Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson: challenges all assumptions

Jacobson’s novel is a complex reworking of Shakespeare’s original, writes Christina Hunt Mahony

Shylock is my Name
Shylock is my Name
Author: Harold Jacobson
ISBN-13: 978-1781090282
Publisher: Hogarth Shakespeare
Guideline Price: £16.99

Howard Jacobson's new book arrives as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series – prose renderings of the plays by award-winning British novelists. Part of a Shakespeare 400 consortium of arts organisations' efforts marking the quadracentenary, Shylock Is My Name comes with the burden of expectation. It appears in a literary age favourable to re-inscribing great works, reimagining early lives (or afterlives) for beloved literary characters, and readjusting classics to comply with the sensibilities of our age. Think of Jane Austen rewrites, copycat Ian Flemings, and feminist fairy tales.

I doubt any of the novelists took these assignments lightly. Rewriting Shakespeare is a career gamble, and Jacobson has taken the greatest risk, since The Merchant of Venice is arguably Shakespeare's most contentious play. A Man Booker Prize winner and a Jew who has written in both comic and serious veins about Jewishness in contemporary English society, he has acknowledged the challenges, claiming to have quaked before it. That he is the Cambridge-educated author of a critical work on the Bard (Shakespeare's Magnanimity) should have mitigated the terror to some degree.

We might think a 21st-century Shylock landed in today’s London of oligarchic excess and shady business deals, plying between the City and Belgravia, would be a perfect fit, but the tale is not set in the imperial capital. So Jacobson has chosen as his affluent provincial hub Cheshire’s Golden Triangle – those posh villages populated by footballers and their indulged wives. This is the world of the tabloid and gossip column rich.

Judeo-Christian relations

The writer hasn’t taken the easy option of creating characters that merely parallel Shakespeare’s. Rather he has amalgamated or refracted elements of plot and character. His Antonio is d’Anton, who is only one character whose pound of flesh will be demanded by a modern Shylock. D’Anton also functions as Balthazar, faithful servant to Portia. Her contemporary embodiment here, or at least her name, may be afforded a place among the immortals. Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra a Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Christine Shalcross is the queen of a reality TV empire. “Plury” manifests traits of both Nigella and Judge Judy, with a dash of Miley Cyrus. The weightier authorial choice comes with Jacobson’s decision to split Shylock effectively into two characters, one a time-traveller who bears the name of the title, while the other is Simon Strulovitch, an art collector and philanthropist. The two can then debate every element of Judeo-Christian relations through the ages and unpick theories of the figure of the Jew in literature as well.


These mordant dialogues, swathed in layers of mutual suspicion, are at times soberly rabbinical, at others reminiscent of family flashbacks in early Woody Allen films. Even to describe the exchanges in these terms, however, is to resort to the entrenched views on Jews in history and literature Strulovitch and Shylock rail against. Railing might be said to be the predominant mode of the novel.

Irish readers coming to Shylock Is My Name will recognise the trope of the debate between two halves of a bifurcated self from Friel's Private Gar and Public Gar in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, though Jacobson's characters do not emanate from quite the same brain. In the opening scenes, Strulovitch chances to meet the revenant Shylock in a graveyard in Manchester where he visits the grave of his wife, Leah. Strulovitch, making a belated effort to be "a good son", only occasionally manages to visit the grave of his mother, another Leah. They have much in common, but where they differ is the space in which the novel's meaty themes are worked.

Usurer and rogue

Jacobson has cast this story in linguistic registers that mirror its source, with the equivalent of verse and prose passages indicative of characters’ standing, education or, at times, ability to control emotion. The goy footballer, Gratan Howsome, whose character combines elements of Shakespeare’s Lorenzo and Gratiano, has run away with Strulovitch’s nubile daughter Beatrice. He is an inarticulate jock (Shylock calls him a Cavernicolo) whereas Strulovitch’s language can be as ornate as Shylock’s. On receipt of a letter from d’Anton requesting a work of art in his possession, Strulovitch thinks, “How amusing that such a man should come cap in hand to him. And how amusing it would be to do such a man a kindness in return . . . thereby depriving d’Anton of the pleasure of calling him a usurer and rogue.”

This complex book challenges all assumptions, never shying away from controversy. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then none of Jacobson's creations needs fear such a fate. No one who reads Shylock Is My Name will return complaisantly to The Merchant of Venice, and part of Jacobson's achievement is that his work offers equally fervent polemics on the nature of familial love. For every bitter take on human shortcomings here decried, there is a counterbalancing acknowledgment of the grace inherent in human nature. The novel captures the essence of the original.

Christina Hunt Mahony is a senior research fellow at Trinity College Dublin