Rebecca Wallersteiner speaks to Howard Jacobson about his darkly comic new novel, Shylock Is My Name

Al Pacino’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

Howard Jacobson

This April marks 400 years since Shakespeare died and to commemorate Stratford’s most famous son, Howard Jacobson has reinterpreted The Merchant Of Venice in a gripping tale of love, death, art and a pound of flesh – as well as plastic surgery.

In his new book, Shylock Is My Name, Jacobson examines contemporary issues of Jewish identity with his sharp, biting, northern humour. He asks what it means to be a father, a Jew and a merciful human being in today’s modern world.

He is the first author brave enough to take up the challenge of re-imagining the Bard’s most controversial tragedy, in a bid to tackle its much-debated tones of anti-Semitism.

Some historians have been quick to point out that the deeply unsettling character of Shylock was exploited by the Nazi regime for their propaganda. Although many have accused Shakespeare of also hating Jews, it is probable the much-lauded playwright may wellhave never met a Jewish person at all, as they had been expelled from England by the time of his birth and anti-Semitism didn’t yet have a name.

His play would have been interpreted very differently by 16th century Christian audiences who had no concept of the Holocaust.

“Only a fool would think he has anything to add to Shakespeare. Can one tell the same story today, when every reference carries a different charge? There’s the challenge. I quake before it,” says the Booker prize-winning author.

Jacobson’s timely rewrite comes three years after he criticised leading actors, including Emma Thompson and director Mike Leigh of “McCarthyism” for attempting to block Israel’s national theatre company from performing The Merchant of Venice in London. At the time, Jacobson had passionately commented: “Artists should never be in favour of censorship.”

Al Pacino’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

Al Pacino’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

With a reported 50 percent cent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain last year, Shakespeare’s play perhaps has more relevance than ever to contemporary audiences, whether Jewish or not.

Shylock Is My Name couldn’t be more different to Jacobson’s hilarious last novel J, set in the future and short-listed for the Booker prize – although it is also about dysfunctional, mainly Jewish relationships.

The 73-year-old’s latest novel is part of a project in which contemporary writers re-imagine Shakespeare’s plays (among the others are Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale and Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest). He has transplanted Shakespeare’s play from Venice to Cheshire’s golden triangle – home of TV presenters, models, actresses, workaholic bankers and star footballers.

He tackles the original work’s more uncomfortable themes: Jew-hatred, Jews and money, Jewish family-relationships and incisively examines them in a contemporary northern setting, throwing in plenty of quotations from Shakespeare.

The novel opens in a Jewish cemetery, in bleak mid-winter. With a very sick wife and daughter running wild, the central character, Simon Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist,” is in need of someone to talk to. So when he meets the bereaved Shylock in the cemetery talking to his late wife Leah, he invites him home.

This marks the beginning of an extraordinary friendship. Apart from sharing a sense of loneliness, both Jewish men are single fathers who are obsessed with their rebellious daughters.

Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, has left him.

Strulovitch’s beautiful daughter, Beatrice, also on the verge of abandoning her father, falls into the arms of a handsome footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field.

Howard Jacobson’s new novel

Howard Jacobson’s new novel

Strulovitch alternates between grief for his beloved, increasingly absent wife, who has suffered a terrible stroke, with rage against his own daughter’s rejection of her Jewish upbringing.

The narrative culminates in an ingenious, shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh. According to Jacobson, The Merchant Of Venice is not anti-Semitic, preferring to consider it “embarrassing maybe, but not anti-Semitic.” The Manchester-born writer adds: “The most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”

Four centuries after Shakespeare’s death and 500 years after the founding of the Venice Ghetto, these ideas still have the power to shock. I ask Jacobson how he would have felt about living in the Venice Ghetto and he replies wryly: “If I’d had to live in Venice, then anywhere far from Portia, Antonio, Basanio, Gratiano and the rest of them would have been desirable. But as a general rule I don’t like living in ghettos or ghetto-like neighbourhoods. And I wouldn’t have wanted kosher food and wine given what was available elsewhere in Venice.”

As with all Jacobson’s novels, most of the characters in Shylock are unmistakably Jewish. Bookies are bound to list Shylock Is My Name as one of the favourites to win the 2016 Booker Prize, which Jacobson last won for The Finkler Question in 2010. Every word and sentence in his new novel counts. “I re-write passages over and over again and one good thing about winning the Booker Prize is that you don’t feel you need to worry about winning it again – although I rather like seeing my name on lists,” he explains.

I ask Jacobson what he would have asked Shakespeare. He responds, tongue-in-cheek: “First of all I would say “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” to show I know his work. Then I’d ask if he considered Hamlet a self-portrait. Then I’d ask him where he got his ideas from… no, I wouldn’t!” • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson, published by Hogarth Shakespeare, priced £16.99, is available now in paperback and eBook