Recently, I'm going through a Shakespeare period, its climax probably the three plays I'll be seeing in the Globe in two weeks time (For those of you who're interested: A Midsummer's Night Dream, The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth). The Merchant of Venice, upon which Shylock is My Name is based, however is one of those plays that I still rather unfamiliar with. Both the story and the character of Shylock to be honest.
It felt like a great miss when I was reading Shylock is my name. Not only was I unable to see all the parallels between the story and the play, I also didn't know what to expect at all. Strangely enough, perhaps for those who're familiar with The Merchant of Venice, I didn't expect this story at all.
Most of the dialogue, most of the story even, surround about the two main characters, Strulovitch and Shylock, two old men who above all seem to be angry at the world. Due to their negative world view, the whole back has something depressing over it, which for me caused it to be not an easy read at all. I kept putting it away, because it was so depressing. This is why it cost me months to finish it. It's not what I would call a nice or enjoyable read. At least not when reading. Now that I'm finished, I can't say that I regret reading it. The prose was very beautiful, and would certainly be a reason to pick up another book by Howard Jacobson, but only if the theme is less depressing.
Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
‘Who is this guy, Dad? What is he doing here?’
With an absent wife and a daughter going off the rails, wealthy art collector and philanthropist Simon Strulovitch is in need of someone to talk to. So when he meets Shylock at a cemetery in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, he invites him back to his house. It’s the beginning of a remarkable friendship.
Elsewhere in the Golden Triangle, the rich, manipulative Plurabelle (aka Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Christine) is the face of her own TV series, existing in a bubble of plastic surgery and lavish parties. She shares prejudices and a barbed sense of humour with her loyal friend D’Anton, whose attempts to play Cupid involve Strulovitch’s daughter – and put a pound of flesh on the line.
Howard Jacobson’s version of The Merchant of Venice bends time to its own advantage as it asks what it means to be a father, a Jew and a merciful human being in the modern world.
Confession of ignorance first: I am completely unfamiliar with this author. Even his name is unknown to me, which is unusual for one who works in a library and frequently plays in them too. But the Hogarth Shakespeare has chosen well for their Merchant of Venice rewrite. Jacobson is a talented writer.
To my mind, the two plays of Shakespeare which are the most challenging for modern audiences are The Taming of the Shrew due to the role of women in it and The Merchant of Venice for what appears to be anti-Semitism. I know that there are plenty of arguments on either side for why these plays are or aren’t examples of prejudice and whether we should care or not. I don’t have the credentials to express any definitive opinions on these matters, although I can see where the debates spring from. I just know that I enjoy the works of Shakespeare and I don’t avoid these two plays, although they may make me uncomfortable.
Writing a modern version of the beloved works of Shakespeare can’t be an easy task, but Jacobson is up to it. The choice of a Jewish author for this volume was inevitable—who else to tackle the thorny problem of prejudice embedded in the plotline? And Jacobson explores it thoroughly and examines the nature of the prejudice from several angles. I found the introduction of the “actual” character of Shylock into the modern setting an interesting choice. At first, I was unsure that people besides the main character Strulovitch could see him, but it soon became obvious that he was an actual corporeal being. He is definitely more than just being Strulovitch’s outer conscience or cheering section. In fact, it is through his commentary that Jacobson analyzes the prejudice embedded in the play, and by extension in society.
During the first maybe 50 pages, I was strongly reminded of our Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, who wrote so colourfully of the Jewish experience in Montreal (thinking of St. Urbain’s Horseman). Perhaps it was just the suggestion that both men were Jewish and the impression melted away as I progressed. But it did make me think that I need to return to more of Richler’s works, which I haven’t read since I was in university many years ago.
I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as Jeannette Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale, which is not to say that I didn’t find it worth my time. As usual, it is probably more to do with the fact that I have never seen The Merchant of Venice performed. I will also definitely keep Mr. Jacobson in my mind for future reading. I am very much looking forward to the next Hogarth Shakespeare volume—I have a library hold on Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl and have recently seen The Taming of the Shrew, so I expect to enjoy it a great deal.
The Merchant of Venice has vexed me since I read it in college. I was fascinated by Shylock, but felt that the rest of the characters except for Portia were a waste of ink. I remember rolling my eyes a lot at Portia having to step into save her drip of a lover. With the anti-Semitism on top of everything, The Merchant of Venice is one of my least favorite works by Shakespeare. So when I learned that Howard Jacobson was going to take a stab at retelling the story in Shylock is My Name, I leapt at the chance to read it...
Read the rest of my review at A Bookish Type. I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.