Jessica in The Merchant of Venice In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare introduces his audience to the multi dimensional character of Jessica. Jessica is identified as the daughter of a Jewish Merchant but the audience learns she is much more than that. As the play moves along and Jessica marries a Christian man, Jessica’s identity as a Jewish woman is challenged. Although a minor character in the play, she is important because she makes the audience question what it means to be Jewish and therefore what it means to be Christian.
The differences between Judaism and Christianity in the play are shown through Jessica’s relationships with Shylock and Lorenzo. The father daughter relationship that Jessica and Shylock share shows the audience values of Judaism. The two have a very rocky relationship through out the play and although it appears that Jessica is no more than a rebellious teenager, their relationships and interactions show the foundations of a Jewish family. Shylock shows the rigid rules of the Jewish religion through how he treats Jessica at their home.
What the audience knows about Jessica and Shylock’s history is that Shylock locks up Jessica in their house and she is not allowed out. Jessica then undoubtedly has resentment towards her father when she says "Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil, / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness" (2. 3. 1). It is clear to the audience that Shylock not only wants to lock up his daughter to the world he, also doesn't want Jessica to experience Venetian society when he says "lock up the doors" so the sounds of music don't drift in from the streets (2. 5. 5).
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It becomes very obvious that Jessica’s house is a strict, rule driven household that she does not appreciate or like. Jessica’s life under Shylock’s rules shows the rigidness of the Jewish religion that Jessica was brought up under. These instances, at the beginning of the play, show the audience what Jessica’s life as a Jew is like. It is not until we see Jessica’s transition into a Christian that we can see the differences between the two religions. Once Jessica runs away from home and marries Lorenzo, her life as a Jewish woman comes to an end. Through this transition of Jessica’s, we see outside opinions on Judaism and Christianity.
When Jessica runs away from home to marry, a conversation is sparked between Lorenzo and his friend Gratiano. They have a conversation about why it is that Lorenzo loves Jessica. Lorenzo is trying to explain to Gratiano how Jessica does not fit the typical Jewish mold by saying “For she is wise, if I can judge of her/And fair she is, if that mine eyes be true/And true she is, as she hath proved herself”(2. 6. 53-55). From Lorenzo’s language when describing Jessica, it becomes clear that these Christians associate good traits such as fairness, intelligence, and truthfulness with being traits that most Jewish people do not possess.
On the opposite end of the argument, the play has Shylock and his response to Jessica running away, getting married, and selling her mothers wedding ring. Shylock responds by saying “Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my? turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. (3. 1. 14). Shylock is upset that his daughter would waste away her precious materials for something as foolish as a monkey. It is in this moment in the play that the audience see’s the new carefree lifestyle Jessica is living as a Christian when she denounces her mother’s ring.
Shylock, who loves material possessions, is appalled by his daughter’s carless actions. The audience sees through Jessica’s transition from Jew to Christian and from the conversations sparked in characters from this action how the two different religious groups see each other. After her transition, Jessica’s relationship with her new husband also sparks different assumptions about religion. After Jessica marries Lorenzo, her life is literally transformed from a Jew to a Christian overnight. Through her final actions of the play, the audience can see how different her two worlds are.
Her life with Lorenzo is one full of carefree fun and no material possessions. While her life with her father was one full of rules and restrictions. Once Jessica enters into this relationship with Lorenzo, the notion of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Jew is questioned. Jessica’s two different lives represent the different stereotypes of the two religions. The Jewish people in this play are portrayed through Jessica and Shylock as being an old worldview of life. Shylock’s house is very strict, rule abiding, and oriented in hard work.
While on the other hand, Lorenzo represents the New Testament, Christian view of the world where people are much more about living carefree and denouncing material possessions. When Jessica marries Lorenzo and becomes a Christian through marriage she also brings up another question about religion and what makes a person a Jew. Jessica is a Jew by birth but converts to Christianity through marriage. This brings about the question of is it birth or decision that makes a person a certain religion.
Lancelot first brings this about when he claims that Jessica is damned because she was born Jewish in that he is referring to the fact that there is nothing she can do to undo being Jewish. The audience also sees many lines where the image of blood is brought up. Shylock refers to his daughter as “my own flesh and blood” (3. 1. 32) and Jessica states, “I am a daughter to his blood” (2. 3. 18). This image of blood that Jessica and Shylock share bonds them together and parallels the idea that Judaism runs in the blood, therefore is determined at birth.
Although Lancelot seems to believe that Judaism runs in the blood, Jessica believes that she can overturn this by marrying Lorenzo. She states, “I shall be saved by my husband/He hath made me a Christian" (3. 5. 3). To her, Judaism is out of her because her husband, Lancelot, made her into a Christian through marriage. Here we see two differences in what the characters of the play believe makes a person Jewish. Lancelot believes Jessica is Jewish by birth, and Jessica believes that marrying Lorenzo can make her into a Christian. The character Jessica is important in The Merchant of Venice because of the questions she brings up about religion.
Her relationship with her father shows her life as a Jew while her marriage to Lorenzo shows her conversion into a Christian. These two worlds of Jessica play off of each other and through them the audience is able to see the differences between Judaism and Christianity. Through Jessica’s transition from Jew to Christian, the audience is able to see the large differences between the Jewish and Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice. Works Cited Evans, G. , ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
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