Ai­dan Cole­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The Mer­chant of Venice might be the least funny of the come­dies in Shake­speare’s First Fo­lio. Given the am­bi­gu­ity of the play’s res­o­lu­tion, many schol­ars ques­tion whether it is a com­edy at all. Be­yond the de­struc­tion of Shy­lock, neatly wrapped up by the end of Act 4, the mar­riages show lit­tle prom­ise (there are hints Jes­sica and Lorenzo’s might al­ready be un­rav­el­ling) and the mer­chant of the ti­tle, An­to­nio, seems des­tined to re­main a lonely fig­ure. While any­thing but unan­i­mous in their con­dem­na­tion of Shake­speare as anti-Semitic, most con­tem­po­rary crit­ics agree the play is. So the text presents a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge to Booker Prize-win­ning Jewish au­thor Howard Jacobson.

Shy­lock is My Name is the se­cond book in Hog­a­rth’s se­ries of Shake­speare reimag­in­ings, fol­low­ing The Gap of Time, Jeanette Win­ter­son’s take on The Win­ter’s Tale. Jacobson’s novel is set in Cheshire’s Golden Tri­an­gle, a pic­turesque cor­ner of northwest Eng­land, where the new money of foot­ballers and celebri­ties runs afoul of old — class-wealth ten­sions oddly con­so­nant with 16th-cen­tury Venice.

The­atre­go­ers re­mem­ber Shy­lock long af­ter for­get­ting the clev­er­ness of Por­tia, the names of the wastrel suit­ors, or An­to­nio — who, as Au­den ar­gued, re­ally “haz­ards all”. Jacobson both res­ur­rects Shake­speare’s char­ac­ter and gives us his con­tem­po­rary dou­ble in the fig­ure of art col­lec­tor Si­mon Strulovitch: “a rich, fu­ri­ous, eas­ily hurt phi­lan­thropist with on-again off-again en­thu­si­asms”. His ini­tials are per­haps a re­minder that to be a Jew post-1945 is to live with the Holo­caust. From their first meet­ing in a Manch­ester ceme­tery — where Strulovitch mourns his mother, and Shy­lock his wife, Leah — Strulovitch in­vites him to stay in the house he shares with his se­cond wife, dis­abled by a stroke, and Beatrice, his way­ward daugh­ter. The two rarely part com­pany from there.

The “richly left and richly in­de­pen­dent” Plura­belle (aka “Anna Livia Plura­belle Cleopa­tra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy For­ever Chris­tine Shal­cross”) quickly bins her father’s short an­swer test for the ideal part­ner. The hap­less suit­ors are dis­patched in less than a page when Plura­belle at­tends a swingers party in the guise of a For­mula One driver: “jig­gling the keys to each of her cars — a Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle, a BMW Alpina and a Porsche Car­rera”. Un­fa­mil­iar with the work­ings of folk­lore, the men miss the ob­vi­ous hint and fight over the cars. Af­ter bouts of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, cos­metic and re­ver­sal surgery, Plura­belle stars in her own re­al­ity TV show The Kitchen Coun­sel­lor and ini­ti­ates “a live in­ter­ac­tive we­bchat fa­cil­ity called Bicker”.

The other “Chris­tian” char­ac­ters are con­densed into three. The anti-Semitic aes­thete D’An­ton plays a part akin to An­to­nio but also the role of a Nerissa-like con­fi­dant. Gratan How­some (a lower league foot­baller fa­mous for giv­ing a Nazi salute) and Bar­ney (Plura­belle’s beau­ti­ful but doltish lover) share the role of Bas­sanio. How­some func­tions too as Lorenzo and Bas­sanio’s boor­ish com­pan­ion Gra­tiano. For Strulovitch, they rep­re­sent the first gen­er­a­tion “that came into the world with­out mem­ory”. Shy­lock is My Name By Howard Jacobson Hog­a­rth Press, 288pp, $29.99

Howard Jacobson takes up the chal­lenge of reimag­in­ing The Mer­chant of Venice

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