Teaching Jessica: race, religion, and gender in The Merchant of Venice

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The Jew’s “fair daughter” in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice converts and marries a Christian, Lorenzo. Recent attention, however, to changing ideas of race and identity in the early modern period has brought into question the divisions of Christian/Jew/Moor. Can Jessica convert and no longer be considered the Jew’s daughter? As “gentle” and “fair” is she to be considered gentile and in no way dark (spiritually or racially)? Jessica’s conversion has apparently little religious meaning, but rather she is saved from the Jew her father by marriage to Lorenzo, who becomes Shylock’s heir. Is Jessica’s conversion to be considered a matter of convenience that might, as Launcelot quips, raise the price of hogs, or is it also to be counted as an ideological and racial conversion that reveals underlying anxieties about gender, sexuality, and religious identity? This essay attempts to argue against the grain of the performance history of The Merchant History, which often downplays the role of Jessica or revises the text of the play, and returns to the text in order to contextualize the conversion of Jessica in contemporary discourses of gender, race, and religion in England’s expansionist colonialism and proto-capitalist commerce. The conversion of Jessica can be seen in that context as an exchange of monetary and ethical value, in which women’s sexuality also had a price-tag. These questions have implications for the teaching of the play and for the understanding of its concerns with unstable sexual, religious, and national identities.

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