Perse Studio

Independent-learning super-curriculum projects: reading, research and ideas shared by Perse students

The role of Jessica in the Merchant of Venice: Kirill N, year 8

An independently instigated and researched essay from a year 8 pupil.

Jessica, through a magnifying glass: senseless or spiteful?

The role of Jessica in the Merchant of Venice is a subject of much debate. Those who dislike her would argue that she represents greed, selfishness and disloyalty. Others may say that she is young, her house she deemed to be “hell”, they say that Jessica is meant to be pitied, not ridiculed.

Bonds, devotion and loyalty – main subject of the play. It is incontestable that her actions in Act 2 scene 6 were a betrayal of Shylock. Not only did she abandon him, alone, knowing he lived for her, but she also took a considerable sum of money. Far from betrayal this can only truly be described as spiteful, perhaps she wishes to punish Shylock for the way he treats her. Deceit comes easily to Jessica, on being asked by a suspicious Shylock the subject of an excessively prolonged discussion with Lancelot, Jessica replies that “his words were farewell mistress, nothing else”. It is a measure of how Shylock loves her that not only does he not press for the truth, for clearly Lancelot spoke for longer and with more agitation than needed to bid goodbye. He also allows her to remain alone during a Christian festival, it is clear from this that he trusts her, implying that Jessica has not revealed her frustration at not being allowed outside excessively, to him. As a result I believe it could be suggested, that Jessica is looking for an excuse to leave, the words “my House is hell” are merely an assurance to herself that she is truly miserable, when perhaps this is not the case.

It is here that one can draw a comparison between Shakespeare’s Jessica and Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca. In “Ivanhoe” the latter was the incarnation of goodness. The situations are remarkably similar yet where Jessica ran away, fled; forsaking all loyalty, Rebecca stayed, opting to keep her conscience clean, not simply choosing to obtain personal contentment.

Where Jessica shows anger, remarking, in a spiteful way “If my fortune not be cross’d, I have a father, you a daughter lost.” Rebecca shows dignity and intelligence for, upon being asked to marry and become a Christian, she replies “I may not change the faith of my fathers like a garment that is unsuited to the climate in which I wish to dwell.” Then there is the use to which Jessica puts her money, buying monkeys and spending “four score ducats in one night”, Rebecca, meanwhile, uses her wealth to reimburse those her father has mistreated, or assisting the poor.

Of-course, it seems unjust that I accuse Jessica of taking the easy path, surely whilst her actions were not morally correct they were justifiable? However, this is where another major point arises; so far little has been mentioned of the money which Jessica stole from her unsuspecting father. Many argue that Jessica took because she thought Lorenzo wouldn’t enjoy a poor Jewesses company; this supported by her continued statements that “love is blind and lovers cannot see”. However, surely this is rather overshadowed by what we have learnt of Jessica so far. It is my opinion that Shakespeare presents her as young, carefree and foolish. The money which “should” have been spent on Lorenzo is instead wasted on extravagant parties, the ring which Leah gave to Shylock is readily exchanged for “a monkey”. Those who search for hidden truths behind the stealing of the money are, in my opinion, looking too deeply into the meaning. Jessica appears to be shallow, her thoughts of “What heinous sin it is in me to be ashamed to be my Fathers child?” are quickly brushed aside. Jessica seems not to comprehend what she means to Shylock, treating him as a source of money. This is further highlighted when she reveals no remorse or shame during her happy conversations with Lorenzo amidst the gardens of Belmont; she rejoices whilst her father grieves. Furthermore in those gardens Jessica jokes about her abandoning her faith “Did young Lorenzo swear he lov’d her well, stealing her soul with many vows of faith, and ne’er a true one”. It is almost as if Jessica finds it irrelevant that her father weeps, or perhaps she revels in his misery, for why else would she sell a ring, who someone even as emotionless as Shylock treasured beyond so much else? This appears to be an act of vengeance, an attempt to humiliate a stricken father. I dismiss that Jessica knew not of the rings importance, she has shown herself to be incredibly selfish, it follows that there is no reason why she should not give away a treasure which is of no significance to her.

Jessica is quick to sever all ties with Shylock excepting any which involve the transaction of money, the conclusion made from this is that unlike Rebecca she is a materialist, her father; simply a rich man who she forsook and from whom she wants nothing but wealth.

Admirers of Jessica would say that she is trustworthy because Portia bequeathed the responsibility for her estate onto Jessica and Lorenzo. Yet all this truly demonstrates is that Portia, is irresponsible enough to delegate important tasks on people who she has only just met.

During the plays conclusion one asks themselves whether Shylock’s lack of remorse and almost palpable hatred for Christians is directly linked to the fact that mere days before the trial Shylock’s daughter sided with the Christians? Is it need for vengeance which drives Shylock to the refusal of so much money? Unknowingly an ignorant Jessica aggravates her father to such an extent that by the end of the play he is repeating the phrase “I will have my bond” almost continuously, he has become obsessed, anger and grief have made him say things he does not mean “I wish my daughter were dead at my feet and the ducats in her ears”. Admittedly Jessica is unlikely to have foreseen this but her lack of remorse and conscience so contrasts with Rebecca, that, with the exception of their circumstances, the two Jewesses are almost completely opposites of each other.

Amidst all this the audience is made to question the primary motives for Jessica’s escape. Shakespeare’s once again uses his, much explored theme of escape from incarceration, the breaking of the rules; for love. This happened in “Romeo and Juliet”, “A Midsummer Night’s dream”, the list goes on and on. Yet in this play it is my belief that love is less of a theme. Even Bassanio remarks first that “In Belmont is a lady richly left” only then does he go on to talk about Portia’s looks and personality; perhaps hinting that her wealth is more appealing than her appearance. Clearly this play is all about money and loyalties, so it is only logical that the “lesser couple”, as Camille Slights would have them, are together; one for money (Lorenzo), the other (Jessica), to be free of oppression. This view is supported by Lorenzo seemingly awaiting Jessica’s words of “catch this casket, it is worth thy pains” showing his affections, like Bassanio are centred largely, around money. Jessica’s love is perhaps more pure it is not entirely innocent, as was mentioned she understands her inferiority to Lorenzo, treating him, despite her sentiments (“for who I love so much?”), as less of a lover, more of a saviour.

In conclusion, Jessica, much like Shylock, is extremely complicated. She is foolish and selfish yet is this her fault? Camille tells us that  Jessica is misunderstood, her thievery: the act of a young worried women who yearns for a freedom she fears she will not obtain. Often, one is given to wonder whether all this analysis is useful, whether Shakespeare, brilliant as he was, really meant to devise such complicated characters with personalities which would never be apparent during the performance for which they were devised. I believe that Jessica (and Shylock) represent(s) a change. During this time Jews were hated, however, in the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare does his best to outline Shylock, and more arguably Jessica, as controversial. Is it men like Shakespeare who shifted the public’s views away from those accented in the Jew of Malta; paving the way for further novels in which it was the Christians who were controversial(for example Brian de Bois Guilbert in Ivanhoe) and the Jews who harboured all the positive traits?

Jessica is the most obvious example in the play of where loyalties to family are set against “love”, the audience are made to think, to deliberate about their prejudices. It is a measure of Shakespeare’s genius that instead of creating characters who were either good or bad he elaborated, producing people whose motives are still debated on today.

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