Teaching Jessica: Race, Religion, and Gender in The Merchant of Venice

Efraim Sicher, Israel, ID LLCE2016-206;        Recent productions of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice and classroom discussions have in recent years focused on the very real question of anti-Semitism, centering on the character of Shylock. But Shylock is not the central protagonist, and leaves the stage at the end of Act IV. His conversion is forced, unlike that of Jessica who 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. As “gentle” and “fair” is Jessica to be considered gentile and in no way dark (spiritually or racially)? Is Jessica’s conversion to be considered a matter of convenience, saving her from the damnation of the Jew her father by marriage to Lorenzo? Or is this an ideological and racial conversion that reveals underlying anxieties about gender, sexuality, and religious identity in the new reality of global trade, of which Venice was a major hub?