Jessica and Shylock

Jessica is doubly distinguished. Unlike her father, Shylock, she is said to be gentle; at once noble and gentile. Yet, she remains a daughter to Shylock’s blood despite her conversion. According to Mary Metzger, representations of Jessica turn on alternating characterizations of her as a latent Christian and as a racialized and thus unintegrable Jew. Until recently, discussions of race or Jewishness in the Merchant tended to focus on Shylock, thus ignoring the intersection of religion, gender, and class. Metzger argues that, in order to elucidate The Merchant’s relation to early modern England’s emerging ideology of race, attention must be paid to the shifting emphases on discourses of gender, class, and religion in Shakespeare’s representation of Jessica.
Any discussion of the Jew in Shakespeare inevitably involves the meaning of conversion in early modern England. During that time period, notions of what it meant to be subject to God entailed an account of the Jewish refusal to receive Christ as the Messiah, representing a long history of interpreting Christianity in opposition to Judaism. However, this antagonistic relationship was complicated by other factors. First, the English Reformation offered an unqualified promise of conversion within a discourse shaped by the oppositional rhetoric of anti-Semitism. Then, the problem of the Jew in Christian England intersected with an emerging ideology of face to affirm a notion of English identity in which color, religion, and class converged. Finally, competing notions of Jews as “deserving” or alien existed at the time Shakespeare wrote and staged The Merchant.
For Metzger, when combined, these issues were representative of larger political questions: How would the English distinguish resistant and unintegrable Jews from their more cooperative and thus “truly” convertible brethren? How could they affirm this distinction without denying the meaning and promise of conversion to Christianity? And how could English Christians define the Jew’s difference both as a difference of nature and as a difference of faith involving the act of will faith requires? To address these issues, Shakespeare presents Jessica as a “fair” Jewish alternative to Shylock.
When Shylock first appears onstage, he is the incarnation of the inherently evil Jew of medieval and early modern Christian legend: scheming, greedy, satanic, and eager for Christian blood. Jessica must overcome these images if she is to be integrated into the world of the play, which is largely defined in opposition to the malevolent Jewish otherness of Shylock. However, the difficulties of doing so quickly become apparent. Alone onstage at the end of her first scene, Jessica presents the audience with the first of several arguments for her convertibility when she states, “O Lorenzo/ If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife/ Become a Christian and thy loving wife!” (2.3.19 – 21). In this case, “strife” refers to Jessica’s shame at being Shylock’s child and her rejection of his mannerisms. While it is necessary for Jessica to distance herself from her father’s authority, her rejection of patriarchal authority creates an obstacle to her acceptance as a Christian.
Acceptance of Jessica’s marriage to Lorenzo would require a Christian audience to conclude that either she is a believer before her marriage or that she is, as she insists, “sanctified” through her marriage. In fact, Jessica lays claim to both arguments by differentiating herself from her father’s mannerisms while equating Shylock’s actions to his blood, thus asserting a racial notion of Jewishness that she claims not to share. She is saved by Lorenzo’s choice to marry her and his decision is determined not only by her wealth but the fairness of her skin as he claims that her hand is “whiter than the paper it writ on” (2.4.13). Her fairness is another source of differentiation from her father and it will allow her to integrate into a Christian England.
Metzger concludes by stating that it is only by taking Shylock’s measure in the light of his daughter’s difference – a difference that combines shifting representations of gender, color, class and religion – is it possible to account for the play’s inscriptions of contradictory notions of Jews.
Metzger, Mary J. “Now by My Hood, a Gentle and No Jew”: Jessica, The Merchant of Venice, and the Discourse of Early Modern English Identity. PMLA. Vol. 113, No. 1, Special Topic: Ethnicity (Jan., 1998) , pp. 52-63