My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is another entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, the retelling of Shakespeare's classic tales by modern writers. It is a contemporary reimagining of The Merchant of Venice, with the emphasis, as is obvious from the title, on the character of Shylock. It is a study of his inner life and we get to know him more intimately than we ever did in the original play.
I had last encountered Howard Jacobson when I read his Man Booker Prize winner, The Finkler Question, in which he ruminated at length and often with considerable humor upon what it means to be a Jew and on the roots of anti-Semitism. In many ways, this book is a continuation of that contemplation. It seems to me that Jacobson was the perfect writer to tackle the assignment of exploring the character of Shylock in all its complexities.
He chooses to do this by materializing Shylock in a cemetery in northwestern England in the 21st century with the personality that Shakespeare gave him fully intact. Shylock appears there, in conversation with his dead wife Leah, as the philanthropist and art collector Simon Strulovitch has come to inspect the newly erected tombstone over his mother's grave.
Shylock is in the habit of having daily conversations with Leah in cemeteries or gardens, bringing her up to date on all the news and pouring out the contents of his heart to her. Strulovitch sees Shylock in the cemetery and invites him home with him and the two begin engaging in extended colloquies about the nature of Jewishness and what it is to be an observant or unobservant Jew in the modern world. The conversations crackle with both tartness and humor as they consider the tensions of the father-daughter relationship and and the quandary of being a Jew both in Shylock's time and in the modern era.
Gradually, it becomes clear that Strulovitch is a kind of modern doppelganger for Shylock. The challenges of Strulovitch's life mirror those of Shakespeare's creation. The plot, in fact, is reflective in all major aspects of Shakespeare's play, with some subtle differences of emphasis. All of the best-known characters and all of the plot devices of The Merchant of Venice can be found here in one form or another. We even see Strulovitch/Shylock demanding his "pound of flesh" in quite a unique and unexpected fashion.
My favorite parts of the book were the philosophical conversations between Strulovitch and his house guest, Shylock. These are sharp-edged verbal fencing matches which give Jacobson a chance to fully display his wit, not to mention his appreciation of the English language - and occasionally of Hebrew.
My second favorite parts - a close second - were Shylock's conversations with his dead wife. These are tender and filled with a different, gentler kind of wit and they help us to see the full humanity of Shylock.
The original Shakespeare play was a bit of comedy and a bit of tragedy. Jacobson has reimagined it with an emphasis on the comedy. It works very well in those terms.
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