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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: April ::
Re: Jessica
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0344  Monday, 13 April 1998.

[1]     From:   Frank Whigham <
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        Date:   Friday, 10 Apr 1998 12:01:53 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0338 Elopement

[2]     From:   Phyllis Rackin <
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        Date:   Friday, 10 Apr 1998 13:10:13 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0327  Related to Merchant

[3]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Friday, 10 Apr 1998 15:18:50 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   SHK 9.0327


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Friday, 10 Apr 1998 12:01:53 -0500
Subject: 9.0338 Elopement
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0338 Elopement

As always Dave Evett advances the game. I have two disagreements (or
straws to suggest), however.

(A) It may be that Lorenzo is "sealed back into [his] tribe" (though I
don't exactly see that *he* was ever outcast; the elopement seems to me
one-sided, from Shylock and his tribe) and that Jessica is welcomed
there (though folks disagree about this). But Portia's group cannot
simply be called *Jessica's* tribe: she cannot be welcomed home.

Indeed, this marriage is more transforming of a bride more different
than most. The presence of the element of Jewishness, however it is to
be understood, is what for me most marks off The Merchant of Venice in
general and this marriage in particular from the circumstances of the
other comedies. (1) All marriages (and thus all elopements) entail
transformations of age/life-stage, familial role (child to spouse, as
Steve Urkowitz rightly says), and, at least often (and especially for
women) familial orientation (agnates to affines). (2) Some marriages
(see city comedy, for instance, which The Merchant of Venice  prefigures
in extremely rich ways) also entail economic status advancement, as does
Jessica's: exiting life with a city/working father, becoming an elite
and non-working wife. Such change is often though not always applauded:
see, for instance, Gertrude's marriage to Sir Petronel Flash in Eastward
Ho!, to which Alan Dessen usefully alludes. There is maybe not a change
in wealth per se, however, in Jessica's case.

(3) Jessica's marriage additionally entails (for her, not for Lorenzo)
conversion from Jew to Christian, a transformation she welcomes where
her father suffers it, as degrading. I think this complicates any
"welcome home" sense of Jessica's new life. It's a very complex kind of
change. Jim Shapiro makes it clear that the Jew might be thought
different in religion, race, or nation, and that this multiplicity could
retard a sense of the availability of "true" conversion (if "race" is
indelible, or if "nation" -- a shared diasporic citizenship-cannot
coexist with loyal English or Venetian identity). Perhaps such
resistance was present for some early modern auditors. Many modern
auditors and readers certainly find it disturbing. In any case, the
"welcoming" details that Dave justifiably cites do not make me, at
least, forget the Jew-baiting of earlier portions of the play. That may
in fact help explain, for some justify, Jessica's (possible) no-regrets
rewriting of her identity. It reminds me of Randy Newman's striking song
"Dixie Flyer," about Jews in New Orleans during World War II:

Her brothers and her sisters drove down from Jackson, Mississippi,
In a great green Hudson driven by a Gentile they knew.
Drinkin' rye whiskey from a flask in the back seat
Tryin' to do like the Gentiles do.
Christ, they wanted to be Gentiles too.
Who wouldn't down there, wouldn't you?
An American Christian. God damn!

I don't know whether we think we have any sense of Jessica suffering her
father's spat-upon life. She speaks of not being a daughter to his
manners, but flight into "passing" often involves rejecting the values
of the oppressed along with the pains of oppression.

(B) I think the reference to "treasons, stratagems, and spoils" also
refers, at least as easily, to Lorenzo's theatricalized masquer's
abduction of Jessica (or Jessica's burglary of her father) as to the
unmusicked man's lack of sweet harmony. The objection to music is by no
means an unambiguous negative in Shakespeare, in my view. It can suggest
suspicion of artfulness (Shylock despises the Christians with varnished
faces, and Hotspur echoes this in another key). But again, maybe this
drifts into like and dislike: some think The Merchant of Venice closes
in sweet harmony, some in repellent smugness, as is well known. Such
differences aren't fully arguable.

Frank Whigham

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Phyllis Rackin <
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Date:           Friday, 10 Apr 1998 13:10:13 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 9.0327  Related to Merchant
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0327  Related to Merchant

I've always thought that the reference to Leah's ring was probably
included for the light it sheds on Portia's and Nerissa's rings (all
initially gifts, all subsequently used as payments, etc.)

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Friday, 10 Apr 1998 15:18:50 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Comment:        SHK 9.0327

Frank Whigham usefully sums up and then adds to the continuing
discussion about the end of 3.1 and the meaning(s) of Jessica's
"transition/ transformation." He provides 7 ways of looking at it, and
every one seems to have merit. David Evett, on the other hand, says that
if we don't like what Jessica does, we have to build our interpretation
from outside of the text. I agree with Frank and, in this instance,
disagree with Davie. Jessica's actions and what they may imply are at
the very heart of *Merchant*, and they evoke ambivalent reactions from
the audience, as the monkey symbol itself demonstrates. On the on hand,
the monkey may, as Bill Godshalk points out, stand for Art and the new,
better life that Jessica seeks. On the other hand, to give away a family
heirloom for a monkey is not so nice, and what Jessica may be saying
about Shy-lock, Leah, (and, by implication, herself) is not so nice.  I
guess what I'm saying here is that it seems to me that Jessica's action
is designed to call forth multiple interpretations and multiple
reactions, many of which are admirably adumbrated by Frank Whigham.

Doesn't the trial scene work the same way, David and Frank? Look at it
one way and you see a rabbit; look at it another way and you see a duck!

Yours,
Ed Taft
 

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