Degree Granting Department
Sara Munson Deats, Ph.D.
Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jewish, Outlaw, Inlaw
In The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, both Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare question anti-Semitism, Christian presumption, and socially constructed gender roles. Often compared, the two plays have obvious similarities: both plots center on rich, Jewish protagonists---Barabas in The Jew of Malta and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice---who are vilified and then destroyed by a merciless Gentile society. On the surface, the protagonists' daughters---Abigail in The Jew of Malta and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice---also share many similarities. Both are the young, beautiful daughters of rich and much maligned Jews; both love Gentile men; both flee from their religion and convert to Christianity; most importantly, both are presented as "different" from their fathers---somehow less "Jewish." However, despite their similarities, they represent polarities of early modern concepts of femininity.
Employing Marilyn French's concept of gender principles, as presented in Shakespeare's Division of Experience, I argue that Abigail and Jessica embody the inlaw and outlaw feminine principles respectively, and that their importance in the two plays in which they appear has been critically overlooked. As James Shapiro points out in his study of the Jewish presence in England, a sixteenth century audience would hardly be familiar with practicing Jews, although they might have encountered representations ofJews in the drama of the period. Abigail and Jessica, the only Jewish characters in the two plays besides Barabas and Shylock, provide insight into the interaction between anti-Semitism and gender politics. Moreover, these two daughters sway the audience's sympathies toward or away from their fathers inversely. If we pity Abigail, whose actions are reactions to her father's machinations, then we are gratified that Barabas gets what he deserves.
If we are angry with Jessica for her betrayal and theft, then we sympathize with Shylock and see him constructed into a villain by both his society and his own daughter. In this thesis, I will explore the ways in which Marlowe and Shakespeare employ Abigail and Jessica to interrogate the traditional sixteenth century roles of women, daughters, wives, and citizens.
Scholar Commons Citation
Beskin, Anna, "Good girl, bad girl: The role of Abigail and Jessica in The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice" (2007). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.