Jacobson, Howard. “Shylock Is My Name”, Hogarth Books, 2016.
A Retelling of “The Merchant of Venice”
Howard Jacobson’s clever and entertaining retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” gives substance to his reputation as one of the finest Jewish writers working today. This is the second in the Hogarth series of contemporary writers reimaging Shakespeare’s plays (The first was Jeanette Winterson’s “The Gap of Time” based on “The Winter’s Tale”). There is no doubt in my mind that Jacobson is well aware of the dangers of rewriting the man who is the greatest writer in the English language and that is why he is so careful in his approach to the original. He is also perhaps the best person to undertake Shylock since his last two books have dealt with the issue of Jewish identity. With Shylock being the most influential Jewish character in English literature, he needs someone who understands him not just as a person but as a Jew. He is a giant character who looms larger than the drama he is a part of and the dominates the drama on stage. In fact, he is so large that he takes on a life of his own and while he came from Shakespeare, he is not tied to him.
Jacobson, I believe, certainly is aware of the difficulties and the dangers of rewriting Shakespeare and he remains careful in how he approaches the original text. In his two latest published works, “The Finkler Question” and “J: A Novel”, Jacobson has dealt with the issue of Jewish identity and therefore he seems to be the right person for this undertaking with Shylock being perhaps the most influential Jewish character in English literature. Because he is ambiguous in “The Merchant of Venice”, he is also ambiguous in Jacobson’s story. He is a metaphor for how the gentile world sees as vices of Jews— greed, vengeance, legalistic to the letter of the law and does not hold well to mercy. When Portia reminds him with that wonderful line, “The quality of mercy is not strained, she presents Shylock with an expression of Christian ideals in which we see a Jew’s refusal to conform to Christian behavior.
I have always found it interesting that the most famous speech in the play is when Shylock begins with “Hath not a Jew eyes?” undermines the way Shakespeare gives us a stereotype of a Jew that becomes allegorical in the way Judaism is seen. I have always loved the drama of “The Merchant of Venice” but I also been bewildered by Shakespeare’s decision to create the character and if there was some reason that prompted him to do so. As a graduate student in Shakespeare seminars, I had never heard this point approached. It is also fascinating that the drama is still relevant today. I must admit that I was not completely convinced that anyone could pull this and therefore I was apprehensive about reading this. I knew that I enjoyed Jacobson’s writing and so I was somewhat ecstatic to find out that “Shylock Is My Name” is profound and thoughtful, funny at times and very, very readable.
Shakespeare’s Shylock is an individual who is filled with humanity and he is realistic. He refuses to believe that the fact that he is Jewish in any make makes him differ from any of the Christian characters who use him as well as make him miserable. Shakespeare is masterful in the way that we identify with and are pathetic toward Shylock.
Howard Jacobson does not simply retell “The Merchant of Venice” and there is no doubt that he had an extremely difficult time changing the Shylock of the stage to Shylock, a character in a novel. When a character is on stage, we see him and he is defined as much by what he does not say as by what he does say. Shylock, on stage, is an individual and this marks him and ultimately becomes his fate. In a novel, we only see Shylock in our mind’s eye and therefore what we see is what we get from how the author portrays him. This means that Jacobson has to call the shots and tell is how he feels about himself, about Judaism, about gentiles and about justice. To state these right out would rob or lessen the power he might have. This is where Jacobson is clever. He retells the story in contemporary times yet he relies upon the way the people of Venice behaved when the original was written in the 16th century. We see Antonio transformed into D’Anton, an art collector whose sexual orientation is not clear. Portia’s becomes Plurabelle, a television talk show host living in a wealthy part of Cheshire and her wooer (Bassanio) is dull Barnaby. Representing Shylock is Simon Strulovich, a very rich philanthropist and collector of art who is really worried about his wild daughter, Beatrice. Ah, but Shylock is also present as Shylock who has managed to stay alive for four centuries and who meets Strulovich in a cemetery. So this Shylock picks up another attribute that people have tacked on to Jews, that they wander and Shylock has been wandering for quite some time. I did not mean to confuse by saying that there are two Shylocks so bear with it and see what this means. One thing about Jacobson is that he always ties loose ends up before the story ends. Just understand the difference between “representing” and “being”.
Shylock and Strulovich become friends and Strulovich’s life soon resembles Shylock’s and before we know we come to Jacobson’s “pound of flesh”, the circumcision of Beatrice’s dumb, football player boyfriend, Gratan. Strulovich demands that Gratan be circumcised if he wants to marry his daughter.
Having read other books by Jacobson, I was a bit concerned that he would use the drama as a way to bring in philosophical and political discussions as he explored the concepts of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism. Then I realized that these were only surface issues. The characters propel the story and they have been created with wonderful empathy especially since he was, in a sense, recreating characters that had already existed but in another form. This made the way he dealt with time and history difficult but being the master of language that he is, it all works out. I love how Jacobson toys with intellect something we do not get enough in the literature of today.
Looking back on what I have said here, I realize that “Shylock is my Name” is not really a reimagining of Shakespeare. It has long been debated as to whether the themes of the original are identity and anti-Semitism. I just can’t see the audiences of the time seeing it that way but that is what Jacobson writes about and I expected that. What I did not expect was the wonderful wit with what he has written. The fact that Shylock is Jewish should not matter to the story but it does. Strulovich is, no doubt, a Jew. Because of that he is an outsider and we really see this with Beatrice falls for Gratan who says that he loves Jewish women yet uses Nazi salutes. One of the biggest questions regarding the original is that it is considered to be a comedy and yet there are scholars who maintain it is a tragedy. Jacobson has not written but a very funny book and we see that the controversy is settled in his own mind.
In the original we are never really sure if Shakespeare’s Shylock was a vilification or was Shylock reacting to justify the anger he felt at being persecuted. Were we to approve of and identify with the anti-Semitism of the other actors or do we see how hypocritical they are?
Did Shakespeare mean to vilify Shylock or was he justifying his rage at his persecution? Did he mean for us to identify with, and approve of the anti-Semitic players or to expose the hypocrisy of their actions? While Jacobson does not answer these questions, he gives us a great deal more to think about. For me, that is the purpose of literature. Portia as Plurabelle is vulgar and this probably stems from her sense of entitlement. We really see this in the game of “Jewepithets” that she plays with D’Anton. I am not sure how to take this—is it Jewish paranoia to know games liked are played in the gentile world? This presents quite a picture of non-Jewish England. Granted, this not the core of the book and the real center of the story is the debates between Shylock and Strulovich.
Jacobson’s Shylock knows that he cannot change his past but neither can we close the door on it. What he can do is speak to Strulovich and encourage him not to live as he did. Pity is a major issue and we see that pity does not change justice.