Character Sketch of Jessica in Merchant of Venice – ICSE Class 10, 9 English


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Her Strong Dislike of Her Father’s Nature and Temperament

Jessica is the daughter of the Jew, Shylock, but a daughter who is ashamed of having that man as her father. She finds the atmosphere of her father’s home to be suffocating and almost intolerable. She is sensitive girl having an artistic temperament; and she is unable to endure the narrow-mindedness, the miserliness, and the tyrannical nature of her father. Although her father is a fanatical Jew who is intolerant of Christians, she falls in love with a Christian and runs away from home with a bag full of her father’s money and jewels. Her conduct in running away from home and stealing her father’s cash and jewels is certainly objectionable in the extreme. However, we feel inclined to take a lenient view of her conduct because we know that her father is really a close-fisted and suspicious man with a dictatorial nature and that he imposes all kinds of restrictions on his daughter’s movements.

A Beautiful, Wise, and Faithful Girl

Jessica impresses the Christian Lorenzo as a very beautiful, wise, and faithful girl; and she strikes us as a charming girl with a strong sense of humour and a poetical nature. Lorenzo tells his friends that he would “place her in his constant soul”, meaning that he would always remain loyal to her. For his sake, she does not mind giving up her own religion and becoming a Christian.

Her Artistic and Poetic Temperament

Jessica’s artistic and poetic temperament manifests itself clearly in the moonlight scene at Belmont when she is having a conversation with Lorenzo about the beauty of the night. Here she appears in a favourable light because of her wide knowledge and her capacity to make use of that knowledge when occasion demands it. She recalls the ancient, mythological love-stories, competing with Lorenzo in this respect and holding her own in this amorous dialogue. She refer to the stories of Thisbe and Medea; and tells Lorenzo that she can “out-night him*” if she is not interrupted in the course of this conversation. Her artistic nature shows itself also in her responsiveness to music. She gets into a melancholy mood whenever she hears sweet strains of music; and this effect is produced on her by music because she is very sensitive to it.

Her Essential Femininity and Modesty

Jessica is basically a modest girl even though she takes the initiative in eloping with Lorenzo. It is because she is feeling desperate that she decides to quit her father’s home; and she goes to the extent of arranging for a boy’s clothes so that she can disguise herself as a boy in order to join Lorenzo when the masked procession is passing through the street. At this time she tells Lorenzo that she is feeling very ashamed of her boy’s disguise, and that she is glad that he cannot see her in this disguise because of the darkness of the night. When Lorenzo asks her to carry a burning torch to light the way for the maskers, she says that she cannot “hold a candle to her shames”, meaning that she would not like to be seen by anyone in her boy’s disguise.

Her Sense of Humour and Her Wit       

Jessica is certainly not devoid of a sense of humour. She likes Launcelot because he keeps her amused with his light-hearted talk and his jokes; and she feels sorry when he quits her father’s service. She can herself make a joke too. For instance, when Lorenzo says that he is a very good husband to her, she replies that he should first ask her what she thinks of him as a husband, meaning that she may not be holding as high an opinion about him as he himself has.

Arguments Against, and For, Her Flight from Home

As already indicated, Jessica is certainly guilty of having disgraced her father and having done a great damage to his reputation even though his reputation is already not a good one. By running away from home and stealing her father’s money and jewels, a daughter brings great shame to her father who would then not be able to show his face to his neighbours and his acquaintances. Such behaviour on the part of a daughter is never approved by anyone in any society or community. There are certainly extenuating circumstances in the case of Jessica. But even so, nobody, who believes in the good name of his family, would justify this conduct. However, there is another side of this picture. Today we are living in times when women have achieved equality with men, and when the rights of grown-up daughters are also fully recognized. Even in orthodox Indian homes, girls have begun to assert their rights. The modem girl is not willing is concerned. We still do not approve of a girl running away from home to marry the man of her choice; but we do recognize a girl’s right to choose her husband. Thus Jessica’s action in running away from home and stealing her father’s ill-gotten money has to be judged by every reader according to his own views in the matter. Even her conversion to Christianity is an action which we may denounce or defend according to our own ideas.

Her Contribution to the Plot and to Its Atmosphere

Jessica contributes to the romantic atmosphere of the play, and adds considerably to the interest of the plot. She is the heroine of the romantic Lorenzo-Jessica sub-plot. Her role in the moonlight scene at Belmont is important because it enhances the romantic and the poetical qualities of the play. Furthermore, by running away from home with a Christian, who is one of Antonio’s associates, she further inflames Shylock’s hatred for Christians in general and for Antonio in particular. Her disguise as a boy lends further interest to the play; and she inspires Lorenzo, by her beauty and her artistic tastes, to make some of his finest speeches which delight us by their poetical and romantic qualities. Nor can we ignore the fact that she enhances Portia’s image in our eyes. She is completely free from jealousy and, when asked by Lorenzo what she thinks of Portia, she says that there is no earthly woman who can be regarded as Portia’s equal. She pays a rich tribute to Portia when she says that “the poor rude world hath not her fellow”. (The word “fellow” here means equal or peer).

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