Title: Shylock is My Name
Author: Howard Jacobson
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary
Release Date: February 4th, 2016
Source: Received from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review
Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson brings his singular brilliance to this modern re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters: Shylock
Winter, a cemetery, Shylock. In this provocative and profound interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock is juxtaposed against his present-day counterpart in the character of art dealer and conflicted father Simon Strulovitch. With characteristic irony, Jacobson presents Shylock as a man of incisive wit and passion, concerned still with questions of identity, parenthood, anti-Semitism and revenge. While Strulovich struggles to reconcile himself to his daughter Beatrice’s “betrayal” of her family and heritage – as she is carried away by the excitement of Manchester high society, and into the arms of a footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field – Shylock alternates grief for his beloved wife with rage against his own daughter’s rejection of her Jewish upbringing.
Culminating in a shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh, Jacobson’s insightful retelling examines contemporary, acutely relevant questions of Jewish identity while maintaining a poignant sympathy for its characters and a genuine spiritual kinship with its antecedent—a drama which Jacobson himself considers to be “the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”
The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play to embrace and even to study. The anti-Semitism of it makes most people shy away. So I was curious about this modern retelling (part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series). Because of the aversion to Merchant, I’m not as intimately familiar with it as some other Shakespeare plays, so I may not have gotten all the references and nods BUT what I came away with was fantastic.
This isn’t just a modern retelling (as in, the framework is similar), it’s referential (as in, Shylock is in the story, and he is Shylock from the play, and he is not the MC). There are lines of Shakespeare bandied about, and some characters are even fleshed out like characters from Shakespeare’s other plays (the one that struck and amused me most is Plurabelle, whose romanticizing of sorrow is akin to Countess Olivia’s romanticizing of grief in Twelfth Night).
The humor is dry, and often revolves around the hypocrisy of human beings. Modern characters who are wealthy a powerful and proud about how modern they are have underlying racist sensibilities, which they can’t even recognize as racist (to them, thinking “all Jews are this” isn’t racist, but a Nazi salute is). There’s also anger and judgement against Christians, on behalf of Simon and Shylock, which is cutting but also hypocritical.
There’s also a powerful message about fathers and daughters. There were times I was cringing inwardly because I’ve been there. And of course a message about what the true meat of things is, beyond the surface notions (whether that’s a pretty face or an assumption about a race/culture/religion, or the appearance of a job).
Plot-wise, it mirrors Merchant well enough that anyone can see the ‘twist’ at the end. Or perhaps the true twist is the way the character of Shylock handles it- both reflective of the play and satisfactory for those of us who are appalled at how the play ends (with Shylock legally forced to convert faith). I found the ending satisfying both as a Shakespeare fan and as a modern woman.
I listened to this on audiobook, and the conversational pacing, breaks, and asides by the narrator really helped keep the story rolling. If read, it may feel bogged down in bits, or confusing by the switch between characters. I do recommend this story as an audiobook, for fans of Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice or no), contemporary fiction (especially if you want to feel better about what kind of person you are compared to these characters), dry humor, and tragic comedies/comedic tragedies.