When Howard Jacobson undertook to retell Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the challenge must have presented itself early: how to modernize one of Shakespeare’s most problematic comedies. In My Name is Shylock, Jacobson chooses to deal with the matter head on. Rather than turn his story into “The Tragedy of Shylock” (or worse, some sort of retelling without the antisemitism), Jacobson writes a comic novel that deals with the antisemitic themes and parallels the play in interesting and unexpected ways.
Jacobson tells the story of Sturlovich, a Jewish art dealer with a teenage daughter, Beatrice, who is both physically and intellectually developed beyond her age. Beatrice runs off with a lunk-headed gentile soccer player, and the action of the novel–and its parallels to the play–are underway. Given the play as the background, the only “spoilers” I could reveal are how Jacobson makes his 21st century plot parallel Shakespeare’s 16th century plot.
One decision, though, which is not a spoiler, is Jacobson’s decision to include Shylock as a character. Sturlovich encounters Shylock in a cemetery and invites him home. From that point on, Shylock becomes the moral foil and advisor to Sturlovich. They both know that this is the Shylock of Shakespeare’s play, and thus the quotations (from Merchant as well as other plays) are self-consciously quoted, discussed and interpreted. In fact, much of the pleasure I got from the novel is in Jacobson’s interpretations of Shylock and The Merchant of Venice.
Of course, as a novel, My Name is Shylock necessarily expands on topics, dilates and discusses, and defers. One of the more enjoyable ways this happens is through the humor and satire that Jacobson includes. For example, here is his description of a web chat series that one character hosted:
For those for whom fame was less important than vindication, Plurabelle … initiated a live interactive Webchat facility called Bicker. Here, the contentious would submit their grievances to the arbitration of the British public…. But the British public turned out to be too vitriolic an arbitrator even for its own taste, [and] the site consumed itself in rage…
The satire, however, isn’t always so light-hearted. Particularly when the topic is antisemitism, Jacobson’s narration and his characters approach their own level of vitriol. While the novel never consumes itself in rage, it does sometimes push the envelope. Still, given a society in which these feelings still clearly exist, it is hard to fault Jacobson for turning up the volume on occasion.
Overall, it is the humor and the surprising ways in which Jacobson retells the play that make this novel enjoyable. He has added an enjoyable work to the genre of “classic works retold” and offered some satirical doses that the world always needs. Most of all, he shows that The Merchant of Venice is very much a work that still speaks to us today.