The name ‘Jessica’ was unheard of up until The Mercent of Venice in Shakespeare’s previous plays. Actresses who play Jessica often portray her as shy, soft-spoken, and colourless under the reign of Shylock. It is plausible that she should be submissive with Shylock, but the very fact that she is brave enough to escape from his hell, steal what she thinks he values more than her, and then show her detachment from him and his beliefs by eloping with a Christian is proof of her spunk and sense of independence. In the ‘balcony scene,’ she is witty and lovestruck, but also somewhat mysterious. Why would she sell her mother’s turquoise ring her father prized so unmaterialistically? To show him she doesn’t have faith in his affection? But then, why exchange it for something so trivial as a monkey? Is it a symbol of the exchange of her past life, something that should be valuable to her, for her now reckless, carnal one? But her new life is so unfamiliar, she feels a fish out of water among Lorenzo’s upper class friends. Her solitary monologue at Portia’s house is made even more solitary by the fact that Lorenzo does not come to her aid, and she is forced to defend her father, their enemy, while desperately trying to stay faithful to her status thrust upon her as Lorenzo’s wife. The mixed feelings of shame and sense of responsibility that she has for her father, and her devotion to Lorenzo through ties of love, leaves her torn.
The question of Lorenzo’s faithfulness to their love is also uncertain, for he seems to praise Portia quite often, and both are unwilling to confront the reality of their decision only after they are married.
Jessica has a tragic side to her not only when she is trapped in her tyrannical father’s house, but even when she finds freedom in love, since she begins to wonder where her loyalties really lie and how well she knows her lover. In fact, the last lines we hear from Jessica are: I am never merry when I hear sweet music. If her life were a song, it would be a sad one, with many major and minor falls. Sweet music reminds her of all the things she used to yearn for while she was trapped by her father, and now that she has them, they aren’t as sweet as she imagined them to be. Her father is poor, unhappy, and wronged, partially because of her and she is bound to Lorenzo, a stranger she fell in love with, (or maybe only a face to attach her love to) and isunable and unwilling to leave.
I think my biggest misconception of Jessica was interpreting her as a mournful, serious character when in fact she is just a young girl: lively, witty, and longing to laugh (thus her friendship with Lancelet) and love (Lorenzo).