Shylock Is My Name, the new book by the great English novelist Howard Jacobson, is the second title in a series called “Hogarth Shakespeare,” in which contemporary writers reimagine Shakespeare plays. So far, half a dozen titles have been announced, including books by Margaret Atwood on The Tempest and Gillian Flynn on Hamlet; Shylock, as its title implies, is Jacobson’s version of The Merchant of Venice. The premise of the series is immediately tantalizing, since it makes you wonder how these writers will adapt their characteristic styles and obsessions to Shakespeare. Will Atwood give us a genetically engineered Caliban? Will Flynn turn Gertrude into a Gone Girl-style femme fatale? But by the same token, the whole thing has the potential for becoming merely a literary game of spot-the-differences—an occasion for ingenuity rather than imagination. There have been good novels based on Shakespeare before—Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, for instance, sets the story of King Lear on an Iowa farm. But a whole shelf of commissioned novels seems unlikely to produce many masterpieces.
Jacobson, who is one of the funniest and canniest writers I know, has an alert sense of both the opportunities and the perils of rewriting Shakespeare. No pairing of author and play could be more automatically right than Jacobson and The Merchant of Venice. From the beginning of his career, but especially in the last decade or so, Jacobson has been an obsessive analyst of the relationship between the Jews and the English. The Finkler Question, which won the Booker Prize in 2010, is about the friendship between an Englishman who wants to become a Jew and a Jew who is ashamed of being one. Jacobson’s next book, J, imagines a post-apocalyptic England in which people have repressed the memory of having perpetrated a second Holocaust. To Jacobson, it is this oscillation in gentile feelings about Jews—from obsessive interest to obsessive hatred, but always somehow obsessed—that makes English Jewish identity so absurdly difficult.
At the heart of English thinking about the Jews, of course, stands Shylock, the most influential Jewish character in English literature. Shylock dominates the play in which he appears, The Merchant of Venice—indeed, he is bigger than the play, having become one of those literary characters who seem to live independent lives. The reason is that Shakespeare writes about him with the very same ambiguity of feeling that Jacobson diagnoses. On the one hand, Shylock is an allegory of what Christianity sees as Jewish vices: He is greedy, vengeful, and committed to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of mercy. Portia’s great speech to Shylock, reminding him that “the quality of mercy is not strained,” is one of the most famous literary expressions of Christian ideals, provoked by the refusal of the Jew to act like a Christian.
Yet the other immortal speech in The Merchant of Venice is Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” which powerfully undermines the play’s own portrayal of the Jew as merely a stereotype, an allegory of stubborn “Judaism.” Asking “if you prick us, do we not bleed,” Shylock insists on his individual reality, his full humanity. He rejects the idea that his religion makes him innately different from Antonio, or Portia, or the other Christian characters who both exploit and torment him. And Shakespeare deepens our sympathy with Shylock by showing how deeply hurt he is by the Christians’ greatest victory over him—Lorenzo’s abduction of his daughter Jessica. The play makes us so vividly aware of Shylock’s individuality that his fate—the moneylender is bested by Portia in a legal argument, humiliated, robbed, and forced to convert—is not quite the “happy ending” it is structurally meant to be. In editions of Shakespeare’s works The Merchant of Venice is classified as a comedy, but the more attention you pay to Shylock, the more it feels like a tragedy.
In Shylock Is My Name—the words are Shylock’s, in response to Portia’s ambiguous question, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?”—Jacobson is not content simply to retell Shakespeare’s story. Indeed, Shylock is so much a creature of the stage that to turn him into a character in a novel might be impossible. A stage character can be defined by his silences, by what he does not say and do, but a novelistic character must be rounded and interior. To write about Shylock in a novel would mean having to decide how he really felt about Christians, about Jewishness, about justice and revenge; and making these things explicit would diminish his power.
To get around this problem, Jacobson uses a clever double strategy. On one level, Shylock Is My Name is a retelling of Merchant set in the present day. This is the game-like part of the novel, and Jacobson clearly has fun coming up with 21st-century English equivalents for 16th-century Venetian people and institutions. Antonio, Shakespeare’s melancholy merchant, becomes the epicene, sexually ambiguous art collector D’Anton; Bassanio, Antonio’s friend who woos Portia, is the dull-witted Barnaby. Portia herself, Shakespeare’s heiress living in paradisal Belmont, becomes Plurabelle, a TV celebrity living in the wealthy Golden Triangle area of Cheshire, in northern England. And Shylock’s stand-in is the rich Jewish philanthropist and art collector Simon Strulovich, whose main concern is his beautiful, rebellious teenage daughter, Beatrice.
At the same time that Strulovich represents Shylock, however, he also meets Shylock—the real Shylock, still inexplicably alive after four hundred years, whom he first encounters in a Jewish cemetery. In this way, Jacobson combines Shylock with yet another Jewish archetype—the Wandering Jew, unable to die, doomed to spend eternity roaming the earth. Soon Shylock is Strulovich’s houseguest, advising him on how to deal with his daughter, as the course of Strulovich’s life increasingly resembles that of Shylock’s own. When Beatrice runs away with a dumb, handsome football player Gratan, it is a replay of Jessica’s absconding with Lorenzo. And when Strulovich tells Gratan that he will never consent to their marriage unless the gentile is circumcised, we see a 21st-century version of Shylock’s “pound of flesh.”
In developing this plot, Jacobson combines silliness with satire. He allows his depiction of the story’s gentile characters to be invaded by a very Shylockian anger—at their heedlessness, their selfishness, their affectation, their casual anti-Semitism. Portia is the idealized heroine of Merchant, but in the novel, Plurabelle is a monster of entitlement and vulgarity—deformed by plastic surgery, enjoying the bogus fame of a reality TV star. (On her show she acts as a judge in people’s domestic disputes, echoing Portia’s impersonation of a judge at the end of the play.) In one scene, Plury, as her friends call her, and D’Anton play a game called Jewepithets, in which they come up with increasingly insulting names for Jews—“the Hebrew,” “the moneybags,” “the inexecrable dog.” It is a Jewish paranoid fantasy of how non-Jews talk behind closed doors, and Jacobson’s portrait of the whole English gentile world is informed by this kind of consciously overblown, yet inescapable, paranoia.
Yet the plot of Shylock Is My Name unfolds in a desultory way and is never really the book’s center of interest. The passion lies, rather, in the scenes between Shylock and Strulovich, in which they debate the sources of anti-Semitism and the meaning of Jewishness. This is Strulovich’s chance to pose all the questions a reader of Merchant wants to ask: Did Shylock intend to take his pound of flesh, or was it merely a threat? What part of the body was he planning to take it from—the heart, the genitals? Did he convert at the end of the play? To all these inquiries Shylock responds with an evasive negative: “For me personally … there is no now. I live when I lived. I have told you: When the story stopped, I stop.”
It is an eerie portrait of the limbo that awaits a character after his story is finished: Shylock can recount his past but not change it or move beyond it. He can, however, influence Strulovich in his similar plight, and in the book’s climactic scene, Shylock is given a chance to rebut Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech. He does this by offering his own praise, not of Christian mercy, but of Jewish rachmones: “Who shows rachmones does not diminish justice. Who shows rachmones acknowledges the just but exacting law under which we were created. And so worships God.”
Compassion, Jacobson insists, cannot be monopolized as a Christian virtue, when it is just as much a Jewish virtue. The whole binary on which The Merchant of Venice is built—the whole binary of traditional Christian anti-Judaism—is a false one. Even as he retells Shakespeare’s story, then, Jacobson argues with him, not unlike the way Abraham and Moses were known on occasion to argue with God. Shylock Is My Name is not as profound or moving a novel as Jacobson’s best, such as Kalooki Nights. But it is a clever and entertaining installment in Jacobson’s ongoing inquiry into what it means to live as a Jew in English, and Western, culture.
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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.