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Shylock Is My Name
By Howard Jacobson
Reviewed By Nora Rawn
A better match than Howard Jacobson to adapt The Merchant of Venice for the Hogarth Shakespeare series couldn't be found. A Shakespeare scholar himself whose interest in exploring Jewish identity in Britain is well-established, Jacobson brings a Philip Roth-inflected take on Shylock's infamous pound of flesh by converting it into the foreskin of an anti-Semitic foe. Shylock presides over the events, shepherding his contemporary stand-in, Strulovitch, through a reprise of his own case. Here again is the father jealously guarding his daughter's virtue, the young daughter wooed by a Gentile, the mounting assumptions on each side leading to a clash over the principle of a bond. D'Anton stands in for Antonio here, offering himself up for circumcision in place of a Gentile friend who has eloped with Strulovitch's daughter, and Strulovitch eager to take retribution in part to make up for Shylock's disappointment in the original. The one false note is in the flatness of the contemporary substitute for Portia, a one-note young heiress named Plurabelle who serves mainly as a device to allow Shylock to finally be the advocate for mercy. But in the searching discussions between Shylock and Strulovitch investigating their cultural heritage, Jacobson earns the reader's forgiveness for the areas where he uses a broader brush. His re-imagining is true to the spirit of the play as well as to its form, and teases out the complicated question of how we are to see Shylock, as a villain or a victim. He and Strulovitch have been damned by the roles they have been consigned to before they even have a chance to play their first moves, a fact Jacobson first exhaustively proves only to allow them to overturn the narrative. Erudite and inventive, this novel won't be for the casual reader, but it's an unqualified success as a new lens on a seminal play.
Out of 10: 9.2