What role does the relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo play in The Merchant of Venice?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is an engaging question, because the answer has probably changed over time. The relationship between Lorenzo and Jessica is often overlooked when people talk about The Merchant of Venice, but there are many layers to unpack.

During Shakespeare’s time, the rebellious daughter Jessica was probably seen as a...

Check Out
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

This is an engaging question, because the answer has probably changed over time. The relationship between Lorenzo and Jessica is often overlooked when people talk about The Merchant of Venice, but there are many layers to unpack.

During Shakespeare’s time, the rebellious daughter Jessica was probably seen as a heroic figure for going against he father’s word and renouncing her Judaism. This would have been Shakespeare having it both ways: simultaneously saying that a person who happens to be Jewish is also capable of being a good human being, while also contending that one of the ways that person can be a good human being is by renouncing their Judaism.

Jessica is still generally viewed in a positive light, but nowadays those who admire her do so because she acts in the name of love, not because she acts “against” Judaism. In some modern adaptations, Jessica is played as being a callous, ungrateful and diabolical daughter, who treats Shylock far worse than she has any right to. It is tempting to read The Merchant of Venice and believe that Shakespeare liked Judaism. Shylock is a well-drawn, three-dimensional character, after all. Unfortunately, the play is a product of its time, and if Shylock was not meant to be a villain, he was at best probably meant to be portrayed as a clown. When looking at the relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo, you must consider the lens with which you are inspecting it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jessica is Shylock's daughter and only child. She willing converts to Christianity and elopes with Lorenzo, an impoverished Christian, to escape what she calls her father's “house... [of] hell.”

One of the roles of this rebellious couple is to humanize Shylock and add dimensionality to his character. He loves his daughter, grieves when she is gone, and is horrified at her conversion. This shows that he takes his family and his faith seriously. Jessica also steals a turquoise ring that her late mother gave to her father, and Shylock is genuinely upset to lose this sentimental token from his beloved wife. He says the ring is worth more to him than a "wilderness of monkeys." Shylock's love of his wife and daughter help elevate him above the caricature of the evil Jew to someone with whom we can share sympathy.

Jessica also represents one response of a strong-willed daughter to a controlling father. Unlike Portia, she runs away, steals some of her father's goods, changes her religion, and does what she wants—under the protection of a male. Jessica's is a direct rebellion, while Portia behaves more with clever ingenuity to her restricted gender role.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica is Shylock’s daughter. She defies her father’s wishes and social conventions by running off with Lorenzo. Shylock does not think she is ready to marry and, as they are Jewish, he disapproves of her marrying a Christian. Jessica represents a defiant daughter who acts selfishly and impulsively. She not only runs away but takes the jewels that are not rightly hers. By not thinking through the consequences of her rash actions, Jessica nearly destroys her own future. Jessica, in all these characteristics, is presented as a foil character to Portia, who embodies positive traits in a daughter and upholds socially accepted values.

Portia’s father, who is dead, has left a set of conditions about her future husband. While there is an element of choice involved, it falls to the suitor rather than to Portia. Although the question of inheritance enters into her decision, Portia’s primary motivation in following her father’s wishes is not financial. She is fully conscious of her family’s respectable position in society, and the only way she can uphold her reputation and bring honor to her family is by obeying her father’s orders. Portia is shown as generally patient and level-headed, the kind of person who solves problems—as in her courtroom performance—rather than creates them.

Lorenzo is a minor character who primarily functions as Jessica’s love interest. He takes an active role in helping her escape by thinking up the scheme to have her dress as a boy and serve as his torchbearer. As a Christian, his desire that his wife should convert is presented as justified, but as an accomplice to her plot and disrespect of her father, he is not a noble character. The audience must wonder as well whether his interest in her is motivated by her father’s wealth. Lorenzo also serves as a foil to Bassanio, who complies with the father’s wishes and in the end is appropriately rewarded.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jessica and Lorenzo have a relationship that differs significantly from the other relationships in the story. The key difference lies in the ex-societal nature of their bond. In the relationships between Bassanio and Portia, as well as between Nerissa and Gratiano, there is a larger community, outside the two consenting parties, that validates the relationship. In the case of Portia, she is not free to marry whom she wills because of the system of selection her father has put in place:

O me, the word choose! I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. (1.2.25)

The conditions upon which Portia forgives Bassanio at the end of the play show that this theme of accountability to an entity outside the pair exists in the relationship between Bassanio and Portia as well. Portia will not forgive Bassanio until Antonio makes a soul-damning oath that Bassanio will remain true. Thus, Portia can count on the integrity of Bassanio through the risk Antonio has taken upon himself in her husband's name.

In comparison with this, the role of Jessica and Lorenzo clashes as the polar opposite. Their act of marriage comes about through a surreptitious escape into the night. Thus they flee community. Furthermore, when we see them again in Act 5, they are out alone under the bright stars. Their presence as a contrast in the story draws the reader's attention to the nature of contractual bonds in marriage. It prompts the reader to inquire into the nature of marriage.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team