Book review: Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: skilful craftsman and artist of rare individuality
Howard Jacobson: skilful craftsman and artist of rare individuality
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Howard Jacobson’s masterful retelling of The Merchant of Venice celebrates the play but speaks for itself about being Jewish

Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson | Hogarth/Vintage, 277pp, £16.99

The Hogarth Shakespeare Project has novelists commissioned to write 21st century versions of the plays, and the Booker-winning Howard Jacobson, our foremost comic novelist and also a Jew, was an obvious choice for The Merchant of Venice, itself a rather dark and even grim comedy. It’s certainly one which tends to make people uncomfortable today, even though the depth of its anti-Semitism is questionable, Shylock the Jew being in some respects the most sympathetic character in the play. Certainly Shakespeare gives him most of the best lines, even if he doesn’t allow him to win the court-room battle. One shouldn’t of course make too much of this; he gives Macbeth and Richard III the best lines in their plays too.

Jacobson is on the whole faithful to the outline of the play, though substituting circumcision for the pound of flesh demanded by the Jew for his bond. He is also for the most part ingeniously faithful to the dramatis personae. He takes Antonio (D’Anton, a rich aesthete) a step or two further out of the closet than Shakespeare did. He deals amusingly with the intolerably self-righteous Portia, and has the audacity to deprive her of the “Quality of mercy 
is not strained” speech, and give it to the Jew on the grounds that, Jesus being a Jew, the concepts of mercy and compassion are originally Jewish.

The action is transferred from Shakespeare’s time to our own, from Venice to “the Golden Triangle” of Cheshire where nouveaux riches, TV celebrities and star footballers live in mansions and drive expensive cars. This is nicely and suitably done, though the novel’s only footballer, who courts a Jew’s 16 year-old daughter and is one of D’Anton’s boys along with Barnabas (Bassanio), is not a star, playing for a non-league club and notorious for once having given what might have been a Nazi salute to celebrate a goal.

Jacobson departs from the play by giving Shylock another Jew to play a major role. This is Simon Strulovitch, a second-generation rich philanthropist (father’s fortune coming from car-parks). The two meet in a Jewish cemetery in Manchester where Strulovitch is visiting his mother’s grave and Shylock is communing with his dead wife. They fall into conversation, and Strulovitch invites Shylock home . His car is a Mercedes.

“We must let bygones be bygones.”

“I’m surprised you believe that.”

“I don’t”.

The invention of Strulovitch is to the point, the point at which Jacobson in effect moves beyond Shakespeare, who was not interested in investigating the origins and nature of anti-Semitism or in asking what makes a Jew Jewish. The second question is relevant today, when many Jews, like Strulovitch, no longer practise their ancestral religion, and yet remain, to themselves and in the eyes of others, different from Gentiles. The two argue the question repeatedly at length arriving at conclusions not always compatible with each other. Is Shylock, for instance, a Zionist? Only, it seems, when he reads the Guardian, and this is because “The Guardian hates Israel, and Israel is the only place that will save us when they start the ovens up again.”

The task of making a modern novel out of a Shakespeare play is difficult. Absolute fidelity would be stultifying. Go too far away and the point of the exercise is lost – for, surely, the purpose of the Hogarth Project is not only to pay homage to Shakespeare but to encourage readers to return to the play and consider it in the light of what the novelist has done with it. The novel must then serve as a criticism of the play while at the same time being in its own right a satisfying work of art, a book which may be enjoyed by readers whose memories of the original are vague, readers indeed who may never have read or seen the play.

Jacobson, being a skilful craftsman as well as an artist of rare individuality, brings off this double act admirably. He has written a comic novel which poses serious questions. He has been both inventive and faithful to Shakespeare. And as a bonus, he gives us a good many excellent Jewish jokes.