What happens to a 16th century Jewish Venetian merchant who has been humiliated in court, sentenced to forced conversion, and has lost his only daughter to apostasy? Shakespeare never tells us—indeed Shylock exits during the penultimate act—but Howard Jacobson, in his affectionate retelling of The Merchant of Venice, does, and the answer isn’t what you think. The wronged merchant heads over to a cemetery in Gatley, South Manchester and spends the next five hundred years conversing with his buried wife, Leah. It is here that Simon Strulovitch, an “easily hurt” and grieving philanthropist, first spies him, sitting “on a folding stool of the kind Home Counties opera-lovers take to Glyndebourne.”
Shylock and Simon: both aggrieved Jewish fathers. The first, trapped in Act IV, Scene 1, forever doomed to idle hope and anguished speculation. The second, unaware that his daughter, Beatrice, is soon to elope with Gratan Howsome, a football player for Stockport County, and famed for inadvertent Nazi salutes on the pitch. The two men form an uneasy bond and, considering The Merchant of Venice centres so much on friendship, with Shylock as the furious loner (Tubal doesn’t count: what if he lied about the monkey?), it is pleasing to see him finally make some friends.
The Merchant of Venice is an apt choice for Jacobson; the British author, who has penned fourteen works of fiction, including the 2010 Man Booker-winning novel The Finkler Question, is known for grappling with questions of Jewishness. But, perhaps less known is that his first book, co-written with Wilbur Sanders in 1978, is a critical study of four works by Shakespeare: Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.
Almost forty years later, Jacobson turns to the elephant in Shakespeare’s room, and poses the familiar question: is Shakespeare’s Shylock a hateful antisemitic caricature, or a complex portrayal of a flawed individual? Jacobson’s novel takes the debate further: what if Shylock was a complex character who nevertheless embarrassed Jewish readers? This knotty approach to the play certainly characterises the relationship between Simon and Shylock, who are forever judging the acts of their Jewish “other”: “Strulovitch lived in a wealth-crazed world himself; he hoped, however, that he knew the difference between his daughter and his bank account. Yet this, too, he understood—that in the outrage of loss, objects and people lose their delineation.”
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Shylock Is My Name
By Howard Jacobson
Penguin Random House