Conforming to Shakespeare’s Venice

     Shakespeare’s Venice is a place that is seemingly chaotic, but in truth, bound by strict societal rules. Although Venice is a point of commerce where people of different cultures co-exist, it is clear that the dominant people in power are the Christians. It is ironic that conformity and identity is so important in such a diverse city.  We assume that Jessica feels shame for being Shylock’s daughter because he is a Jew, and marriage to a Christian is the only way for her to become socially acceptable. There seems to be a considerable amount of tension between her and Lorenzo, however, so it isn’t certain that they will have a happy marriage.  In scene 3.5 , Lancelot and Jessica have a conversation wherein Lancelot says that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” and then tells Jessica “Marry, you may partly hope that your father got you not, that you are not the Jew’s daughter.” Jessica, understandably, is offended, and replies “That were a kind of bastard hope indeed. So the sins of my mother should be visited upon me.”  Jessica cannot help the circumstances of her birth. She then reaffirms that she will be ‘saved’ by her husband. In conventional terms, this means Christian salvation in the afterlife, but Jessica can also mean that she will be ‘saved’ the discrimination that her father suffers. Lorenzo tells Lancelot “I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than you can the getting up of the Negro’s belly.” Here, the hierarchy is spelled out: Jews are considered to be subhuman, but Africans are on an even lower scale. Both men seem to consider their respective mates as less than worthy of them. 
     Portia is subject to strict limitations, as well. She must abide by her father’s will by participating in the lottery that he has set up to determine her husband. Her portrait, which symbolizes herself and her future, has been locked into a lead casket chosen by her father. This is symbolic her circumstances imprisoning her. It is interesting that the casket her portrait is enclosed in is lead, a heavy metal that is often used to describe reluctance, as in “lead feet”, or to describe a feeling of dread “a leaden feeling.” Also, while a casket is an object that holds money, it is also a word used to describe a container for holding corpses. Shakespeare was most likely aware of these connotations. 
     Portia does not fight against these limitations. She participates by setting her own. She tells Bassanio that if he takes the ring off of his finger, she will know that it means that he does not love her anymore. Portia puts her emotional and spiritual faith into the object, and not the person. It is almost as if she cannot tell the difference between material and spiritual, by putting so much of her emotional well being into the caskets and the ring.
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3 thoughts on “Conforming to Shakespeare’s Venice

  1. Darya

    I never really considered the possibility of there being some uncomfortable strain between Jessica and Lorenzo in their marriage. When reading about characters falling in love and eloping without their parent’s permission, especially in Shakespearean plays, I never come to think how their lives would continue after the play is over (if the characters were real, that is). Nicole brings up a great point in the idea that there may not be much equality between the couple in their relationship. There is a big difference between Portia’s relationship with Bassanio and that of Jessica’s with Lorenzo. Portia had helped Bassanio out of his debt and saved Antonio’s life: she owes him nothing. Jessica’s father’s estate and money, however, goes mostly to Lorenzo, so even though she is no longer under Shylock’s grasp, she is not free to do as she pleases without her husband’s consent. Her attitude towards Lorenzo, also, points out that she looks up to him as her savior, someone she will worship. She lowers her status beneath her husband’s, creating a gorge in equality between her and her Christian husband.

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  2. Natalie Giuliano

    As I was reading, Jessica and Lorenzo's relationship stood out to me as well. Once Jessica flees Shylock, Lorenzo is literally all she has to validate her being. Women's dependence on men came up often throughout the text and I've been curious as to why we have not touched on it yet, especially considering Portia's blatant outwitting of the male sex and defiance of many female norms of the time (regardless of the limitations her father placed on her).It is funny that even though women are probably seen as inferior to men, they have a better chance of climbing the social hierarchy because their individualities are not as strongly defined. They can latch onto a male of a higher status, such as Jessica did with Lorenzo. I too think that realistically they may not last, and Jessica did a risky thing by shunning her only bloodline.

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  3. kateconti

    Portia places SUCH an emphasis on material possessions. Her relationship with her father even after his death is based on money and wealth. The ring is such an important aspect to the story, but it seems to be all that Portia eat, sleeps, and breaths. Bassanio was the man who chose the 'right' casket and now he is indebted to her. She uses the ring to make that bond material in some way. Portia is trying to place monetary value on her relationship with Bassanio, but can we blame her? It is exactly what her father did to her before his death when he set up the casket game to find her suitor. I think that Portia has a bit of a chip on her shoulder that is a result of nature as well as nurture.

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