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Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare)

Shylock Is My Name (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Howard Jacobson [I'm going to talk about the whole book. I don't believe there are any spoilers since this is a retelling of a well-known tale and hardly relies on suspense. But if you don't want to know any details of how the retelling is done, it's probably best you don't read this.]

For me, the Merchant of Venice is captivating because of two remarkable and problematic characters: Shylock and Portia. I don't think I'm alone in this, but it's clear that Jacobson does not share my opinion. He clearly thinks of Portia as a throw-away character, and because of this fundamental disagreement, I was bound to be disappointed by his adaptation. For Jacobson, MoV was Shylock, all Shylock, and his telling of the story re-orients around Shylock and the relationships in the story that define his character. The principle relationships in this story are between Shylock and his daughter Jessica, and Shylock and Anthony. Both place a remote second to the relationship between Shylock and himself.

There is much to think about and to discuss in this book, and for that I rate it fairly high. It is, however, not an enjoyable book to read. Shakespeare's play is not enjoyable because it is so problematic, and Jacobson's retelling is not enjoyable because the author so clearly holds all of his characters in disdain. We cannot develop empathy for any of them because the author holds none. MoV is categorized a comedy because they don't all die at the end, but it is decidedly unfunny, which makes me inclined to forgive the Golden Globes and their strange interpretation of what a comedy is. In an echo of this categorization, Jacobson's characters exchange jokes and are either often laughing (the Christian characters), or never laughing but rather overanalyzing their jokes and why they tell them (the Jewish characters), but it is also not a comedy in any sense of the word in modern usage.

The core of the book is wrapped up in Jewish identity and relationships to the extent that much of the plot does not make sense, and I had to release my expectation of logic in order to consider what the author was trying to get across. Despite the references to email and phones, reality television and social media, this classic story has not been dragged successfully into the 21st century. At 15, Strulovitch's (the modern Shylock's) daughter was in college, and at 16 was of age and free to marry. Circumcision is treated as the defining mark of Jewish men instead of the norm it is today. The characters seem incapable of using their modern technology to either solve problems or communicate (the letter is written, addressed, and hand-delivered). And Strulovitch is portrayed as having just as isolating a life in modern England as Shylock did in 16th century Italy, and this is unbelievable. All these inconsistencies drove me mad and inclined me to give the book a much lower rating, but let's get to the relationships.

Strulovitch finds the fictional Shylock in a cemetery in the first scene of the book and takes him home with him to serve as his advisor, his mentor, his conscience. The fictional Shylock is visible to humans in the story but not Strulovitch's dogs. He is constantly in conversation with his dead and absent wife, Leah, and bemoaning his lost relationship with his daughter Jessica. Strulovitch's wife Kay is bedridden after a stroke and is not available to her husband for counsel, her living mind silenced while Leah counsels Shylock from beyond the grave like a silent Lady MacBeth (I do not exaggerate -- it is on her advice that Shylock decides to drive Strulovitch to rage). The debates between Strulovitch and his conscience Shylock drive the story and define Jewish male identity. They are the central story. They are foreign and extreme to me, but worth reading and considering.

Strulovitch further explores his identity through his relationship with his daughter Beatrice and D'Anton, the art trader from whom he, in the end, demands a little flap of flesh. In an exception to all other characters in the story, Beatrice is actually a little more interesting than her counterpart Jessica, in that she is allowed to think for herself after fleeing her father's home with her lover. But all of her thoughts are about her father and how maybe he was right, so this extra level of interest circles back to keep Strulovitch central. In an interesting and appropriate tweak, Strulovitch and D'Anton are far more similar to each other than Shylock and Anthony, both in profession and in character. They live near each other and move in the same circles, albeit very seldom interacting. They should understand each other; they do not that the excuse of foreignness and removal. Their interaction makes this adaptation more intriguing.

All of this is good for mental mastication, but then Jacobson reveals his real motivation at the end. Shylock (not Strulovitch -- let's not beat around the bush) delivers Portia's mercy speech for her and then tells her off. Or rather, he tells the empty-headed, shadow-of-a-character Plurabelle off. And it feels like this was what it was all about, and it doesn't matter that it's modern but not modern and the plot doesn't make sense and the characters are strangely told. It's all really about Shylock telling that damn Portia off. Jacobson first guts her and then flattens her, all to make it easier to crush her beneath his boot heel. So you could argue that I only object because I'm a woman and a feminist who has studied Shakespeare and thought there was some value in Portia as a character despite her anti-Semitism, and you'd be right. And maybe my position is untenable and unforgivable. It's worth discussing. But I think it makes Jacobson's story problematic in and of itself, not because of wit and wisdom, but because of a cultural blindspot, much like the original. So maybe that makes it an appropriate retelling after all.

I got a free copy of this from First to Read.