The story is set in aqueous Venice, “city of history, mystery, doubleness, deception,” and is narrated by Jessica Pruitt, a famous actress who has come to Italy for the Venice Film Festival and for the shooting of SERENISSIMA, a cinematic variation on THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. The veteran of four marriages and innumerable affairs, forty-three-year-old Jessica is distraught over losing custody of her only daughter, Antonia, and melancholic over the suicide of her mother.
She is also overcome by Venetian ague and, when she comes to her senses, discovers that it is the sixteenth century and that she is Jessica, daughter of Shalach, a moneylender in the Venice ghetto. Jessica the actress has assumed the identity of the Shakespearean character she was hired to play.
Although there is no evidence that the author of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE ever left England, Jong imagines that, during the plague that closed the London theaters during 1592 and 1593, Shakespeare visited Venice in the company of his benefactor, the Earl of Southampton. On the basis of allusions in the sonnets, she also portrays the Bard as bisexual, specifically as lover to his patron. Jessica also becomes Shakespeare’s lover and a powerful rival to Southampton.
SERENISSIMA’S historical reconstruction is learned but a bit too clever, appropriating lines from Shakespeare’s own plays and poems for him to recite in lieu of inventing dialogue. The book is a bold and lusty fantasy, however, a self-begetting novel that tells the story of how a screenplay called SERENISSIMA, as well as a play called THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, came to be written. Its readers should come to be entertained, as it offers something new on the Rialto.