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