Riffing off a Bard plot
Shylock and Strulovitch are the novel’s centre of gravity. Their characters give a sense of what it is to live with 5000 years of history and tradition, challenging neat divisions between secular and sacred. While Shylock operates as Strulovitch’s Jewish conscience (whose feelings for Judaism are mostly off-again), he is a tangible presence who converses with others besides Strulovitch. In soliloquies and his conversations with Strulovitch, Shylock peels away centuries of interpretation: to temper, qualify and correct what has been distorted but also to invent, with the benefit of hindsight and history. The threat of castration looms over the court scene in Shakespeare’s play and St Paul’s injunction to circumcise the heart takes a brutally literal turn. Jacobson plays with such material while interrogating it. Shylock, who is well-schooled in the scriptures and Rabbinic teaching, discourses vigorously on the status of the law but also on mercy — he might quip (a la Hebrew scholar John Goldingay) that the second testament adds nothing new.
The conversations between Shylock and Strulovitch bring father-daughter relationships sharply into focus — it was a theme that obsessed Shakespeare throughout his career. Some of the book’s funniest flashbacks describe Strulovitch’s shadowing of Beatrice in her many amorous pursuits from age 13. Freud is invoked with good humour. Both Shylock and Strulo- vitch are portrayed as fathers who “love their daughters not wisely but too well”, echoing Othello’s justification for murdering Desdemona in the self-eulogising speech he delivers before his suicide. There are dozens more allusions where context is important, adding a game-like element for Shakespeare buffs.
Jacobson understands that Shakespeare’s is an elliptical art: that the spaces left by his remarkable concision are a key part of his characters’ magnetism. His fleshing out of Shylock/ Strulovitch complicates where a lesser writer might simplify. His often spare dialogue is deft, and in the probing voice of the narrator, we witness his penchant for long, digressive sentences where qualifications are qualified and subordinate clause is stacked on subordinate clause, like a clown on a monocycle balancing an ever increasing number of plates — the higher the teetering stack, the funnier and more virtuosic.
Shylock is My Name is more comic than Shakespeare’s original but Jacobson’s humour is guided by a moral intelligence that doesn’t negate the tragic. He is resourceful and inventive in his handling of plot, with adroit deployment of a few red herrings. The denouement isn’t quite commensurate with his brilliant prose but, then, Shakespeare’s rehashing of old stories was never as good as his word.
is a poet and critic.