Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Why would anyone living today want to read Shakespeare? Thanks to Hogarth Press and their Shakespeare Project, I am finding out. I am only two books in, but reading the retellings after reading the plays is becoming an eye-opener for me. I have been told he is revered and still famous because he captured the timeless conundrums of human existence. I have come to find out that is true. I realize that sounds lofty but seriously, The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale covered the pitfalls of jealousy. Shylock Is My Name, a retelling of The Merchant of Venice, features revenge, anti-Semitism, and cultural trickery.
While doing my reviewer research, I found two conflicts among critics of The Merchant of Venice over the years: was Shakespeare actually an anti-Semite or just portraying the commonly held views of his era and is Shylock a sympathetic character or just a cliché? Of course, choosing Howard Jacobson for the retelling was a pretty sure bet as to how those conflicts would be resolved.
Some years ago, I reviewed Jacobson’s Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question. I was delighted to be introduced to his wit, his fascinating characters, and his insouciant look into the human condition. Shylock Is My Name is unrelentingly literary but I honestly did not mind having to stop every few pages and look up a word I’d never come across before. Nor did I mind a feeling of wading through paragraph after paragraph of intellectualism. On the contrary, I felt his respect for the reader and became imbedded in the lives of these modern characters.
A wealthy Jewish father living in the midst of London’s Golden Triangle, worried near to death about his precocious teenage daughter and her choice of boyfriends. The daughter whose sheer audacity is underscored by her love for that father. Plurabell, a character defined by social media and too much money, who perfectly embodies Portia’s famous double cross. The effete art dealer, always sad, never decisive, and nemesis to the Jewish father.
Best of all is Shylock. Shylock is my name, he says. He appears in a graveyard almost like a member of the undead and hangs around that Jewish father like an Old Testament prophet, giving cryptic advice and calling the modern Jew on his bullshit. Shylock rules over the novel as he laments his losses and still rages against the oblivious discrimination and cruelty of the Gentiles. While we hapless readers are being led by the nose through Jacobson’s cryptic plot, he sees it coming. He has been there.
When I was 13 years old, a newly confirmed Christian, I had a church-school teacher who was a converted Jew. I spent a year of Sunday mornings with a group of bored teenagers studying comparative religion. He even took us to all the church services of the other denominations and faiths in our community. One of my best friends, also named Judy, was a fairly devout Jew who loved Christmas carols, Christmas dinner and Christmas cookies. I got to sit next to her when we visited the Synagogue at Passover. We ate the foods together and prayed the prayers and she was impressed by my comprehension of all that was going on, even though I had some issues with the food. I could never quite understand anti-Semitism after that. It just made me sad. Why would I ever want everyone I know to be just like me?
Shylock Is My Name is humorous, witty, even sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Ultimately though, it is deeply sad. I suppose human beings love to bully. We are taught to deal with bullying in various ways depending on our race, gender, or religion. It still sucks. There have been many great Jewish apologists among writers over the centuries, but Howard Jacobson is one of the best. Like the sad clown who makes us laugh with him over his pratfalls, he makes us feel what it is like to be a Jew. He doesn’t forgive but he gets it. He also does not spare the mean spirited or provide comfort.
If you want to know the plot of this novel, you are not going to read it here. It is however brilliantly faithful to Shakespeare and at the same time a rebuttal. Just to tempt you, watch for the part where Shylock delivers Portia’s The Quality of Mercy speech. Be prepared to grin through your tears.