Shy­lock Is My Name

  • Review
By – January 21, 2016

If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Shy­lock laments in The Mer­chant of Venice, ani­mat­ing Howard Jacobson’s con­tem­po­rary reimag­in­ing of the Shake­speare play. Jacob­son is the per­fect choice for this task. Besides writ­ing cel­e­brat­ed nov­els about Jews — among them, most recent­ly, J. and the Man Book­er Prize-win­ning The Fin­kler Ques­tion—he taught clas­sic lit­er­a­ture at British uni­ver­si­ties for sev­er­al years.

Jacobson’s twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry Shy­lock is Simon Strulovitch: not a mon­ey-lender like Shakespeare’s pro­tag­o­nist, but a phil­an­thropist with a spe­cial inter­est in Anglo-Jew­ish art. Strulovitch’s daugh­ter Beat­rice, like Shylock’s Jes­si­ca, runs away from home, flee­ing her Jew­ish­ness too. Strulovitch has only a pass­ing acquain­tance with Judaism him­self, but he becomes apoplec­tic at the thought that his daugh­ter would mar­ry a non-Jew. It dri­ves him to a rage that he can’t ratio­nal­ly explain but which push­es him to extremes.

Read­ers who know The Mer­chant of Venice will rec­og­nize oth­er char­ac­ters’ iden­ti­ties in their mod­ern guis­es. Anto­nio the mer­chant has become d’Anton the art deal­er. Shakespeare’s Por­tia; who ren­ders judg­ment while imper­son­at­ing a law clerk, here decides dis­putes as a tele­vi­sion real­i­ty-show per­son­al­i­ty named Plurabelle.

In Jacobson’s most bril­liant stroke, Shy­lock him­self appears as a tute­lary spir­it, a revenant who embod­ies moral clar­i­ty amid peo­ple more influ­enced by priv­i­lege, wealth, and prej­u­dice. Where oth­ers are con­tent with the super­fi­cial and tran­si­to­ry, Shylock’s elo­quence brings grav­i­tas to endur­ing ques­tions of jus­tice and compassion.

The pound of flesh” reap­pears in this ver­sion of the sto­ry in a bril­liant way that may shock or delight read­ers with its apt­ness. The qual­i­ty of mer­cy” speech is here too, though on the lips of an unex­pect­ed char­ac­ter. These bold depar­tures from Shake­speare make this retelling much more than a sim­ple trans­po­si­tion of a clas­sic sto­ry. It asks pro­found ques­tions of its own about the per­sis­tence of Jew­ish sin­gu­lar­i­ty and the tra­jec­to­ry of reli­gious belief.

Shy­lock observes that Chris­tians are so anx­ious to accom­mo­date to the mod­ern that they have stopped lis­ten­ing to an ancient injunc­tion. They sing car­ols and call it faith. Before long there will be none of them left.” As for Jews, Strulovitch mus­es that Jews have grown so care­ful now. If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? No, we shall not. We shall take it on the chin and be grate­ful. Unless we’re in Judea and Samaria, where we’re accused of being Nazis. Cow­ards or Nazis — which was it to be?”

Shy­lock Is My Name is the sec­ond in a series of com­mis­sions by the Hog­a­rth Press for the 400th anniver­sary of Shakespeare’s death, which falls in 2016. (Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, based on The Winter’s Tale, was the first.) Much more than an updat­ing of a cen­turies-old sto­ry, Howard Jacobson’s new nov­el stands as an inde­pen­dent work that brings com­e­dy, pas­sion, com­mit­ment, and chal­leng­ing ideas to bear on the con­cerns of our own time. This enter­tain­ing, provoca­tive work is not to be missed.

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