Shylock Is My Name brings Shakespeare to the present – but is it too clever for its own good?

Howard Jacobson places Shylock in Cheshire's "Golden Triangle". While thought-provoking, however, it struggles to work on its own terms.

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Of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Merchant of Venice is, without a doubt, the one that modern audiences find most difficult to accept. Its portrait of a people – as personified by Shylock, the Venetian Jew who is after his pound of flesh – is one that sits neatly next to the awful caricatures of rapaciousness and villainy that have been so deadly to Jews over the centuries. Othello may be problematic today but the Moor is, in essence, a noble man. Hamlet’s indecision is not Danish: he’s Hamlet and that’s that. Shylock’s greed is not Venetian: it’s Jewish.

Howard Jacobson is not afraid to ­confront these issues of prejudice head-on. His last novel, J, was a strange and unsettling book set in a not-so-distant future in which history has been erased; a group of people have disappeared, but who are they? Why does everyone in Britain now have “Jewish” surnames, while the letter “J” has been removed from the language? It was a novel of ideas, which was both its strength and its weakness. The same may be said of his latest, Shylock Is My Name.

The book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which the Bard is “retold” by leading authors of today. The venture started with The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, a riff on The Winter’s Tale. “Retold” – the publisher’s word – suggests something more literal than what we have had so far, for Jacobson’s, as much as Winterson’s, is a reimagining, a re-entering, or at least an attempt to do that. The novel asks what Shylock has to say to readers of today, who may flatter themselves that they have banished the sort of prejudice on show in The Merchant of Venice.

And so Shylock gets to speak for himself. As the novel begins, Simon Strulovitch, a philanthropist and art collector with “swashbuckling Sephardi looks”, is visiting his mother’s grave in Gatley, south Manchester, when he meets another mourner at another grave: Shylock, at the grave of his wife, Leah. This is Shakespeare’s Shylock, no modern avatar: somehow he has arrived here, in the present, for Strulovitch to converse with, to bring back to his mansion in Cheshire’s “Golden Triangle”. Mottram St Andrew is no Rialto but it is a place of wealth and desire, where Porsches roar down narrow lanes, champagne is quaffed in quantity and too much is never enough.

What has brought these riches to the haunted landscape of Alderley Edge? Football, in part – Manchester soccer stars have settled there, enriching the place. And so it is hardly surprising that Strulovitch’s art-student daughter, Beatrice, has fallen for one of them, Gratan Howsome. The trouble is that Gratan is not Jewish and Strulovitch, though not especially observant, does not approve. So Strulovitch’s adviser Shylock offers a solution: if Howsome will agree to be circumcised, Beatrice is all his.

Other stories weave through the novel: there is wrangling over a painting in Strulovitch’s possession, Love’s First Lesson, by Solomon Joseph Solomon; there is Strulovitch’s wish to establish a museum of British-Jewish art. But the argument over the bris (which involves rather less than a pound of flesh) is the central conflict here. It’s a thorny one, thornily resolved (or unresolved, depending on how you look at it). The book is an argument, a discussion, a talky meditation on the difference between the word “Jew” – which appears over and over again in the novel, in a way that is designed to butt against the reader’s polite sensibilities – when used as a badge of identity and when used as an insulting epithet. “The Jew will not back down. I’ve never heard of a Jew who will . . . They have hearts of stone,” we read – and much worse. In J, the absence of language was confrontational; here, it is the presence of language that confronts us. This throws the reader back to the original text, asking whether Shakespeare shows personal anti-Semitism, or reflects what he saw around him. That question is not new.

But a novel must work on its own terms, not merely as a reflection on another work. In this respect, Shylock Is My Name does not have much to offer. No character comes alive: they are all mouthpieces for the author’s debate with himself and with us. Jacobson has called Shakespeare’s Shylock “a man of principle and wit, tragically betrayed, altogether too clever for his adversaries, and on that account maybe too clever for himself”. On that last count, the same could be said of Jacobson here.

Howard Jacobson appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival (5-14 April), in association with the NS. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson is published by Hogarth Shakespeare (288pp, £16.99)

Erica Wagner is New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

This article appears in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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