Sarah Stark on Playing Jessica

One of the most alluring aspects of The Merchant of Venice is the fairy tale quality of the story line. The play is rich in images of high romance and luxury, such as gilded and feather draped masks, illicit love in gondolas, and casks of gold, silver and lead which dictate a destiny. The Venetian culture that Shakespeare composed, on the surface, appears to glister like gold. Although just as a fairy tale has an attractive surface, it also bears a deep, primitive truth which is not always so pretty. This contrast is sharply felt as the plot offers indulgent comedy spliced with acrid tones of melancholy. The bitterness seems intricately bound to the principle that appearances are deceiving. Each character, in a personal way, struggles with the tension between internal and external realities. The ambiguities and inconsistencies of their positions within this central paradox of the text cause our sympathies as audience members to be confused.

This perhaps is one of the greatest challenges in performing The Merchant of Venice. Not a single character is easy to admire. Further, serious issues, such as the undercurrent of anti-Semitism, can easily be simplified at first glance, causing them to be misunderstood and consequently resisted, rejected, or judged. However, this is also what makes the play so appealing; it identifies a common psychological epidemic of our modern culture – ennui, or vague yet pulsating discontent. Antonio’s line, which opens the play states, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (I.i). Portia seconds this with her first assertion “O how my little body is aweary of this world” (I.ii). In the opening scenes the text establishes this quality and as the play progresses these indistinct and terrible intuitions emerge into distinct and disturbing events.

The character Jessica, on the surface, abandons her faith and family and robs her father blind. However, at a deeper gaze one can see in her lines beautiful nuances of tender self-hatred, divine hope and passion, and gentleness only gained by sufferance. The text, as a whole, seems to highlight the relativity of our classifications of “good” and “bad”. It suggests that honor depends upon that which is base and, thus, morality resembles the process of alchemy. Bassanio remarks on this principle when considering the caskets: “Look on beauty / And you shall see ‘tis purchased by the weight / Which therein works a miracle in nature” (III.ii). This alchemical conceit can also be clearly witnessed in Jessica’s story. Within her text she exposes how heavy a weight she bears to receive her happy ending.

One of my initial curiosities concerning Jessica was her familiarity with the inner workings of her own heart. The first phrase to leave Jessica’s lips is “I am sorry”. I believe that the initial words a character utters provides an acute insight into the current state of their soul. The entire line reads: “I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so:” (II.iii). An intriguing instance of displacement occurs here, because although Launcelot is the person she refers to be leaving her father, Jessica herself ends the scene stating her preconceived plan to “end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife” (to Lorenzo). In her opening speech Jessica also conveys that she feels her “house is hell” (II.iii). She continues the metaphor by deeming Launcelot to be “a merry devil” that “didst rob it of some taste of tediousness”. The fact that she is speaking in verse and extends her conceit attests to the degree of desperation she feels towards her current domestic situation.

In II.v. the play allows the audience an objective glance into Shylock’s home. In that scene the conversation is dominated by Shylock. He insults Launcelot for his behavior, complains about the Christians insinuating them to be wasteful and worthy of being taken advantage of, and obsesses again about money. Although what truly sets him off is the mention of a possible masque in the streets, in response to which he commands Jessica to “Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter/ My sober house” (II.v.). Shylock’s nasty commentaries allow one to clearly perceive just how hellish their home environment can be. Sealed doors, tightly bound, which shut out light and mute the outer world leaving the clinking of coins and scales to be the only sound that Jessica daily hears. Shylock’s tight control over his house also reflects his attitude towards his wealth – to clutch, preserve, or hide. Therefore, as this is the quality of Jessica’s inner sphere one would expect her to share this temperament with her Father. However, in spirit Jessica rebels proving “Though I am a daughter to his blood / I am not to his manners” (II.v). Her passionate elopement shows that the extreme pressure of her internal state acts as a catalyst for her stifled passion to flow liberally out. The love that was choked by Shylock’s severity and avarice becomes fully blossomed and embodied by the final scene, when she is a newlywed in a moonlit garden playing with her lover.

However lovely it seems to be, Jessica’s transformation does not occur without shame, betrayal and fear. In 2.4. when Lorenzo appears in the night to steal Jessica away she candidly expresses these sentiments. First she requests Lorenzo to certify it is he. She does this because literally it is dark outside, yet the darkness also symbolizes her own state of uncertainty in her choices and in Lorenzo’s fidelity. In another instance of figurative language she states:

JESSICA
I am glad ‘tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much ashamed of my exchange:
But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy. (II.vi).

The literal transformation she speaks of is the fact that she is disguised as a boy to aid her escape. However, she first asserts shame on a personal level for her “exchange”, which is a synonym of transformation. Next she considers it objectively suggesting that even a deity of love would be embarrassed. In another context she is subconsciously commenting on her near future, because in the remainder of the play she never witnesses how the decisions she made for love have deeply hurt her father. Her final line before she leaves her house is “I will make fast the doors, and gild myself / With some more ducats, and be with you straight” (II.vi). Another confession, as linguistically there is little variation between the phonemes “d” and “t”, and thus “gild” easy becomes the pun of “guilt”. Thus a romantic and urgent love scene for Jessica is laced with self-loathing and shame.

This trend reappears in V.ii. as Jessica and Lorenzo enjoy their honeymoon in Portia’s garden in Belmont by reciting myths of ill-fated love. Jessica seems to win the sparring match at one point when she mentions the horrific tale of Medea (who betrayed two fathers only to be betrayed by her lover Jason, which results in her murdering their children and his new wife). It is interesting that in the detailed and graphic story of Medea, Jessica remarks upon the natural act of renewal that Medea performs on Jason. It is a rather a begin achievement of such a crafty enchantress. It is an act of white magic, of love, which contrasts the darker elements of Medea’s tale. Jessica is like Medea in the sense that her story is comprised of dark realities, but it is all driven by the higher cause of love. She is aware that her father bears hatred capable of murder, and that it is the course on which he is fixed. This fact provides justification for her to flee. Further, her perception of these dark qualities in her father terrifies her to consider what may lie deep in her own desires. This conception, of glimpsing the ugliness of the evil within our own hearts through the weakness or folly of another, is at the heart of all intolerance within the play. Bassanio expresses it best when he states: “Do all men kill the things they do not love?” (IV.i). Shylock tries to and fails, Jessica does and succeeds.

Ultimately I found that Jessica’s insight into Shylock’s evil drives her to place all her hope in love. Thus she is called “amorous Jessica” (II.viii). The more excessively she can give love, the more she can purge her own soul of the fear that spawns hate. She reveals her faith in salvation by love when she states “I shall be saved by my husband” (II.v). So she does receive a wedding and bedding in the end, yet the vague terror of an uncertain future and the awareness of a nefarious past follow like a foul aftertaste to remind us that a surface always covers a recess.