Shylock is My Name

The Hogarth Shakespeare project was launched by Penguin Random House in October 2015 to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare; the project publishes retellings of Shakespeare's works by today's bestselling novelists. As of now, there are three published - Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time (The Winter's Tale), and the subject of this post, Howard Jacobson's Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice). And there are more coming - Margaret Atwood's The Hag Seed (The Tempest) will be out this fall and untitled works by Gillain Flynn and Jo Nesbo will take on Hamlet and Othello, respectively. I have written on this before (see my "retelling" label), but I completely adore a good retelling of a classic. Re-interpretation of a well-known story in a modern context... sign me up. So when I saw this version of The Merchant of Venice, a play I read last summer in my "History of the Jews: The Modern Period" class, I knew I would enjoy it. Maybe my expectations were high going in, and I finished reading glad I read it, but I was a bit confused by the set-up of the story. Shylock - the protagonist (anti-hero?) of Shakespeare's Merchant - appears in this tale alongside Jacobson's modern-day Shylock, Simon Strulovitch. (For those not too familiar with their Shakespeare: Shylock is considered the most "influential Jewish character in English literature") I could not decide if Shylock was meant to represent his conscience, a ghost... but I eventually gave up trying to understand the mechanics of why he was juxtaposed against Strulovitch and just went with the story. There are two layers to the story: the conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock, and the modern-day tale of Merchant (Antonio be comes D'Anton, etc.) Jacobson offers a fresh take on a play, as the Washington post writes, "long experienced by many as a racial tragedy," and thoughts on anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and Anglo-Jewish relations. The NYT Book Review (ever my reference) calls Jacobson's novel an "ebullient riff on Shakespeare," a story that blends "purposeful déjà vu and Jewish fatalism." What I liked about Jacobson's story is the modern contextualization of The Merchant of Venice: what does it mean to be Jewish? The title of the story comes from the courtroom scene:
PORTIA: Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?
DUKE: Antonio and old Shylock, both stand forth.
PORTIA: Is your name Shylock?
SHYLOCK: Shylock is my name.
However much I enjoyed reading this, I honestly do not know if I would recommend this to you if you are not familiar with the original Shakespeare - without understanding the references, the nuance of the retold tale is lost. It is not quite a story without understanding the source material. I think Jacobson was well-suited to the task of re-imagining The Merchant of Venice, and I look forward to reading more of his work this sumer (The Finkler Question and J) and other books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Rating: ★★★(★)

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