CULTURE & ARTS
02/13/2016 12:04 pm ET

The Bottom Line: 'Shylock Is My Name' By Howard Jacobson

This new novel, based on "The Merchant of Venice," gives Shylock the lion's share of the love.
Hogarth

The Hogarth Shakespeare series, which aims to update Will’s most well-known plays with novelistic retellings by accomplished novelists, hasn’t hesitated to approach the deep end of the pool.

After a single toe-dip -- Jeannette Winterson’s lovely and whimsical novelization of “A Winter’s Tale,” The Gap of Time -- the project has cannonballed right into perhaps the most controversial of Shakespeare’s plays: “The Merchant of Venice.”

And boy, it’s a doozy.

The original play has remained relatively popular despite long-standing concerns about its apparent anti-Semitism. The titular merchant, Shylock, is treated with disdain by the Christian characters, and takes his revenge in a stereotypically bloodthirsty way, by demanding a pound of flesh from around a debtor’s heart be removed when he fails to pay back a loan.

The modernization, by Jewish-English novelist Howard Jacobson, doesn’t blunt this portrayal. Jacobson, whose fiction tends toward the darkly satirical, has argued that Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock was more sympathetic, and less flatly bigoted, than some Jewish scholars believe.

His modern-day English version sets Simon Strulovitch, an art dealer and functionally single parent, into treacherous terrain among small-minded, provincial Brits in a wealthy Cheshire neighborhood. Isolated aside from his teenage daughter, Beatrice, who is defying him by dating a non-Jewish man; and his wife, mentally and physically incapacitated after a stroke; Strulovitch finds emotional and intellectual companionship with a man much like himself -- Shylock, who exists in the nether space between reality, fever dream and allusion in the novel. They meet in a cemetery, where Shylock happily reads Portnoy’s Complaint to the headstone of his late wife, Leah. Strulovitch soon invites his new friend to stay in his home, an indefinite guest, and though sometimes annoyed by his brooding comrade’s presence, he seems to also draw strength from their meandering conversations about Jewish history, Jewish oppression, Jewish art and literature, and, of course, vengeance.

Meanwhile, Strulovitch faces the same perceived betrayal Shylock once did: His daughter, in defiance of his wishes, has begun dating a Christian (worse, in this case, a Christian footballer, a rather simple-minded oaf who once gave a Nazi salute on the pitch). Shylock continually whips up Strulovitch’s fears about allowing his daughter the freedom to fall in love with a man of her choosing. Though he himself first married a gentile, the marriage failed, and when he first saw his baby daughter, he suddenly felt convinced that she must marry a Jewish man as a fulfillment of some sort of covenant. Unsurprisingly, Beatrice cares little about her father’s ideas of religious and cultural obligation, and cares little for his habit of stalking her and roughly yanking her out of high school parties where he suspects her of fraternizing with goys. But the novel hardly condemns Strulovitch for his harsh monitoring of her behavior, which is portrayed as childish and vain.

In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare’s generous ability to imbue all characters with sympathy keeps Shylock, who after all insists on killing a debtor when any other pound of flesh would do, from seeming utterly monstrous. We see the indignities he suffers; his loneliness and desperation; his desire to maintain control over something and even to lash out at his tormentors. But we also see those tormentors as the often well-meaning but bigoted people they were -- people profoundly of their era.

Portia, who’s been denounced as a cruel snob by modern commentators more sympathetic to Shylock, certainly did treat him with a contempt tinged with bigotry, and she pursued an extreme punishment against him, including forced conversion to Christianity, even after she’d prevented him from taking his debtor’s pound of flesh. But Portia isn’t a simple character; in a far more patriarchal era, she defied gender restrictions to practice law -- quite ably, moreover -- with the aim of saving a man’s life from a disproportionate punishment. There’s a reason she’s one of the more compelling of Shakespeare’s female characters, not sweet or pure but occasionally noble and remarkably intelligent.

Jacobson admits openly that he sees things differently, understandably given his identification with Shylock. “I disliked Portia intensely,” he told the Times of Israel. “But Shakespeare, I think, didn’t like her either.” He also argued that he believed Portia to be “the most anti-Semitic” of the group, a rather gross oversimplification of her motivations in the play. Jacobson’s belief that Shakespeare didn’t like his own heroine reads like bit of projection; “Venice” can be read a number of ways, of course, but Shakespeare’s ability to evince sympathy for each side is what allows for this.

Jacobson’s clear disgust for Portia, on the other hand, hobbles his novel. In the modern update, she’s a wealthy heiress, a plastic surgery addict, a self-righteous reality TV hostess, and a selfish dilettante by the name of Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine Shalcross. In a matter of several paragraphs -- nay, in merely her name -- Jacobson has made Portia absurd and beneath contempt.

This jibes particularly awkwardly with the other gender politics of the novel. Shylock’s adoration for his late wife rests on her gentle guidance and service toward him. She was what he needed her to be. Strulovitch’s first wife was a failure to him because she didn’t appreciate his specific brand of cultural Jewishness, while his second was serviceable until her stroke. Their daughters are treasured until they decide their lives and bodies belong to themselves, not their fathers -- a decision roughly equated with treachery. Strulovitch, in conversation with Shylock, undergoes some internal anguish over how much he can control his daughter, but little about how much he should.

What’s more, the story proves him right: Beatrice, having defied him, lives to regret it. After running away to Venice with her footballer boyfriend, Gratan, Beatrice grows tired of his dullness and inability to grasp her Jewish jokes (“oy gevalto, we’re on the Rialto!”), musing, “As for it being more fun to be with a Jewish man who got her jokes -- she wasn’t going to give her father the satisfaction of knowing she’d entertained such a thought.” This is both a rather unlikely revelation for a 16-year-old girl who’s been required to date only said Jewish boys her whole young life, but one Jacobson is all too eager to give readers the satisfaction of knowing about. In case we were unclear, Strulovitch, though perhaps overbearing with his daughter, was right. She, in her rebellion of self-decision, was wrong. In this context, the caricature painted of Plurabelle/Portia reads as almost vicious misogyny, a tweezed and bleached bundle of tropes about feminine cunning, superficiality, and shallow pretentiousness. (The true intellectuals, of course, are Shylock and Strulovitch.)

But this shift also harms the novel in a purely artistic sense, leading to lurching transitions between high farce at Plurabelle’s and high drama at Strulovitch’s. Though the plots must and do join together, they feel as though they can’t and don’t exist in the same universe. One exists in an almost impossibly complex world of tortured overanalysis, in which shades of right and wrong multiply into infinity, and the other exists in a cartoon world in which everything, though it may seem right, is merely a trap -- everything is wrong.

As a non-Jewish reader, and one who often observes Jewish holidays with her partner’s family, I am acutely aware of what I am not aware of when reading this book. Jacobson’s granular dissections of Jewish custom and culture in the novel are necessarily rather bewildering to a gentile. Seeing Shylock’s tragic story retold by a contemporary Jewish novelist is inherently illuminating and deeply thought-provoking -- especially by such a brutally gifted wordsmith as Jacobson. Had he been able to infuse his characterization of Plurabelle and her cohort with as much artistic imagination and generosity as Shakespeare did Shylock, his book would have been a true triumph, but as it stands -- as enraging as it may, at times, be to read -- it’s a powerful treatise in fiction on Jewish identity and oppression.

The Bottom Line:

A lopsided and sometimes infuriating but sharply written, profoundly provocative novelistic update of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” which places Shylock, and his modern equivalent, at its center.

What other reviewers think:

The Guardian: "There are passages in these chapters that have a wit and punch reminiscent of Roth at his best, rendering the mutually defining paranoias of Jews and Gentiles with merciless clarity. I wish the same could be said for the 'Christian' material."

The Washington Post: "Politics and religion aside, things improve when he shifts from tribal mode back to deft artist firmly in control, offering witty twists to a play long experienced by many as a racial tragedy."

Who wrote it?

Howard Jacobson has published 14 novels, including the Man Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question, as well as several nonfiction books.

Who will read it?

Fans of novels that delve into thorny intellectual and social issues, as well as readers eager for more from their favorite author: William Shakespeare. 

Opening lines:

“It is one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February, the space between the land and sky a mere letter box of squeezed light, the sky itself unfathomably banal. A stage unsuited to tragedy, even here where the dead lie quietly. There are two men in the cemetery, occupied in duties of the heart. They don’t look up. In these parts you must wage war against the weather if you don’t want farce to claim you.”

Notable passage:

“Richly left and richly independent, Plurabelle shed copious tears -- for she had inherited the sadness gene from her father -- and allowed a decent interval of time to elapse before summoning the courage to read her father’s test, presented to her in a long Manila envelope, like a Last Will and Testament, by his solicitors. A gap year, she called this decent interval of time. A period in which to travel, meditate, meet interesting people, have a breast enlargement and work done on her face.

“At the fulfilment of which, looking simultaneously younger and older than her years and ever so slightly Asiatic, she sliced into the envelope with a letter opener made of the horn of one of the rhinos she intermittently marched through the center of Manchester to preserve.” 

Shylock Is My Name
by Howard Jacobson
Hogarth, $25.00
Published February 9, 2016

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

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