Her mother died when she was five, hemorrhaging after giving birth to a still born son. Her first memory, or what she imagines as her first memory, is only sound: her father’s cry and the rip he made in the right breast of his gabardine when he heard that “his beloved Leah” had died.
Her father schooled her at home – teaching her the accounting and the Torah in equal measure – not trusting the “new” Jewish public school. He was always a man of extremes – the love of both his money and his daughter always intertwined. She was the only embodiment of his wife, something he reminded her of often. Her mother’s name came to hang over her head – a representation of the perfect woman her father expected her to be, and later, of an image of womanhood she could no longer stand to fulfill.
Jessica knew little of the world outside her house for many years. She went to synagogue, and little else – an attempt by her father to keep her from the cruelties of Venetian life. In some ways he was a good and loving teacher; in others, especially in the later years, more exacting and demanding than was warranted – and on days when he was forced to trade with the Venetians who spit and mocked him, he often took his anger and frustration out on her – to the point, on a few occasions, of actually hitting her.
At some point – she can’t remember quite when – he did actually start letting her into the world, to fetch cloth, to shop for food. The first time he hit her was when she got lost on her errands and ended up locked outside the Jewish Ghetto Nuovo. He had to pay off a guard with an exorbitant sum of money to let her back inside, and the man still mocked and threatened them and spit on them both. She was still more scared of her father than of anything the Christians might do to her.
She met Lorenzo on one of those excursions into the world outside the ghetto. Her father needed new tablecloths, and as she was pricing thread, a pickpocket easily lifted the purse of ducats from where she’d tied it at her waist and galloped headlong down the street. Lorenzo caught the thief by one arm, wresting the bag and spilling the coins all through the dust; he stopped to gather them up, letting the thief escape. She thanked him, grateful to be saved from what was sure to be a beating when she got home, and tried to think not much more of him.
And yet, he was often around the marketplace after that, and would come to speak quietly to her of ordinary things as she moved along the stalls. When he asked where she lived so he might send her letters, she told him – naming Lancelot, her longstanding ally and friend among the servants – as the only trustworthy hand in which to deliver them.
When she deduced his intentions, and that he was apparently more serious about wooing her than she first expected, she saw him first as a way out of her father’s house. And the longer she read the words he wrote her, the more extensive her replies, the more she found her thoughts dwelling on him for himself, instead of for the escape he offered.
She saw him only once when her father was present, when the two of them and Tubal ventured forth into the city before heading to synagogue that evening. Her father kept her from wandering the streets alone in the late afternoons and evenings as much as possible, and so took her with them when he went to speak to Antonio. Lorenzo came by, lifting a large crate for Launcelot simply to show off for her, and they exchanged what seemed to her hardly a smile before Jessica discovered Tubal giving her an accusatory stare, and followed her father quickly away.
She and Tubal discussed the matter at some length the following day – or rather, he spoke a great deal, and she mostly listened with a contrite expression. They wandered around the city while her father made his deals, and Tubal tried to instill in her the importance of a Jewish husband. She made Tubal promise not to tell her father that she had smiled at Lorenzo, in exchange for her faithful promise that she would not speak to Lorenzo again, and would avoid contact with all Christian men except for purposes of business.
That night, knowing that her time was growing short and that Tubal might reveal her secret at any moment, she wrote a letter to Lorenzo, accepting the proposal he had been offering for several weeks: to steal her away in the midst of night and the masquerade.
That Antonio called her father from the house for a dinner that evening was pure kismet – or perhaps fate, though she believes little in such things. She would have snuck out of the house somehow either way, though with arguably fewer material possessions and a great deal more trouble. The fact that her father trusted her with his keys upon his leaving – something he had done only once before, in a time of extreme need – was a sign of his implicit trust in her. When he sang to her their favorite lullabye, the one he’d sung to her her entire childhood, she nearly changed her mind, imagining his anguish when he discovered her absence, thinking that perhaps she could fulfill the duties her mother left behind – and then he got so angry over nothing that she remembered all the reasons she was leaving – chief among them being that the man she’d loved as a child was all but obliterated by the bitter, vengeful beast her father had become.
She left the house with as many ducats as she could convince the boys to carry, as much for revenge as for the necessities of supporting herself and Lorenzo. She converted and married Lorenzo all in a single session with the priest that night, caring little for the exchange of one set of religious rites for another. She left the Star of David she had always worn around her neck on the end of a dock pillar, glinting gold in the light from the torches lining the street for the masquerade. Someone would find it, eventually - someone who needed it far more than she.
The longer she spent with Lorenzo, the more certain she was that she had traded a life of darkness for one of light. They spent the weeks after their marriage exploring the parts of Venice that had always been denied her, floating through the waterways on gondolas, eating and drinking the best of everything they could find. When they came across a street performer hawking his monkey, she reached into her purse and gave him in trade the first thing her fingers touched: the turquoise ring her mother had given her father. She was determined to rid herself of all of the material shackles of the life she used to lead, shedding them as easily as one changes a set of clothes; and she knew too that her father would surely hear of the frivolous exchange, and she wanted him to regret the life he had forced her to flee.
They made their way slowly across Italy, coming to Belmont only shortly after Bassanio, with Salerio in company. She learned very quickly, too, that Lorenzo was by far the best of the Christians that made up her world, now – the rest seemed to love her because she was good, but Lorenzo seemed to see through to the melancholy that wove through the center of her, and love her because of that as well. She was delighted with Portia and Nerissa, though built only a cautious friendship in the few hours before they left – they were the first female companions she’d ever had the opportunity to attempt a friendship with, and she didn’t know quite how to accomplish it.
Launcelot’s gibes, when he teases her about her salvation, go deeper than she might like to admit. She is used to his cavorting, and her tears at his desertion from their shared imprisonment were real, but despite her disregard for religion, it stings that he believes she might really be damned for the actions and beliefs of her father, neither of which she took much part in.
There are nights, though, despite the paradise of Belmont she has found herself in, that the moon and the stars bring back memories of her father – memories of being seven, perhaps eight years old, looking out at the sky through her casement window, the melody of the lullabye echoing around her bedroom as her father held her in his lap and rocked her. In those moments she knows that she, in her escape, has wounded her father beyond words – has, in fact, taken away his last connection to any human companionship, given him nothing but his bitterness and his revenge to subsist on. She is convinced that the pound of flesh to be taken from Antonio is at least as much in revenge for Lorenzo stealing her away as for any previous insult.
And when Nerissa brings news that her father’s fortune is bequeathed unto them upon his death – all of his remaining material possessions, the only things still holding the bitter remnants of his body together – she knows that, whatever transpired in Venice, her father is broken. The cost of her freedom is his destruction, and it is a burden she cannot vocalize in any way but song.
(Merchant of Venice opens this Friday.)