My first introduction to Shakespeare was through The Merchant of Venice. I was only 8 or 9 years old when I read an abridged version written for children. Having been fed till then with fairy tales that had heroines whose only task was to look beautiful for Prince Charming, I remember being wowed then by Portia. It was an eye-opener–a heroine could be (and should be) more than just a pretty face. I was too young then to understand or even know of the antisemitic tone of the book. That understanding came much later.
Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice, a part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, is set in London. Art dealer Simon Strulovich meets Shylock in a graveyard and takes him home. Their lives are mirror images –where Shylock has been betrayed by his daughter Jessica, Stulovich’s daughter Beatrice is a disappointment to him. Where Shylock speaks to his dead wiife Leah to unburden himself, Strulovich struggles to communicate with his wife felled by a stroke. Jacobson uses this canvas to explore issues of Antisemitism and Jewish identity. The book is more a discussion of these ideas, rather than a book driven by plot.
Jacobson does not stick too rigidly to the original, warping both characters and plot to create his version. The demand for the “pound of flesh” becomes something more than a mere bargain or tool to avenge–it becomes a space for him to negotiate identity and pride. This makes the book a refreshing thing–something more than the same story in a different time.
There are a few disappointments I have with the book. The writing is somewhat disjointed. The action is often interspersed with long conversations between Shylock and Strulovich about being Jewish, which while interesting, also slow down the book enough to make impatient readers give up. The way Portia from The Merchant of Venice (one of my favourire characters), is presented in Shylock is My Name as a scheming and morally dubious heiress, is particularly dismaying to me personally.
What is for me the biggest take-away from this book is an understanding of things as Shylock saw them. The discussions on antisemitism and Jewishness are what this book are really about.
FTC disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.