Hogarth press have got several famous writers to "update" Shakespeare's works and write novels based on his plays. Last year we had 'The Gap of Time' By Jeanette Winterson and next up we have Howard Jacobson's take on 'The Merchant of Venice' set in a wealthy Cheshire village full of wealthty Footballers called 'Shylock is My Name'
Whereas Jeanette Winterson stuck very closely to the plot of The Winters Tale. Jacobson uses Shylock's words to Tubal about his wife Leah as a catalyst for exloring the play and in particular his own protagonist Strulovitch (a proto-Shylock).
"Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."
They have a lot in common, not just their "jewishness" but both have a "lost" or estranged daughter, both have wealth and both have lost their wives. Shylock and Strulovitch expound on their religion and their race throughout the book and discuss what it means to them to carry or not carry the weight of this. There are moments where you question whether Strulovitch (a fan of Shakespeare) isn't imaging these interatcions with Shylock who is goading him on to the final moments where Shylock seems to get his revenge on everyone and speaks "the quality of mercy is not strained" to Strulovitch.
Shylock in the orioginal lends Antonio money and in return if Antonio doesn't pay up on time he demands a pound of his flesh. In this version Strulovitch requests instead a 'snip' of flesh (or rather a conversation to Judasim through circumcision) and asks Gratan, a mixture of the rather wet Lorenzo and the the anti-semitic Graziano, who wants to marry his daghter Beatrice, to get circumcised. This is a powerful and superb spin on the original story into a modern setting.
At times near the start of the book the discussion betwen Shylock and Strulovitch seems to go on a tad too long but it's a great exploration of the play and of both of these two men.
We are reminded of Shakespeare throughout with pepperings of lines taken from his plays and Hamlet in particular. Jacobson wanted to do Hamlet but I think he has done a fascinating and insightful job here with The Merchant of Venice.