Howard Jacobson re-imagines 'The Merchant of Venice' for modern Britain in 'Shylock Is My Name'

In this exclusive extract from Howard Jacobson's new novel, we meet the play's heroine now transferred from a palazzo in Belmont to the charms of wealthy Cheshire, while John Walsh looks at updating Shakespeare

There lived once in a big old house equidistant from Mottram St Andrew, Alderley Edge and Wilmslow – at the very heart of what is still known to estate agents as the Golden Triangle – a dope-smoking media don who disapproved of dope and media, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune who favoured the redistribution of all wealth but his own, a utopist who mistrusted the principle of social amelioration, a lover of Gregorian chant who fantasised about being a rock legend, a whimsical conservationist who bought his sons fast cars with which they tore up the very country roads he wanted conserving. If he sounds like many people it's because many people were wrapped up in him. But he was just one man, a single fretting bundle of idealistic envy. “Sometimes,” he told his students at the business school in Stockport of which he was the dean, “even the fortunate and gifted can feel their lives are mortgaged to a perplexing sadness”. “You don't say,” his students said behind his back.

For Peter Shalcross MBE, one day had become the same as every other. A live morning radio interview on any subject, an afternoon lecture to his students on Mercantilism and Alienation – on alternate weeks he changed the title to Money and Estrangement – and then the drive home in the early evening to the heart of the Golden Triangle where a neat Scotch and scarlet smoking jacket awaited him, and where he could fulminate in comfort against the faux manses and manor houses of which the Strulovitches and their kind had taken possession. Every evening at the same time he fulminated, saying the same things and feeling the same burning sensation in his chest. But habit took nothing from the fervour of his animus. Only someone who enjoyed the benefits of great wealth himself could have been made so angry by the great wealth of others – the difference being that he hadn't had to earn his, the fact of which also made him obscurely angry.

“Can you smell anything?” he would ask visitors, throwing open the doors to his grounds, and when they had exhausted the possibilities – someone burning off leaves in the next county, horse manure, faulty plumbing, dust from the Sahara – he would rub the tips of his fingers together and say, “No, none of those, what I smell is more like lucre...The filthy sort.”

Though he was concerned about the effect that the propinquity of lucre might have on the air quality, the hedgerows and his only daughter, Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Christine – Christine being the name of the flighty society model he had ill-advisedly married and whose influence on him extended all the way down to his candy-striped socks and fashionably pointed, high crepe-soled shoes – Shalcross was known to boast to his academic colleagues about the millionaire pop stars and footballers who were his neighbours. This was not to be confused with hypocrisy. A man can boast and still deplore. 

“If you wanted a pop-idol life, Christine, you should have run off with a pop idol,” he told his wife the night the Cheshire constabulary raided the anything-goes party she'd thrown for Plurabelle's sixteenth birthday. In fact he was the one who should have run off with a pop idol. Or better still, been a pop idol.

It wasn't the amyl nitrite that brought the police out, it was the amplified music. And it was a rhythm guitarist, residing half a mile away, who'd alerted them. He couldn't hear himself practise, he'd complained. Even the noisy were entitled to peace. It was their human right.

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Magisterial: English actress Dame Ellen Terry plays Portia in a stage version of 'The Merchant' , circa 1890

After thinking about it for a week, Christine Shalcross did precisely as her husband suggested, though running off in this instance meant no more than moving to the other side of the paddock, where pop idols proliferated like peonies. “For all that I'll be able to keep a close eye on her from here,” she told her husband, “I'd still prefer you to bring Plurabelle up. A girl needs a father's example and she loves you more than she loves me. You have that in common with her.”

Estranged from himself, humiliated by his wife, disappointed in his sons who had gone to work for banks which had the indecency to fail, depressed by the cynicism of his students, appalled by the social deterioration of the Golden Triangle and expecting to die early, anyway, as his parents and grandparents had, Shalcross left instructions with his solicitors for the care of Plurabelle. “Taking into account the size of her fortune and the sweetness of her nature, Plury will be at the mercy of every moneybags and bloodsucker that comes along,” he told his lawyers. “Find listed below a number of ordeals of character to which every aspirant to her bed must be submitted. Any who hope to approach her by some other route should know that my family's reach is long and extends to low places as well as high.”

Having deposited these detailed stipulations, he went into the garden of the Old Belfry – his belfry, of course, was genuinely old – laid himself out beneath the second most ancient oak tree in Cheshire, stuffed tissues up his nostrils against the stench of filthy lucre, took an overdose of the pills for which his family had been overcharging grossly for half a century, and expired.

Richly left and richly independent, Plurabelle shed copious tears – for she had inherited the sadness gene from her father – and allowed a decent interval of time to elapse before summoning the courage to read her father's test, presented to her in a long Manila envelope, like a Last Will and Testament, by his solicitors. A gap year, she called this decent interval of time. A period in which to travel, meditate, meet interesting people, have a breast enlargement and work done on her face. At the fulfilment of which, looking simultaneously younger and older than her years and ever so slightly Asiatic, she sliced into the envelope with a letter opener made of the horn of one of the rhinos she intermittently marched through the centre of Manchester to preserve. Unable to see how being able to identify the three biggest lies of the 20th century, or to name the 50 richest “foreign” families in the United Kingdom, or to suggest a viable scheme for assassinating Tony Blair, would yield her the ideal partner, she put her father's test in the bin and devised trials more likely to yield the sort of man she thought she wanted. 

On her 21st birthday she attended a swinger's party in Alderley Edge, having taken the sensible precaution of ascertaining first that her mother would not be there. She went wearing a Formula One driver's suit and goggles and jiggling the keys to each of her cars – a Volkswagen Beetle, a BMW Alpina, and a Porsche Carrera. These, once she had secured the attention of the majority of the guests, she threw into an ice bucket and went outside to wait in the Beetle. That fights broke out over the BMW and the Porsche but no one followed her to the Volkswagen didn't entirely surprise her, given that this was Cheshire, but she felt she'd learned an invaluable lesson. Deceived by ornament and the glitter of appearance, men were incapable of seeing substance let alone valuing it. 

She became a lesbian for a year, received instruction in holy orders from a nun who had once done secretarial work for her father, tried her hand at modelling, journalism, photography and kinetic sculpture, had her breasts reduced, and settled finally for running a restaurant – though she had no cookery skills – in what had been the stables of the Old Belfry. She called the restaurant Utopia and envisaged it as the centre piece of that experiment in idealistic living her father had often talked to her about but never got round to putting into practice. Guests would be invited to stay the night, or even the weekend, go on treasure hunts, play croquet, fall in and out of love, treat one another beautifully, avail themselves of therapies of various kinds from Ayurvedic massage to marriage guidance – Plurabelle herself excelled at mediating between stressed partners, having practised for many years on her parents – inveigh against wealth, though only the wealthy could afford to attend, and of course enjoy food that bespoke honest endeavour combined with profligacy. Cottage pie washed down with Krug Clos d'Ambonnay. Or white Alba truffle with tap water. Eventually, she told a reporter from Cheshire Life, she would put her own ornamental virginity on the menu but as yet had not devised a method for distinguishing the right buyer from the wrong.

Though highly photogenic in the gamin style, with a retroussé nose, a Daisy Duck mouth, golden tresses, a throaty voice that brought to mind a bee buzzing in a windowpane in late summer, and a Scandinavian weather girl's figure, Plurabelle Shalcross had her father's fascinated mistrust of the media. No, she wouldn't make a television programme about her Utopia weekends, but then again, if it were to be a series, maybe she would. To the idea of bartering her virginity on screen she brought the same complex of scruple and consent, with both finally winning out. Better, surely, from the point of view of audience interest, to keep the question of her finding the right man forever in suspense. 

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Drama queen: legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt took her star turn as Portia in 1917

Week in, week out, she could set new challenges and, week in, week out, suitors would fail them. Thus she laughed, cried, frolicked, cooked badly and, as episode followed episode, adjudicated – not just between lovers prepared to joust to win her, but between the affairs of others among her guests. Soon, imperceptibly, her programmes came to be about judgement as much as food and love. A new series entitled The Kitchen Counsellor became an overnight success. 

Couples, friends, even lifelong enemies, would bring their disputes to Plurabelle's table where, as she served them delectable dishes prepared behind the scenes by someone else, she would deliver verdicts held to be binding at least in the sense that all parties had agreed to abide by them in their release forms. Not only was this a cheaper option than going to law or even arbitration, it gave combatants a taste of passing fame and, still more alluringly, Plurabelle's incomparable sagacity. Who cared, after that, whether they had won their argument or lost it! 

For those for whom fame was less important than vindication, Plurabelle, flushed with success, initiated a live interactive webchat facility called Bicker. Here, the contentious would submit their grievances to the arbitration of the British public. “I can't be the one who decides everything,” Plurabelle told her friends. But the British public turned out to be too vitriolic an arbitrator even for its own taste, the site consumed itself in rage, and Plurabelle was once again the person who – in the humane spirit of it not mattering whether anything was decided or not – decided everything.

Life was a game and Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Wiser Than Solomon Christine its master of ceremonies.

Extracted from 'Shylock Is My Name' (Hogarth, £16.99), published on 4 February. Copyright © Howard Jacobson 2016

Encore: Updating Shakespeare

Recastings, re-imaginings and reinventions of Shakespeare's plays have been popular almost since the day he died in 1616. King Lear inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, with Captain Ahab as a tragic hero. Macbeth, Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor inspired Verdi to three operas. Hamlet and The Tempest inspired Millais and the Pre- Raphaelite painters to masterpieces. In the 20th century, Kiss me Kate and the film 10 Things I Hate About You re-worked The Taming of the Shrew, while Forbidden Planet re-located The Tempest to outer space. 

The Hogarth Shakespeare project is a bold new attempt to rework the Bard as contemporary fiction. It was launched in 2012 with the aim of commissioning some of the world's most popular authors to novelise his works. First was The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson's “cover version” of The Winter's Tale, one of the Bard's final “romance” plays. It concerned Leontes, king of Sicilia, who believes his friend Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione. She dies after a hideous courtroom scene, and her baby Perdita is banished to Bohemia. There she grows up to fall in love with Polixenes's son, everyone is reconciled and a statue of Hermione comes miraculously to life. Winterson re-imagines Leontes as Leo, a nasty hedge fund manager, with a folk-singer wife MiMi and a best friend Xen, a computer-games programmer with whom he once had a gay relationship. 

Now in Shylock is My Name, Jacobson rethinks the Bard's most controversial play, The Merchant of Venice. His Shylock is a brooding figure who acts as the conscience of Simon Strulovitch, a millionaire art dealer with a comatose wife and an errant daughter. Shylock becomes his confidant but goads him about his Jewish identity and his role as a good father. Portia, the advocate in Merchant (who has the play's most lines) is re-cast as the shallow TV star Plurabelle – see left – and Shylock himself becomes the star of the climactic court scene.

This summer will see Vinegar Girl, US author Anne Tyler's re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew, in which Katherina, the sharp-tongued older daughter of Baptista Minola, becomes Kate Battista, a chronically pissed-off pre-school teacher whose hand in marriage is sought by Pyotr, her father's lab assistant. Stand by for Margaret Atwood's take on The Tempest, Tracy Chevalier's on Othello, Jo Nesbo's on Macbeth, Edward St Aubyn's on King Lear – and Gillian Flynn's version of Hamlet. What will it be called? Gone Dad?

John Walsh

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