Excerpt: ‘Irregular Unions’ by Katharine Cleland

Book cover for Irregular Unions: Clandestine Marriage in Early Modern English Literature

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Lorenzo. Since Jessica is a Jew and Lorenzo is a Christian, what are the implications of this cross-cultural clandestine marriage for the couple’s place in society?

Katharine Cleland explores this question in the below excerpt from her new book, Irregular Unions: Clandestine Marriage in Early Modern English Literature, published by Cornell University Press. Cleland is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Tech. She was also the recipient of a Folger Institute 2014-2015 short-term fellowship for “Fictions of Clandestine Marriage in Early Modern England”.


In this chapter on The Merchant of Venice and the next on Othello, I am interested in how Shakespeare uses elopement to explore the possible integration of racial and religious outsiders into white Christian society. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare takes the popular stage plotline of clandestine marriage and gives it a cross-cultural twist when a Jew’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with a Christian, Lorenzo. Of course, Shakespeare portrays clandestine marriages with a noticeable regularity throughout his canon. Due to their versatility as plot devices, irregular unions occur in every dramatic genre, making for great comedy and great tragedy alike. In comedies, clandestine marriages are the natural by-product of a genre that foregrounds female agency within matters of love and courtship. Some clandestine marriages, however, such as the secret consummation between the eponymous lovers in Troilus and Cressida or the unsolemnized union between Claudio and Juliet in Measure for Measure, trouble the festive tone typically associated with comedy, contributing to the categorization of these works as “problem comedies.” The possibility of a clandestine marriage may give way to a public wedding at the play’s end according to comedic convention (Lysander and Hermia’s attempted elopement in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance). Otherwise, clandestine marriages undermine the hallmark of comic closure: the incorporation of a couple back into normative society through Christian matrimony.

Representations of cross-cultural marriage on the Renaissance stage are inevitably clandestine. As New World exploration expanded along with international trade, however, the possibility must have captivated the early modern imagination. Queen Elizabeth’s “open letter to the Lord Maiour of London” (1596) complaining of the presence of “blackmoores” reveals a concern about the growing number of racialized others in England, even if the numbers remained relatively small. When looking to Shylock’s account of the Jacob and Laban story, Elizabeth A. Spiller observes that “miscegenation is . . . a key theme” in The Merchant of Venice.4 Launcelot Gobbo’s assertion that the marriage of Jews to Christians will “raise the price of hogs” (3.5.24) suggests the belief that romantic alliances with outsiders were economically destabilizing.  The range of ways in which a couple could enter into marriage in early modern England meant that cross-cultural unions, whether with racial and/ or religious outsiders, through clandestine means could become a real, even if remote, possibility.

If clandestine marriage troubles comic closure, then it seems cross-cultural clandestine marriage would be more the stuff of tragedy than comedy. The fact that Shakespeare adds the elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo to the familiar tale about a wealthy Jew and a flesh bond, and that it is the only instance of cross-cultural marriage in his comedies, should draw our attention to its significance. In Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, the relationship between the Jew’s daughter Abigail and her Christian suitor—Shakespeare’s inspiration for the Jessica-Lorenzo plotline—does not allow for a happy conclusion, indicating the near impossibility of a successful cross-cultural marriage on the early modern stage. The closest analogue to the Jessica-Lorenzo plotline in Shakespeare’s other plays, the elopement between Othello and Desdemona (which will be explored in the next chapter), ends disastrously. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare finds a way to enfold a plot line seemingly better suited to tragedy into a comedic framework.

Most of the scholarship on Jessica and Lorenzo’s marriage deploys early modern theories on racial and religious difference to determine whether Jessica successfully effaces her Jewish identity to become a full-fledged member of the Christian community. The scholarly focus stems from the belief that Jewishness signified not only a theological difference during the early modern period but a racial difference as well. A person could not convert from Judaism to Christianity without undergoing a literal bodily change. According to Kim F. Hall, Jessica appears to get around this problem as the other characters deny Shylock’s claims of consanguinity with his daughter. M. Lindsay Kaplan further argues that Jessica’s female body does not pose a threat to bloodlines since popular Aristotelian theory claimed that women did not contribute any of their own biological makeup to their children.  However, scholars have stressed that Jessica’s integration into the Christian community at Belmont is not as comfortable as Kaplan suggests. Janet Adelman, for instance, points out that Gratiano’s reference to Jessica as an “infidel” (3.2.218) after her marriage, and the fact that Portia and Bassanio “barely register” her presence, indicates that the Christian characters are not ready to accept Jessica as one of their own. Carole Levin agrees that Jessica appears uncomfortable and isolated after her marriage and conversion. This scholarship, however, does not take the clandestine nature of Jessica’s wedding vows into account.

By refocusing the scholarly conversation on Jessica and Lorenzo’s elopement away from the ambiguities of the female Jewish body and onto the issues at stake in Shakespearean comedy—female agency within courtship and marriage—we can better understand how the couple fits into the play’s comedic framework. The Merchant of Venice does not end with a grand wedding according to convention, because the couples all exchange their wedding vows offstage in the previous acts, making it one of the few comedies in which Shakespeare explores the marriages that come after the courtships. Up to this point in the critical conversation, scholars have not fully attended to the clandestine (as well as the cross-cultural) nature of Lorenzo and Jessica’s marriage and the implications of this for Jessica’s integration into Belmont society. The break from generic tradition allows us to compare the complications surrounding Jessica and Lorenzo’s secret union with Portia and Bassanio’s public one. Shakespeare illustrates that those who elope automatically put themselves into the position of outsider by violating social norms.

Shakespeare does not solve the problem of cross-cultural clandestine marriage in The Merchant of Venice by neutralizing or even erasing Jessica’s Jewish identity (an impossible feat as the contradictory scholarship on the subject has shown). Instead, he recuperates Jessica’s domestic identity as a responsible householder. Since establishing a household was one of the primary goals of early modern marriage, her initial inability to establish a domestic identity after her elopement becomes at least as devastating as her converted Jewish one. To make this argument, I first explore how elopement undermined the ideal of the early modern household, and then how Shakespeare portrays Portia’s running of her Belmont estate as representing this ideal. Portia’s domestic acumen contrasts with Shylock’s own poor household management, which precipitates Jessica’s elopement. In light of the emphasis on the proper rule of the domestic space in the play, I further demonstrate how Jessica’s elopement hinders her ability to enter into the Belmont community. The other characters’ efforts to establish a domestic identity for the cross-cultural couple prevent them from falling into the tragedy of Othello.


Reprinted from Irregular Unions: Clandestine Marriage in Early Modern English Literature, by Katharine Cleland. Copyright © 2021 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

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