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4. Portia, Nerissa and Jessica
About this Lecture
In this module, we think about the three female characters in the play – Portia, Nerissa and Jessica – thinking in particular about: (i) the similarities between all three women, e.g. all three get married to the man they want, all three cross-dress at some point in the play, etc.; (ii) the similarities between Portia and Jessica, e.g. both are ‘imprisoned’ by their fathers (Portia by the caskets, Nerissa literally), both have close relationships to their servants (Nerissa and Launcelot, respectively); (iii) the difficulty of ascertaining of the genre of the play and the usefulness of imagining what kind of play the characters themselves think they might be in; (iv) the idea of Portia as a character who does everything in her power to turn the play into a comedy; (v) the idea of Jessica as a character who – despite Portia’s best efforts – seems to bring the play back towards tragedy.
In this course, Dr Sophie Duncan (University of Oxford) explores Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. We begin in the first module by thinking about Venice as a key setting for the play and its significance at the time Shakespeare was writing. After that, we consider the presentation of same-sex desire in the play, focusing in particular on the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, before turning in the third module to Shakespeare’s sources for the play, how he changes and adapts them, and what the implications of those changes are. In the fourth module, we think about the three female characters of the play – Portia, Nerissa and Jessica – before moving in the fifth module to consider the Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in both the play and its performance history.
Note: We used the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, ed. John Drakakis) unless otherwise specified. Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She is an expert on Shakespeare in performance, and in the broader fields of theatre history and the performance of gender and race. Her books include SHAKESPEARE’S WOMEN AND THE FIN DE SIÈCLE (Oxford University Press, 2016), described as "extraordinary .... a welcome antidote to prevailing assumptions" (Times Literary Supplement), and SHAKESPEARE’S PROPS (Routledge, 2019).
She has also published extensively on Victorian theatre and culture, from Jack the Ripper to the suffragettes, via Oscar Wilde and Ira Aldridge (the first African American actor to perform in Europe). With Rachael Lennon, she co-wrote WOMEN AND POWER: THE STRUGGLE FOR SUFFRAGE (National Trust Books: 2018). Her new edition of Henrik Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE will be published by Methuen early in 2020.
Sophie read English at Oriel College, Oxford, and received her doctorate from Brasenose, Oxford in 2013. In 2018, she was the National Trust’s advisor on their national programme marking the first hundred years of women’s suffrage in Britain. She has worked extensively in theatre, radio and television as a historical advisor, including the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, the Kiln, the New Vic, BBC Studios and Radio 4. She presented an episode of The Essay for BBC Radio 3 and has appeared on Woman’s Hour as well as numerous podcasts.
Cite this Lecture
Duncan, S. (2020, January 24). Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice - Portia, Nerissa and Jessica [Video]. MASSOLIT. https://massolit.io/courses/shakespeare-the-merchant-of-venice-sophie-duncan/portia-nerissa-and-jessica
Duncan, Sophie. "Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice – Portia, Nerissa and Jessica." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 24 Jan 2020, https://massolit.io/courses/shakespeare-the-merchant-of-venice-sophie-duncan/portia-nerissa-and-jessica