The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Extended Character Analysis

Jessica is Shylock’s daughter in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. In a bid to escape her unhappy family home, she elopes with Lorenzo, a penniless Christian. She converts to Christianity as a consequence of marrying Lorenzo. Before leaving Shylock’s house, she steals a chest full of ducats and family heirlooms. Among those heirlooms is a turquoise ring given to Shylock by his late wife, Leah. After eloping, Jessica and Lorenzo travel to Belmont and eventually arrive at Portia’s estate. When Portia leaves to attend Antonio’s trial, she leaves Jessica and Lorenzo in charge of her estate.

Jessica primarily serves as a contrast for Portia. Portia is a dutiful daughter who begrudgingly obeys her father’s will. In contrast, Jessica abandons Shylock and steals from his fortune. Portia’s marriage is symbolically sanctioned by her father because she upholds his will. In contrast, Jessica’s father is forced to acknowledge hers after being threatened with death in court. Both women are strong-willed and independent. However, Portia works within the restrictions of her circumstances, whereas Jessica breaks free from restrictions.

This contrast also subtly comments on the double standard between Christians and Jews in Elizabethan England and Renaissance Italy. Readers are invited to view Portia’s adherence to her father’s will as admirable and virtuous because her father was a respected Christian. However, Jessica’s betrayal of her father is also portrayed as admirable, because she is fleeing her Jewish family and converting to Christianity. The implication seems to be that filial devotion is only virtuous if one’s parents are Christians. Jessica distances herself as much as possible from her father, referring to  herself as a “daughter to his blood” but not “to his manners.”

Both of the primary Jewish characters in the play convert to Christianity. However, whereas Shylock’s conversion to Christianity is forced, Jessica’s conversion is enthusiastic. Jessica’s decision to convert can be interpreted in different ways. By reading her conversion as advantageous, her soul is saved as a result of falling in love with Lorenzo. Rather than adhering to her father’s traditions, Jessica instead escapes from Shylock’s control and marries the man she loves. Christianity is portrayed as the path to salvation and freedom for Jessica. She escapes from her “hell”-like house and gains a new “father” in the form of the Christian God.

However, her conversion can also be read as a means of spiting her father. By this reading, her conversion is more of a byproduct of her marriage to a Christian than it is a quest for Christian salvation. Jessica openly admits that she is “asham’d to be [her] father’s daughter.” She also says that her father’s “house is hell.” As she leaves, she steals several thousand ducats from Shylock. Many of her actions seem designed to spite Shylock, such as when she sells Leah’s turquoise ring. By converting to Christianity, she also prevents Shylock from having any legitimate Jewish heirs to his fortune. This forces him to either acknowledge his Christian son-in-law or allow his fortune to die with him.

If read from Shylock’s perspective, Jessica has committed the ultimate betrayal of both her faith and her father. Shylock has suffered verbal and economic abuse from the Christian merchants for years. However, it is not until his daughter is “stolen” by the Christians that he truly fulfills his intention to follow through on Antonio’s bond. Furthermore, when Shylock hears that Jessica has sold the turquoise ring he received from his late wife, he seems genuinely emotional. By this reading, Jessica is not an aspirant Christian fleeing an abusive father. Instead, she is a materialistic spendthrift who sells an item that her allegedly greedy father would not have sold for “a wilderness of monkeys.” Like so many of the characters in The Merchant of Venice, Jessica’s attributes and motivations are interwoven with the wider world of the play.

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