Joanna Kavenna

Paying It back

Shylock Is My Name

By Howard Jacobson

Hogarth Shakespeare 277pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

‘Only a fool would think he has anything to add to Shakespeare,’ Howard Jacobson writes. This remark was bravely cited in a press release from Hogarth, announcing a new series of prose ‘retellings’ of plays by Shakespeare. The first to emerge was Jeanette Winterson’s A Gap of Time, a witty retelling of The Winter’s Tale. Now Jacobson has retold The Merchant of Venice. Other retellers will include Jo Nesbø, Anne Tyler and Edward St Aubyn. Of course, there is nothing fundamentally startling about anyone ‘retelling’ Shakespeare; his plays have been refashioned in innumerable ways, from the prose adaptations of Charles and Mary Lamb, to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, to My Own Private Idaho, and so on. His influence is inescapable: Shakespearean cadences are integral to the English language, and thus you might say, Caliban-esque, that we have all been inducted into a variety of Shakespearean consciousness, whether we like it or not. The most a writer can do, as Lawrence Durrell said, is ‘pay back these socking debts with a tiny bit of interest’. 

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