To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Hogarth Shakespeare has commissioned a series of novels from high-profile authors. The series was inaugurated by Jeanette Winterson’s reworking of The Winter’s Tale. It has now been gloriously complemented by Howard Jacobson’s re-visioning of The Merchant of Venice and is to be graced by an exciting panel of authors that include Tracy Chevalier (Othello), Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew), Gillian Flynn (Hamlet), Margaret Atwood (The Tempest), Jo Nesbo (Macbeth) and Edward St Aubyn (King Lear).
The first thing that strikes you when reading Shylock is My Name is that the commission has been a genuinely inspiring experience for Jacobson. The intertextual bond with the play sharpens the focus of the plot without seeming to be a constraint; Jacobson has laudably taken great liberties with Shakespeare’s original, making the connection anything but derivative. Shylock is My Name is one of Jacobson’s most original and captivating novels.
The title brings the reader to expect a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic from Shylock’s point of view. Jacobson’s novel is that but much more besides. Shylock’s is only one of the many stories that are conducted simultaneously in this multidirectional tale and he turns out to be a secondary character by the end of the novel. Most of the action is played out in the life of Simon Strulovich, a wealthy philanthropist and art collector who encounters Shylock one day as he is walking through a cemetery in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle.
It’s appropriate that they meet in a graveyard, a bleak setting that is ideally suited to resurrecting a character. It’s also an apt Hamletian backdrop for Jacobson’s dark comedy and Shakespeare’s bold, anti-classical blending of comedy and tragedy. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies start off as comic situations that go badly wrong (Othello, for instance, takes the comic stock character of the false cuckold and twists it towards tragedy); some of his comedies take on a sombre turn that veers away from tragedy only at the last extremity. The Merchant of Venice is one of those problem comedies and Jacobson has laced it with more than a smattering of Othello. In his retelling of the story, Shylock has become a bit of a Iago-figure, bent on exacting a form of vicarious revenge by befriending and encouraging Strulovich to chastise his teenage daughter’s boyfriend.
Jacobson is deft at blurring life and literature, the past and the present: Shylock is not just a namesake, and the plotline of his novel is not a mere contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s story in a British context with a quick visit to Venice included as a nod. The originality of Jacobson’s retelling is that his Shylock character is the ‘real’ sixteenth-century original. In the novel, Strulovich is fascinated by Shylock’s well known case and keeps pestering him to hear his version of the story, but the once-bitten-twice-Shylock remains diffident about his past.
The other Othello-intensified element foregrounded by Jacobson is jealousy. Jacobson’s novels tend to pivot on a central taboo infatuation (such as being in love with one’s mother-in-law in Zoo Time); in Shylock is My Name, Jacobson takes on a father’s Oedipal reluctance to let his dear daughter drift into the arms of another man, especially if that other man isn’t Jewish.
As always, Jacobson derives much mirth from stereotypical depictions of conservative Judaic attitudes, and these cohabit harmoniously with his questioning of prejudice. Toying with the tension surrounding traditional ethnic divisions is one of Jacobson’s fortes.
The twist Jacobson puts on The Merchant of Venice hinges on the idea that by saying he would take a pound of flesh from any part of Antonio’s body, Shylock secretly meant his genitals. In the novel, Shylock claims that he redeemed Antonio from the humiliation of farce by designating the part as the heart. This time round, however, Shylock’s alter ego wishes to humiliate his rival by castrating him symbolically and socially, forcing him to have his foreskin removed. Not always as devious as Iago, Shylock tries to dissuade Strulovich from attempting this when it comes to the crunch: “what makes you think you want to see his penis, let alone take a slice of it? How many Gentile penises have you seen? How many have you held between your fingers?”
As always, Jacobson reveals himself to be a consummate jokesmith and an engrossing storyteller who is never averse to the odd delightful digression. His relish for language is equally on show to ravish the reader: Beatrice, the latter-day Dantean cynosure in the novel, is described by her boyfriend in the following succulent terms: “A magenta spray of hair, her glance a gleam of mulberries, words like plums in syrup”.
All in all, it’s a fabulously riveting read and easily one of Jacobson’s best. Reading it at home wasn’t enough. I had to bring it out with me to continue savouring it on the metro.
By Erik Martiny
Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson, Hogarth Shakespeare, £16.99