with award-winning novelist Howard Jacobson as he embarks on a retelling of Shakespeare's most performed play, The Merchant of Venice. Through a series of lively - often fiery - interviews, they examine the charge of anti-Semitism against Shakespeare, whose character Shylock remains one of the most odious and divisive fictional Jews in history.

How did the moneylender from Venice become such a useful propaganda tool in Nazi Germany? And how much of a liberty will Jacobson be taking when he uproots the action to modern-day Alderley Edge, and audaciously reinterprets the infamous 'pound of flesh'?

Interviewees include Antony Sher, Anthony Julius and Stephen Greenblatt.

This review of Jacobson's completed novel offers more context.

Shylock Is My Name review – Howard Jacobson takes on Shakespeare’s Venetian moneylender, by James Lasdun (The Guardian)

A bold retelling of The Merchant of Venice, set in 21st-century footballers’ Cheshire, subverts and enhances an appreciation of the original

The figure of the unassimilated Jew, defiantly “other” in skullcap, gabardine and fringed garment, has been a source of Gentile unease for centuries. It is what fuels the main plot of The Merchant of Venice, and its corollary – Jew-baiting – is what gives the play its uncomfortable immediacy. We know this story; its ramifications are still playing out: the Holocaust, Israel, Gaza. Part of its disquieting power, in Shakespeare’s telling, is its unstable moral perspective: are we watching a play about antisemitism, or an antisemitic play? Unlike Malvolio, whose expulsion from the festive world of Twelfth Night is a cause for straightforward rejoicing, Shylock’s fall leaves us jangling with unresolved emotion. Yes, he was going to cut his pound of flesh out of Antonio, but he had been provoked: spat upon, robbed of daughter and ducats, goaded beyond endurance. Although Portia gives him every chance to be merciful, there is something faintly shabby about the “no jot of blood” trick she pulls when he refuses (all it really shows is that he has been playing in a rigged game from the start), and there is something downright chilling about the sentence of forced conversion that follows. The last act tinkles on in Belmont without him, as if Shakespeare half wants us to forget this troubling figure before we leave the theatre, but it is the Belmont lovers we forget. Shylock lingers.

Howard Jacobson’s new novel, part of a series of Shakespeare retellings commissioned for the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death, makes bold use of this haunting persistence.

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