Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson brings his singular brilliance to this modern re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters: Shylock
Winter, a cemetery, Shylock. In this provocative and profound interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is juxtaposed against his present-day counterpart in the character of art dealer and conflicted father Simon Strulovitch. With characteristic irony, Jacobson presents Shylock as a man of incisive wit and passion, concerned still with questions of identity, parenthood, anti-Semitism and revenge.
While Strulovich struggles to reconcile himself to his daughter Beatrice's “betrayal” of her family and heritage—as she is carried away by the excitement of Manchester high society, and into the arms of a footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field—Shylock alternates grief for his beloved wife with rage against his own daughter's rejection of her Jewish upbringing. Culminating in a shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh, Jacobson’s insightful retelling examines contemporary, acutely relevant questions of Jewish identity while maintaining a poignant sympathy for its characters and a genuine spiritual kinship with its antecedent—a drama which Jacobson himself considers to be “the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”
In the second Hogarth retelling of Shakespeare (following Jeanette Winterson's retelling of The Winter's Tale), Booker winner Jacobson plunks an unchanged Shylock into present-day suburban Manchester for a take on The Merchant of Venice. When businessman and philanthropist Simon Strulovitch meets Shylock, he's fascinated: who better to talk through his Jewish issues with? Shakespeare's other characters get updated: Antonio is an art dealer who does favors for handsome men, among them versions of Bassanio and Gratiano one a dopey boy toy, the other a dopier footballer. When Gratiano (here named Gratan) begins dating Strulovitch's daughter, the question arises whether Gratan will convert, which would involve circumcision. Jacobson isn't cheating the circumcision is one reading of the famous pound of flesh but here it's the engine of the plot. The other, bigger problem is Portia, whom Jacobson recreates as a reality-show host named Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine. This dim Portia cheats the play and saps the book's power: there's not much conflict when one side (Shylock and Strulovitch) has all the good lines. When Shylock and Strulovitch are swapping jokes, stories, and fears, the tale is energetic, but Jacobson's dutiful unfolding of the original plot dissipates the book's force, making it more of a curio than a work that stands on its own.