I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
‘Who is this guy, Dad? What is he doing here?’
With an absent wife and a daughter going off the rails, wealthy art collector and philanthropist Simon Strulovitch is in need of someone to talk to. So when he meets Shylock at a cemetery in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, he invites him back to his house. It’s the beginning of a remarkable friendship.
Elsewhere in the Golden Triangle, the rich, manipulative Plurabelle (aka Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Christine) is the face of her own TV series, existing in a bubble of plastic surgery and lavish parties. She shares prejudices and a barbed sense of humour with her loyal friend D’Anton, whose attempts to play Cupid involve Strulovitch’s daughter – and put a pound of flesh on the line.
Howard Jacobson’s version of The Merchant of Venice bends time to its own advantage as it asks what it means to be a father, a Jew and a merciful human being in the modern world.
Confession of ignorance first: I am completely unfamiliar with this author. Even his name is unknown to me, which is unusual for one who works in a library and frequently plays in them too. But the Hogarth Shakespeare has chosen well for their Merchant of Venice rewrite. Jacobson is a talented writer.
To my mind, the two plays of Shakespeare which are the most challenging for modern audiences are The Taming of the Shrew due to the role of women in it and The Merchant of Venice for what appears to be anti-Semitism. I know that there are plenty of arguments on either side for why these plays are or aren’t examples of prejudice and whether we should care or not. I don’t have the credentials to express any definitive opinions on these matters, although I can see where the debates spring from. I just know that I enjoy the works of Shakespeare and I don’t avoid these two plays, although they may make me uncomfortable.
Writing a modern version of the beloved works of Shakespeare can’t be an easy task, but Jacobson is up to it. The choice of a Jewish author for this volume was inevitable—who else to tackle the thorny problem of prejudice embedded in the plotline? And Jacobson explores it thoroughly and examines the nature of the prejudice from several angles. I found the introduction of the “actual” character of Shylock into the modern setting an interesting choice. At first, I was unsure that people besides the main character Strulovitch could see him, but it soon became obvious that he was an actual corporeal being. He is definitely more than just being Strulovitch’s outer conscience or cheering section. In fact, it is through his commentary that Jacobson analyzes the prejudice embedded in the play, and by extension in society.
During the first maybe 50 pages, I was strongly reminded of our Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, who wrote so colourfully of the Jewish experience in Montreal (thinking of St. Urbain’s Horseman). Perhaps it was just the suggestion that both men were Jewish and the impression melted away as I progressed. But it did make me think that I need to return to more of Richler’s works, which I haven’t read since I was in university many years ago.
I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as Jeannette Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale, which is not to say that I didn’t find it worth my time. As usual, it is probably more to do with the fact that I have never seen The Merchant of Venice performed. I will also definitely keep Mr. Jacobson in my mind for future reading. I am very much looking forward to the next Hogarth Shakespeare volume—I have a library hold on Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl and have recently seen The Taming of the Shrew, so I expect to enjoy it a great deal.