Are you a “Jessica”? If you are, your name says that you’re a woman so beautiful people can’t stop looking at you.
You won’t find this in any dictionary or website, or even Wikipedia (which offers a different explanation for the name). I learn it from Shakespeare and from the Talmud, two sources that aren’t often mentioned in the same breath. But perhaps they ought to be.
This is what makes the “Jessica” question important for understanding the greatest English writer ever. Maybe even to answer the old question: was he anti-Semitic?
Let’s start with what’s generally agreed about “Jessica.”
The first use ever of the name, in this form, is in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Jessica is an attractive Jewish girl, daughter of the villainous–or not so villainous–moneylender Shylock. Shakespeare never explains where he got her name from, but it stands to reason that it’s Hebrew–or at least what he thought was Hebrew–and that he found it somewhere in the Old Testament.
The most likely candidate for a source is Genesis 11:29:
“And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.”
So the translation in the King James Bible, which didn’t yet exist when Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice (between 1596 and 1598, probably). The Hebrew name “Yiskah,” which King James’s scholars were to transliterate as “Iscah,” appears in the Latin form “Iesca” in older English Bibles that Shakespeare might have read. That’s not quite “Jessica,” but it’s close enough, especially considering that the middle syllable gives the name a musical flow that must have appealed to his poetic ear.
But why would he have picked this obscure Biblical lady, who appears here and nowhere else in Scripture, as the name for his heroine? (Assuming Jessica is a heroine; we’ll come back to that.)
Here’s where the Talmud comes in.
“Rabbi Isaac said: ‘Yiskah’ is Sarah. Why was she called ‘Yiskah’? Because she saw through the Holy Spirit. … Another explanation: ‘Yiskah,’ because everyone stared at her beauty” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 69b).
The point being that the Hebrew root of “Yiskah” means “to look, see.” (This is why Wikipedia, following Rabbi Isaac, says that the name “implies foresight or clairvoyance.”) Abraham’s wife Sarah was beautiful (Genesis 12:11); no wonder some rabbis interpreted “Yiskah” as referring not to her “looking” or “seeing,” but to others’ “looking” at her.
Some have suggested that Shakespeare named Jessica after “Yiskah” because she’s a girl who looks out through windows. In the words of sour old Shylock:
” … Hear you me Jessica,
Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces.” (Act II, scene 5.)
Jessica, as it turns out, thrusts more than her head into the public street. She runs off with her Christian lover, carrying much of her father’s property with her. Is her act of looking so important, that Shakespeare would have chosen the name on this basis alone? I doubt it. It seems more probable that he was following the Talmud’s second explanation, selecting Jessica as the perfect name for a girl so pretty you can’t help but look at her.
But wait a minute. Did Shakespeare read the Talmud? Shakespeare–an anti-Semitic writer living in a country where Jews were forbidden to settle, unlikely to have met a single Jew? Whose Merchant of Venice enshrined the stereotype of the Jew as a merciless, blood-sucking usurer?
That’s at least how many have understood The Merchant of Venice. Others, though, have given the play a different reading. Some have gone so far as to suppose that Shakespeare intended Shylock as a tragic hero, representative of an abused and misunderstood people. His Christian enemies, the supposed “heroes” of the play, are icy-hearted hypocrites. The beautiful, faithless Jessica is a shallow conniver and thief.
Sympathy for Shylock is no invention of the the enlightened 20th century. The German writer Heinrich Heine saw Merchant performed in London in 1827. “There stood behind me in the box a pale British beauty who, at the end of the fourth act”–in which Shylock is compelled to convert to Christianity, and Jessica and her new husband made heirs to all his property–“wept passionately, and many times cried out, ‘The poor man is wronged!'”
I wouldn’t go this far. I think Shakespeare intended Shylock as a villain, but as an intelligible villain. When asked what use he has for a pound of the merchant Antonio’s flesh–which he apparently seriously intends to carve out of Antonio’s body–Shylock replies:
“To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (Act III, Scene 1).
That’s a villain talking–a villain, moreover, who admits to hating Antonio “for he is a Christian” (Act I, Scene 3), which is not one bit better than Antonio’s hating him for being a Jew. But this villain is also a proud, sensitive, finely intelligent man who, thwarted in his longing for the genuine justice of being treated as a human being with “senses, affections, passions” like everybody else, has fallen into craving the rotten pseudo-justice of a pound of flesh.
No nobility here, which makes it all the sadder. But when Shylock is played by a humane, sympathetic actor–like Lucius Houghton, whom I saw in an unforgettable performance of Merchant at High Point, North Carolina, more than 20 years ago–it’s hard to come away without a sense that the poor man is indeed wronged.
Shakespeare, never a scholar, scraped together whatever information on Judaism he could gather to make his Jew real, three-dimensional, capable of awakening your sympathy even while you’re horrified by his obsessive vindictiveness. Going so far as to study the Talmud?
Of course not. But a bright young author in Queen Elizabeth’s England had access to more authentic information on post-Biblical Judaism than you might expect. True, he wasn’t very likely to meet up with any Jews. They’d been expelled from England in 1290, not officially re-admitted until the middle of the 17th century. But England had its learned Christian Hebraists, whose expertise spilled far beyond the bounds of the Hebrew Bible into the Jewish thought and literature of the centuries that followed.
Might Shakespeare have talked with one of them, picking up tidbits like a Talmudically appropriate name for his heroine?
Might one of these Hebraists have given Shakespeare his inspiration for Shylock’s noblest and most enduring speech?
David Kimchi was a French-Jewish Bible commentator of the late 12th and early 13th century. In his comment on Isaiah 52:14–the beginning of the famous prophecy of the “suffering servant,” which would have attracted the attention of Christian Hebraists more than any other passage in the Old Testament–Kimchi quoted the older Spanish-Jewish commentator Abraham ibn Ezra:
“There are many Gentiles who think that a Jew’s physical appearance is different from anyone else’s. There are even some who ask, ‘Does a Jew have a mouth? or an eye?'”
In other words: Hath a Jew eyes? In Shakespeare’s hands, Shylock masterfully turns this rhetorical question on his tormentors: Hath not a Jew eyes?
(Could Shakespeare possibly have heard of Kimchi or Ibn Ezra? Absolutely. His younger contemporary Ben Jonson knew about both of them. In his 1610 play The Alchemists, Jonson parodied the Hebraists of his time with a comic rant gabbling about “Rabbi David Kimchi, Onkelos and Aben-Ezra”–and, what’s more, expected his audience to understand the joke.)
A magnificent speech proclaiming the humanity, however flawed, of the despised and excluded Other. A lovely Hebrew name for a tender girl who carried within her the deep ancestral melancholy of that exclusion. (“I am never merry when I hear sweet music,” Jessica tells her obtuse husband, who has no idea what she’s trying to communicate–her last words in the play.) These are two gems that Shakespeare took, at second or third hand, from the literature of a people he never could have met in real life–he might or might not have liked them if he had–but whose historical dilemma he intuitively understood.
An anti-Semite? I don’t think so.
by David Halperin
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