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Fiction

Shylock comes to modern-day Britain in Jacobson's novel

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With his comic novel “Shylock Is My Name,” British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson reworks Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” It’s the second in Hogarth’s series of reimagined Shakespeare plays.

Jacobson mixes drama and farce and interchanges Shakespearean and modern characters. Literary allusions become inside jokes and Jewish writers become sages as Jacobson confronts Judeo-Christian tension and animosity, rebellious daughters and Shylockian revenge.

Jacobson fast-forwards Shakespeare’s play so that it’s been only a short time since the famous trial in Venice. He moves the locale and Shylock himself to present-day England. You might recall Shylock’s daughter Jessica has stolen Shylock’s ring to buy a monkey and that she’s eloped with that rascal Lorenzo and converted to Christianity.

Now in the north of England in the cold of February, Shylock reads Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” to his dead wife, Leah, buried in a Cheshire cemetery. There, he meets Simon Strulovitch visiting his mother’s grave. Strulovitch is a wealthy Jewish philanthropist and art collector. Not especially religious, he possesses a vacillating sense of Jewish tradition, a passion for Shakespeare and a sense of humor. He even quotes Shylock’s famous speech: “ ‘If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’ ” adding, “No, we shall not. We shall take it on the chin and be grateful.”

Shylock is, well, Shylock: proud and vengeful, the sometimes sympathetic, sometimes pathetic “infuriated and tempestuous Jew” and money lender. Strulovitch’s wife, Kay, unlike Shylock’s, isn’t dead; she’s been bed-ridden for about two years after a stroke.

Thus, Kay is less alive to Strulovitch than Leah is to Shylock. Although they’re different, Shylock and Strulovitch bond through their mutual mourning and their daughter-rearing problems. The two become friendly enough that Strulovitch invites Shylock to his home, where he stays several days plotting his revenge for the comeuppance delivered him in Venice.

Jacobson grooms Strulovitch for the Shylockian role. Strulovitch’s daughter, Beatrice, has presented a problem for Strulovitch concerning males since she was 13. Now 16, she wants to run off with a 32-year-old footballer Gratan Howsome, a Gentile. Howsome is a stand-in for Gratiano, who in Shakespeare’s play, loves a handmaid.

Meanwhile, Howsome’s friend D’Anton, the counterpart of the merchant Antonio, makes a deal with Strulovitch, manipulated by the vengeful Shylock, regarding Beatrice’s return. There’s no courtroom scene in Jacobson’s story. Instead, there’s a talk show emceed by the flamboyant Plurabelle, who replaces Portia. On Plurabelle’s show, she serves scrumptious meals while her bickering guests resolve their disputes according to the audience’s and Plurabelle’s judgment.

Plurabelle, friend to D’Anton, Gratan and Beatrice, hopes to televise the outcome of the wager over a pound of flesh. Whether the flesh is literal or figurative becomes a question of circumcision and conversion to Judaism and vengeance on Gentiles. Jacobson is as much a Jewish sage as Roth, and he plots as intricately as Shakespeare, with plenty of twists and Elizabethan coincidences. Ultimately, he re-creates a startling, yet comedic, Strulovitch in Shylock’s image.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his blog at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords.


‘Shylock Is My Name’

A novel by Howard Jacobson

Published by Hogarth, 288 pages, $25

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