Shylock Is My Name
Shylock Is My Name: A Novel by Howard Jacobson. (Hogarth Press, 288 pp. $25)
It may come as a surprise to learn that William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is categorized as a “comedy” in the tradition of listings in the First Folio. It is equally startling that its most fascinating, albeit troubling, character, the moneylender Shylock—referred to continually as “the Jew” (the merchant is Antonio)—is written out of the play before it is ended. He leaves the final act to conclude with all’s well that ends well, which is what even acerbic comedies do.
Both facts are well suited to what the multiple award-winning English novelist, Howard Jacobson, carries off with brilliance, audacity and wild wit—and beautifully moving lines that tug at the heart.
The plot of Shylock Is My Name loosely follows Shakespeare, though intensifying Shylock’s presence and reducing the roles of Antonio, Bassanio and Portia (including the casket choice scenes). Jacobson’s Shylock makes his appearance in a cemetery on a cold winter day, lamenting his beloved wife, Leah. And, as opposed to slinking away torn from daughter, wealth and heritage, as in Shakespeare’s version, Jacobson’s Shylock at the end delivers with excoriating sarcasm a savagely controlled, despairing screed mocking the Christian appropriation of Talmudic lore on mercy and Christianity’s hypocritical perversion of those ideas. Jacobson took his invitation from Hogarth Press seriously—Hogarth’s celebratory series honors the 400th year of Shakespeare’s death—which is to say, with comic, cynical sagacity. Shakespeare’s Shylock will likely be forced to convert, but not Jacobson’s. His Shylock is not one to go gentle into that good night.
In his imaginative retelling of the 1596 play, Jacobson gives Shylock a contemporary counterpart in the feisty (though not as engaging or sympathetic) person of Simon Strulovitch, a London-based art dealer whose wayward adolescent daughter, Beatrice, is meant to recall Shylock’s runaway daughter, Jessica.
The title, Shylock Is My Name, is how Shylock answers Portia when she asks him in court—where he has come to exact his pound of flesh—if his name is Shylock. His response, with its inverted word order, possibly slyly suggests Yiddish cadence. Portia may have been deliberately nasty, asking Shylock to differentiate himself from Antonio as if theater audiences couldn’t identify him from the costumes, but wait until you see how Jacobson turns the tables on her.
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this wry, fierce and funny narrative probing of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism, themes Jacobson previously explored in, among other novels, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury USA), which won the Man Booker Prize as well as Hadassah Magazine’s Harold U. Ribalow Prize. But being Jewish helps: The rhetorical blast Shylock levels at Portia at the end on behalf of the quality of mercy as rachmones is a persuasive hoot.
You may need graduate school, however, to get all the references, allusions and intellectual jokes. Portia is recast as a television personality called Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty Is A Joy Forever, Wiser Than Solomon Christine, linking James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and John Keats’s rhyming couplet epic Endymion.
A televised documentary, Shylock’s Ghost, which ran on BBC 1 in February, in which Jacobson and producer Alan Yentob interviewed actors and authors about Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism, may be the more accessible exploration. But it’s hardly a substitute for the book, which shows off Jacobson’s incredible learning, passion for ideas and diverse prose style. He jumps easily from close mimicking of the Renaissance text to breezy, bold contemporary slang. As for Shakespeare’s having Shylock make his exit in Act IV, Jacobson mischievously heads the last section of his book Act V—there are no acts before this, other than what Jacobson puts on, as a creative novelist. You may guess from where Strulovitch wants to get his pound of flesh, but you probably won’t figure out how ingeniously the problem is resolved.