Venice. A street.
I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so;
Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil,
Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.
But fare thee well; (She gives him some money) there is a ducat for thee,
And Launcelot, soon at supper shalt thou see
Lorenzo, who is thy new master's guest;
Give him this letter, do it secretly,
And so farewell; I would not have my father
See me in talk with thee.
Adieu! tears exhibit my tongue, most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew! if a Christian do not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived; but adieu! these foolish drops do something drown my manly spirit; adieu!
Farewell, good Launcelot.
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian, and thy loving wife!
The Merchant of Venice is often seen as an anti-Semitic work due to the stereotypical portrayal of the Jewish character Shylock. Some critics would argue that the almost inevitable interpretation of Shylock as a miserly wretch who cares for nothing but his money is Shakespeare expressing now-unfashionable anti-Jewish views. However, one must remember that this view was seen as entirely normal and acceptable at the time, and most of the Jews of Elizabethan England had stoicly accepted such treatment.
There is also another Jewish character in the play, and it is Shakespeare's portrayal of her that suggests that his views are not so anti-Semitic after all. Instead, one might argue that Shylock is set up as a hyper-typical Jewish character and is used for comic effect and actually serves to undermine the traditional [perception of Jews as inferior. His daughter Jessica, on the other hand, is often seen in a most favourable light and is clearly well-liked by all the characters she encounters. Here, I will explore her role in the play.
There are a number of key themes that run throughout the play and pertain to all the characters in it; the character of Jessica is able to link each of these themes and tie them together. The extract presented is taken from Act II Scene III, immediately after the comic scene of Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo.
Jessica, as the daughter of Shylock, is born a Jew and is brought up in a Jewish household. As the reader will have seen in earlier scenes, Jews in general and in particular Shylock were faced with constant persecution. This discrimination would seem quite normal to the Elizabethan audience of the time. Jessica, however, seems to encounter an altogether different attitude, which could be seen as evidence that Shakespeare did not see Jews as inherently inferior but rather as a product of the treatment they received at the hands of the Christians of the time. In this passage, there is not a single negative epithet bestowed upon her, quite in apposition to the scenes of Shylock and Antonio; indeed Launcelot calls her a “most sweet Jew”, which appears to be an oxymoron when seen in it’s historical context.
This “most beautiful pagan” also has another crucial role in the play, and that is to extend the theme of love, by her relationship with Lorenzo. This is surely the closest to the archetypal Classical love story that we come to in the play, as two characters with wildly different backgrounds fall in love, much to the dismay of the parental figure of Shylock. There are also parallels to the romance of Portia and Bassanio, as Portia too is controlled by her father, even though he is dead, and is attracted to a man of far lower class than herself. In the extract, we see Jessica’s willingness to convert to Christianity; again, a quite shocking revelation to the audience of the time! But when she promises to “become a Christian, and [Lorenzo]’s loving wife”, it is apparent that her volunteering to convert is a demonstration of the depth of her love for Lorenzo. Indeed, so obvious is her affection for the Christian that even Launcelot, speaking in prose, realises that “if a Christian do not … get [her], [he] is much deceived.” This is Shakespeare suggesting that Jessica’s love for Lorenzo is so apparent and over-flowing that even the fool can recognise it. Addressing a soliloquy to an off-stage character further emphasises her devotion to him.
Shylock’s control of his daughter leads to another key aspect of the play; the universal dislike for Shylock. Jessica admits she is “ashamed to be [her] father’s child”, and clearly if she is willing to desert her religion then she must hold little trust in her father’s beliefs. It is worth remembering that Shylock is the only family Jessica has. Therefore to leave him behind demonstrates not only that she is disillusioned with the identity forced upon her by the attitude towards Jews of the time but also that she is completely in love with Lorenzo. When she describes her house as having a “taste of tediousness”, the strong dental alliteration immediately creates images of words being spat out with distaste and powerful passion. However, she is unable to forget that she is “a daughter to his blood”; that part of Shylock will always be in her and she is inescapably a Jew. It is perhaps hard for a modern audience to imagine how it must feel to receive such tireless persecution that one would want to disown one’s own race, but it is part of the power of the play that the audience is able to empathise at least a little with Jessica’s plight.
Shakespeare imbues Jessica with a number of characteristics that would certainly not be seen as stereotypically Jewish by an Elizabethan audience. In the extract, she presents the house servant Launcelot with a ducat, showing that she has generosity. On the one hand this act suggests her closeness to the servant and sympathy for him. On the other hand this serves to reinforce the mistress-to-servant relationship that is seen to so comically break down between Portia and Nerissa. If the latter interpretation is taken - that Jessica is keen to maintain the status quo on mistress seniority - surely it is all the more surprising and even impressive that she makes such a gesture, and certainly it raises the audience’s sympathy for her unfortunate circumstance.
Another unexpected characteristic is the way in which, in the extract, she is seen to encourage the “merry devil” Launcelot; quite the opposite of her father who later tells her to lock up the house when the masque parade comes past. This desire for light-hearted entertainment is deliberately designed to separate her own manner from that of her father in the minds of the audience. In addition to “merry devil”, Jessica makes use of a number of other Christian images in the extract, saying that her “house is hell” and lamenting, “What a heinous sin is it in me.” The use of these overtly Christian ideas would no doubt appear ironic to an audience who saw Jews as pagans and altogether ignorant of their own, supposedly superior, spiritual concepts. Such provocative language as “heinous sin” might even have seemed comic.
Indeed, despite the emotionally charged nature of the extract, there is no doubt that this scene could be performed in an amusing fashion. Launcelot exaggerated style in “these foolish drops do something drown my manly spirit” and his parting cry of “adieu,” coming from a fool and presented in prose, could only be seen as deliberate high-style and therefore comic. His muddled words, for example “exhibit” where “inhibit” is intended, show that he is neither adept at nor accustomed to speaking in such a fashion, and is doing so presumably to impress and console Jessica. Following on from such a comic scene as the exchange of Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo, it is inevitable that the audience is in a mood for laughter. An interpretation that left this extract completely devoid of humour might well leave the performance disjointed and the audience in the wrong state of mind to receive such a powerful speech. By showing that she is good-humoured and surrounding her with other like-minded characters, Shakespeare further separates her from her father in the audience’s perception.
Jessica also has some part in another major theme of the play; that of money. For although many characters in the play are driven by money, Jessica herself seems rather generous. This has been touched on before, as again such an attitude is not one that the audience of the time would associate with Jews, although today we would barely give it a second thought. Just as she passes the money to Launcelot, she warns that she “would not have [her] father see [Launcelot] in talk” with her, which is clearly linked to her resentment of her father and the way in which she is presented as a very different character from him. However, there is an apparent conflict with this view of her selfless attitude to money just a few scenes later - Solanio reports that, when she absconded with Lorenzo, Jessica took with her “two sealed bags of ducats … and two rich and precious stones.” Of course Solanio is exaggerating to parody Shylock but, even with this in mind, it seems Jessica has been greedy in stealing from her father. However, I would see this as evidence of just how detached from her father Jessica has become. For a character in other ways so unconcerned with money to take such an excessive sum there must surely be an act of retribution involved, along with the need for financial provision.
In conclusion, I would say that Jessica has a key role to play in the comedy. For those looking for evidence that Shakespeare was not anti-Semitic, the positive light in which Jessica is portrayed is undoubtedly compelling evidence. If anything, she shows that Jews are on an equal footing with Christians but can only be recognised as such if they abandon their faith, and thus Shakespeare mocks the idea that they are somehow an inferior race. The love story with Lorenzo and her attitude towards money help separate her from her father in the way the audience perceive the two Jewish characters of the play, and show that there is much variation within the race and therefore the traditional stereotypes are inaccurate. In the extract, her own ironic dialogue and the amusing exchange with Launcelot show that she is as good-humoured and amusing as any of the Christians in the play. Her key role, I believe, is to counteract any impression that Shylock is intended to display a stereotype to which all Jews would be expected to conform.