Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name was the second title published in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that began in October 2015. Crown Publishing invited a group of notable novelists each to retell one of Shakespeare’s classic plays as a Shakespeare-inspired novel in their own style, and Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is based upon Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shylock Is My Name was preceded by Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale and has been followed by Anne Tyler’s look at The Taming of the Shrew and Margaret Atwood’s at The Tempest. Yet to come are Tracy Chevalier’s retelling of Othello, Gillian Flynn’s of Hamlet, Jo Nesbø’s of Macbeth, and Edward St. Aubyn’s of King Lear, bringing the series to a total of eight books.
According to Jacobson, it is on “one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February” when Strulovitch and Shylock have their fateful encounter among the headstones of a cemetery. Strulovitch, an occasional visitor, is there to inspect the new headstone recently placed over his mother’s grave. Shylock, a regular visitor, is there to speak with his dead wife, Leah, whose own headstone is “worn to nothing.” Strulovitch cannot avoid overhearing Shylock’s conversation, and recognizes the man for who he is: the actual Shylock made famous by Shakespeare’s (some would say) anti-Semitic play, The Merchant of Venice. In a decision he would come to question, Strulovitch invites Shylock to his home where he offers the man a bedroom of his own.
Strulovitch is not a practicing Jew, but he firmly believes in the Jewish tradition, as did his father who declared Strulovitch dead to him after Strulovitch dared marry a non-Jew. Strulovitch has returned the favor to his daughter by demanding that she date only Jewish men – and she is having none of it. The harder Strulovitch pushes her, the more rebellious she becomes, and now she has run off with a decidedly non-Jewish local football player. Oh, and she is only sixteen years old. Now, devastated by his daughter’s rejection of her heritage and family, Strulovitch shares his grief with Shylock, who is equally overwhelmed by his own daughter’s rejection of Jewish tradition.
Those familiar with The Merchant of Venice will enjoy ticking off, as he makes them, all the nods to Shakespeare’s story that Jacobson manages in Shylock Is My Name, even down to the novel’s climax in which Strulovitch demands his “pound of flesh” from the volunteer standing in for his daughter’s Christian lover. A product of its times, The Merchant of Venice often reflects the accepted anti-Semitism Shakespeare’s audience would have expected. Howard Jacobson, instead, has used Shakespeare’s basic plotline as a reflection of the modern Jew’s struggle to define himself in today’s world. Shylock Is My Name reminds me very much, in fact, of Jacobson’s 2010 Man Booker Prize winner The Finkler Question, another book about recreating the Jewish identity in the modern world.
Shylock Is My Name is my third experience with the Hogarth Shakespeare series and I continue to be impressed with the novels.