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.
The opening of Shylock is My Name recalls the beginning of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: two older Jewish men meet in a cemetery. They end up talking about their daughters who have caused them nothing but trouble. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, ran away after losing a lot of money gambling in Genoa. Simon Strulovich’s daughter, Beatrice, constantly tries to get out from under father’s control. Over the course of the novel, Shylock and Simon will discuss anti-Semitism, honor, obligation, revenge, duty, and family.
Meanwhile, Plurabelle Shalcross tries to find love by devising tests for potentials to pass. Her friend, D’Anton, introduces her to new people and assists her in her quest for the perfect mate. Unfortunately for them, D’Anton’s friends Barnaby and Gratan Howsome mess things up. Barnaby wants a painting Strulovich has just purchased to impress Plurabelle. Gratan has committed a worse offense. He’s run off with Strulovich’s daughter. D’Anton wants to help but, years ago, he torpedoed Strulovich’s plan for a museum of British Jewish art. Everything culminates in a deal reminiscent of the original Shylock’s deal. Strulovich will give his blessing to Gratan and Beatrice and the painting Barnaby wants if Gratan agrees to be circumcised.
Shylock is My Name is the kind of book one pays attention to more for what it does than for what it says. Every conversation is weighted with centuries historical and cultural baggage. Every action is a response to the wrongs of The Merchant of Venice. Uppermost in my mind in my mind was the question of how Jacobson would write the ending. Would he make Shylock and Strulovich sympathetic, in answer to the injustice of the original play? Would Shylock get a second chance? Who would be the heroes and who would be the villains this time?
I won’t say that Jacobson did or did not answer my questions. Providing answers is too easy for this story—and for this author. What I can say is that Jacobson finally gave anti-Semitism the consideration that it deserves. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a villain, in spite of any sympathy one might feel for him early in the play, because he must have his literal pound of flesh. The antagonism between Jews and Christians in Shylock is My Name is more complex and I appreciated the complexity.
What I did not appreciate was Jacobson’s treatment of the women characters. The Merchant of Venice’s Portia was a fantastic character (even if she gave her love to a character who didn’t deserve it). In Jacobson’s version, Portia’s analogue, Plurabelle, and the other female characters are horrors. I hated what Jacobson did with them. Shylock is My Name is misogynist—just like the original was anti-Semitic. Although we briefly get to see Beatrice’s perspective later in the novel, no other female character gets to explain her motives and thoughts. I had to wonder if Jacobson doesn’t know how to write women. The only sympathetic female “character” is Shylock’s wife, Leah, but she’s dead before the play opens and only exists in Shylock’s mind.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 9 February 2016.
* Titus Andronicus rates lower, because how could it not?