Portia is generally considered as the heroine of William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, while the play’s second-most prominent female character, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is largely ignored in lots of feminist criticisms of the play. This might be due to Portia’s more evident adherence that Shakespeare used in his comedies to create the class of characters we now view as modern feminist ideals: she is witty, confident, brave, and altruistic, and Jessica is none of those things.
Portia is also part of the main plot, while Jessica’s marriage is an almost completely unnecessary subplot. Why, then, was Jessica even included in the play? Shakespeare may have intended Jessica’s insecurity, irrationality, and selfishness to contrast with the apparent perfection of Portia’s personality.
Jessica doesn’t enter the story until the third scene of the second act. She is introduced in a moment of kindness were she is shown with her household’s hired fool Launcelot, after he has told her of his plan to leave Shylock for the employment of a gentler master, Bassanio.
Her compliments to her former servant demonstrate an understated wittiness; after stating “Our house is hell”, she calls Launcelot a “merry devil”. Jessica speaks in poetry but Launcelot replies in prose. After Launcelot exits with a letter that Jessica has entrusted him to deliver, Jessica reveals her own plans to run away in a brief monologue that also demonstrates key aspects of her personality.
She starts by expressing multi-layered shame: “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / to be ashamed to be my father’s child!” However, she immediately justifies the first layer of shame with a claim that she is too different from Shylock to respect him as she was raised to do: “But though I am a daughter to his blood / I am not to his manners”.
Jessica’s next couplet shows that she sees Lorenzo’s promise as a way to escape her hellish household and end this strife. She is doubtful that he will keep that promise, but makes a promise of her own to become a loving wife. This foreshadows a major complication of Jessica and Lorenzo’s relationship: they frequently speak of their love for each other either to other characters or directly to the audience, but they rarely profess the extent of their mutual devotion in front of each other.
This foreshadows a major complication of Jessica and Lorenzo’s relationship: they frequently speak of their love for each other either to other characters or directly to the audience, but they rarely profess the extent of their mutual devotion in front of each other. These contradictions are made manifest by other characters in Merchant, who hold contradictory views of her, as well as by her own expression of a conflicted self-perception.
In act two scene two, the words flesh and blood are appearing frequently, they are only used together to describe familial relations twice: by the old Gobbo of his son Launcelot and by Shylock when he speaks of Jessica in act three scene one. However, there is some disagreement among the characters as to whether Jessica is enough like Shylock to be truly a daughter to his blood, as Jessica herself stated in her first appearance.
In the first scene of the play’s third act, Shylock expresses his incredulity about Jessica’s rebellion to two of Lorenzo’s friends: “My own flesh and blood to rebels!” After Solanio scoffs Shylock’s expectation that his grown child would remain loyal forever, Shylock repeats: “I say my daughter is my flesh and blood”. Saleri’s brilliant response echoes Jessica’s own “daughter to his blood not to his manners”, this shows that not being to Shylock’s manners makes Jessica literally not of the same flesh and blood. Salerio says to Shylock, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish” (Rhenish means German wine, which was presumably always white in the early modern era.) This contrast drawn between Shylock’s darkness and Jessica’s perceived lightness is understood to be entirely figurative, referencing Jessica’s personality instead of her appearance and race. However, Salerio’s designation of Jessica as light instead of dark is interesting because of the two major female characters in the play; Jessica is darker in her particular brand of femininity as well as in hair colour.
The last lines of Jessica’s speech in Act two, Scene three appear to reveal a carelessness about religion which contrasts with most other characters perceptions of her religiosity. Jessica states that she’ll “become a Christian” if she marries Lorenzo; someone who intends to convert for spiritual reasons would probably view herself as already a Christian, but Jessica only aims for the legal and societal inclusion that a marriage to a Christian man would offer her. She understands that her Jewish identity makes her a social outcast, and she’s not devoutly Jewish enough to pass up an opportunity to shed it. However, it is not clear whether Jessica believes Jews to be outcasts due to religion or to lineage.
The divide between Jews and Christians is usually viewed as either more religious or more racial by different characters in the play, but we can only infer their individual opinions from their treatment of Jessica. Some of these opinions are very mixed, such as that of the truly foolish fool Launcelot expressed in Act 3, Scene 5. Launcelot claims to base his prejudice on religion, but he believes Jessica will suffer eternal damnation because the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children, this means that for Launcelot, religion is actually heritable instead of ideological.
The higher-class characters wouldn’t tell Jessica that she’s going to hell for having a Jewish father. In fact, it is interesting to note that Lorenzo believes Shylock might end up in heaven because of his daughter’s goodness. However, although these characters are stating that Jessica is nothing like Shylock, their praise to her still suggests that they view the divide between Jews and Christians as a racial or class distinction; Salerio’s insistence that Jessica’s flesh and blood is so different from Shylock’s. He is only one case of a character rationalizing Jessica’s move into Christian society on the basis of her differences from other Jews. Lorenzo and his friends also frequently refer to Jessica with a possible pun on the word gentle. Lorenzo uses the word interchangeably with wise and fair every time he speaks of Jessica.
The most controversial of Jessica’s actions is the apparent selfishness of her flight from Shylock’s household. Everyone in the play who knows Shylock sees Jessica’s decision to run away with Lorenzo just as she saw it in Act 2, Scene 3: a necessary course of action to end strife. Even Launcelot, despite his aforementioned disapproval of Jews conversion to Christianity, attempts to aid Jessica in her escape from their shared master by relaying Lorenzo’s message the last time he sees Shylock.
Shylock shows very little tenderness toward Jessica herself. In Jessica’s first scene, she claimed to be living in a house of hell. This may be a teenager’s hyperbole but may also refer to legitimate familial dysfunction. He intentionally isolates Jessica from the outside world, forbidding her to even look out the window at a Christian parade when he leaves the house.
If Shylock is as abusive to his daughter as he was to his servant Launcelot, Jessica’s flight is definitely justified. However, abuse is not the only possible justification for Jessica’s departure; well-intentioned but badly executed parenting can make a house just as hellish as emotional abuse does.
In conclusion, Jessica’s flight from Shylock was only as selfish as that of a bird from its cage; the bird does not worry about leaving its trapper lonely. Jessica had respected her father’s feelings all her life, but he gave little in return. You cannot expect a bird to remain on its perch when someone opens its cage and offers it a chance to escape. However, regardless of how badly you might have treated your bird throughout its confinement, it’s probably not justified in snatching up your deceased wife’s turquoise ring before flying out the window. In addition to that, Jessica is a character that brings the light between the two groups, the Jews and the Christian’s, she tries to limit the conflicts by marrying her to Lancelot and by changing of religion.
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