To commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Crown Publishing is lining up celebrated novelists to modernize the Bard’s plays in prose. Last fall came Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale. Howard Jacobson’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, as it is called, is a funny and insightful reimagining of The Merchant of Venice, one of the dark comedies and romances lumped together as “problem plays,” tragedies with happy endings that often discomfit thoughtful readers and audiences.
To appreciate Jacobson’s achievement in Shylock Is My Name, a woefully incomplete synopsis of the source play is required. The eponymous merchant, Antonio, borrows a large sum from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. The bags of ducats are for Antonio’s friend (and possible unrequited love), Bassanio, who needs them to make an impression on Portia, a single heiress. Shylock despises Antonio, an abusive anti-Semite. His disposition toward Gentiles worsens after his daughter elopes with an uncircumcised charmer.
Shylock demands a pound of the merchant’s flesh if he defaults, which he does when Antonio’s goods-laden ships conveniently sink. Enter Portia, who appears in court disguised as a male lawyer. She finds a loophole that saves Antonio and effectively destroys Shylock.
In Jacobson’s novel, the role of vengeful Jew is assigned to Simon Strulovitch, a millionaire philanthropist who lives in the north of England. Obsessed with his precociously beautiful teenage daughter, Beatrice, he tries to keep her on a short leash. She responds by getting involved with a footballer who was suspended after giving a Nazi salute on the field.
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“He has a twitchy arm, that’s all,” explains D’Anton, a wealthy connoisseur slavishly devoted to his circle of friends, which includes the footballer, a daddy’s little rich girl named Plurabelle, and her boyfriend, Barnaby, a shameless gold digger whom D’Anton secretly yearns for.
Bad blood has existed between D’Anton and Strulovitch since the former successfully blocked a proposed museum dedicated to British Jewish art, which Strulovitch sought to endow in honor of his parents.
Like his Shakespearean counterpart, Antonio, D’Anton considers Jews to be shady, substandard outsiders, no matter how long their families have resided on the sceptered isle.
Things come to a head, so to speak, when Strulovitch asks the footballer to forsake his foreskin as a token of his love for Beatrice. A fellow Jew Strulovitch befriends cautions him to tread carefully. He knows firsthand how cornering a Gentile for his flesh, be it a pound or, in the case of the footballer, a centigram, can backfire.
The friend’s name is Shylock. Yes, that one, transported to the 21st century. At first, he appears to be a figment of Strulovitch’s imagination. But later, other characters interact with him.
Jacobson, author of J, Zoo Time and the Man Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question, risks muddying his realistic narrative with this magical move, but throughout his long career he has been attuned to the possibilities of satire, a genre that invites outrageous flexibility. Shylock’s inclusion works because he embodies a major theme in Shakespeare’s play: the quality of mercy, which should not be, Portia tells us in her famous speech, “strain’d.” But pride and prejudice, as another British classic puts it, keep us from forgiving and forgetting.
“The villainy you teach me I will execute,” Shylock spits at his Venetian victimizers, “and it will go hard but I will better the instruction.” Four centuries later, Shylock has learned his lesson; victimization does not give you the right to victimize. Unfortunately, he fails to impart it to Strulovitch, and this leads to a public humiliation that, while far less costly than the one inflicted on Shylock, still stings.
Jacobson is uniquely qualified to take on The Merchant of Venice. His first book, Shakespeare’s Magnanimity: Four Tragic Heroes, Their Friends and Families, was a respectable addition to Shakespeare scholarship. More importantly, like Philip Roth, to whom he is often — and perhaps unfairly — compared, examining the Jewish experience in a secular Western democracy has been almost a fixed idea with him.
He certainly can be as funny as Roth. There are truly hilarious moments in this novel. (The Kardashianization of Portia is inspired — some lovers of Shakespeare, including yours truly, have never considered her to be that heroic.) Jokes, of course, are an indelible part of the Diaspora. But there was nothing light about them. They formed a survival kit. As Strulovitch tells his first wife, a humorless Gentile, “Jews jest … because they are not amused.”
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.