The Quality of Mercy: Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-3-59-19-pmJacobson, Howard. Shylock is My Name. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2016.

Last year, I reviewed Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, which reworks Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name responds to The Merchant of Venice. Both novels are part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, and, if you haven’t already visited the project’s website, you may be interested in following this link: http://crownpublishing.com/hogarth-shakespeare/ .

One of the aspects of Shakespeare’s work that is often asserted in defence of his continuing popularity is the fact that his work still speaks to twenty-first century audiences in a way that the work of his contemporaries apparently does not, and I’ve argued in other posts that I actually prefer Shakespeare’s work staged as Shakespeare himself might have seen it rather than updated or costumed in a different time frame. I’ve never been comfortable with nineteenth century Prussian Hamlets, for example, 1890s Twelfth Nights, or Coriolanus set in the thirties. Somehow, the range of the plays seems broader when set in their own times. However, re-imagining well-known plots is something that Shakespeare himself did more than frequently, drawing as he did on sources as diverse as Boccaccio, Plutarch, Homer, Holinshed, Plautus, William Painter, and so on. I suppose one can argue that the Elizabethan/Jacobean sense of what constituted plagiarism was rather different from our own. In many ways, the dramatist was judged not on the originality of his plot—I use the male pronoun advisedly given the dearth of known female dramatists in the sixteenth century1—but on his originality in presenting an already known story. Further, we might also argue that a good story is never done. img_0840

So how engaging is Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice? Very. Jacobson moves the story to the Cheshire Stockbroker belt around Alderley Edge and peoples his novel with art collectors, a footballer who gives a Nazi salute, and television personalities. This is the world of the super-rich, and, it must be said, of the rather superficial. It is also the world of “Simon Strulovitch—a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist with on-again off-again enthusiasms, a distinguished collection of twentieth century Anglo-Jewish art and old Bibles, a passion for Shakespeare (whose genius and swashbuckling Sephardi looks he once thought could only be explained by the playwright’s ancestors having changed their name from Shapiro, but now he isn’t sure), honorary doctorates from universities in London, Manchester and Tel Aviv (the one from Tel Aviv is something else he isn’t sure about) and a daughter going off the rails” (1-2). His wife is slowly dying from a progressive disease, and his mother is dead.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-3-59-19-pmWe meet him first in a South Manchester cemetery where he is inspecting his mother’s newly erected gravestone.  Here in the graveyard, Simon “feels Shylock’s presence before he sees him” (3): Shylock in a “long black coat” who could be taken for a “banker or a lawyer. Just possibly he could be a Godfather” (7-8). Shylock the father of an errant daughter, Shylock the usurer, Shylock as Ahasuerus, Shylock, Simon Strulovitch’s shadow self, his doppelgänger: Shylock the Jew.

Jewishness lies at the heart of this novel. Just what does it mean to be a Jew? Who is a Jew? Where does a Jew fit within gentile society? Is the Jewish experience ultimately always to be in the margins, seen not as an individual but only as a type, and, if so, then to what extent does an individual deliver the lines the larger society expects? With refusal? With amused detachment? with anger? With sorrow? With despair? And sometimes, even more wrenching, what are the roles demanded of the individual Jew by and in relation to other Jews whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi? Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform? Observant? Atheist? These are questions Jacobson has addressed in previous works, and Shylock is My Name allows him to revisit these familiar territories. and particularly in its acerbic humour the novel is everything we might expect from Jacobson.img_0840

So what are my conclusions about what Jacobson has done with his source? Jacobson’s treatment of his characters apart from Strulovitch himself approaches parodic caricature at times, but perhaps not. After all, we live in a world of celebrity culture, and the activities of many celebrities often seem perversely larger than life. The vigour of these comic elements reminded me of Plautus at times. The major shift is in Jacobson’s focus on Strulovitch/Shylock rather than on the marriage plots. Simon Strulovitch is irascible, somewhat surprised by his own connection to his heritage, outrageously demanding at times, but not an evil man. He is a man dealing with loss and with prejudice, a man coming to terms with himself. He learns “we are all the stuff of pantomime until we run up against reality” (69). He’s a man who plays rather more fairly than do those around him. Jacobson’s conclusion for him is kinder than Shakespeare’s conclusion for Shylock. Ultimately, Shylock is My Name is a highly entertaining and thought-provoking book.

1A rather interesting website: https://17percent.wordpress.com

 

 

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