‘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’.
Enter Jacobson, who has been described as the ‘English Philip Roth’ or (by himself, presumably with a wry smile) as the ‘Jewish Jane Austen’. Much of Jacobson’s fiction, including his 2010 Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question, focuses on the lives of Anglo-Jewish men – his terms, not mine. He