Grace Tiffany

"The Turquoise Ring"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie MAY 1, 2006)

The Turquoise Ring by Grace Tiffany

Author Grace Tiffany is a Renaissance scholar who in recent years has written a few excellent historical novels involving William Shakespeare, his life and work. She is a professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama at Western Michigan University and has taught Shakespeare at Fordham University, the University of New Orleans and the University of Notre Dame, where she obtained her doctorate. The Turquoise Ring is a retelling of Shakespeare's controversial play, The Merchant of Venice, from the point of view of five women - most of them characters in the great Bard's original work. Given Dr. Tiffany's background and literary talents, I cannot think of a better person to tell this intriguing tale.

A young Spanish Jew from Toledo, Shiloh ben Gozan, flees Spain and the Inquisition in 1568, carrying his infant daughter, Jessica, with him. His beloved wife Leah was brutally tortured and murdered because she refused to renounce her Jewish faith before the Holy Brotherhood. The only possession Shiloh carries with him, besides some food and goat's milk for the baby, is a turquoise ring his wife had given him upon their betrothal. He travels to Venice to live openly as a Jew and to raise Jessica. However, conditions aren't much better for his people in this new home. They are forced to live in a small ghetto, and wear badges and other identifying symbols of their religion when they leave the restricted area. Although, Venice's economy and trade flourish with the influx of Jewish refugees from Spain, they are still forbidden to own land, and the only work available to them is through usury. In Venice, Shiloh's precious turquoise ring is stolen and passes through many hands, effecting all who own it.

The narrative begins with Elizabeta Santa Leocadia de la Cerda's story. Her mother Serafina, (originally called Sarah), was a newly baptized Catholic, a Jewess who converted, (called a converso or marrano), and her father an established Christian hidalgo, a wealthy nobleman. Many marranos continued to practice the Jewish religion in secret, although they attended mass regularly and took Holy Communion. Serafina actually did renounce her Judaism and tried to become a true Christian, until she became disillusioned with both Catholicism and her marriage. She told Elizabeta, before she died, "The new faith is as hollow as the old. It brought me only wealth and bitterness....and a husband who wanted forgiveness every night. Forgiveness to keep on sinning." Unlike her mother, Elisabeta is not materialistic, nor does social class and position matter to her. She gives up her wealth, noble family name and a life of privilege, to return to her mother's family and marry Shiloh ben Gozan, the man she loves. She takes the Hebrew name Leah.

Jessica, daughter of Leah and Shiloh, (called Shylock in Venice), is unhappy with the restrictions of life in the ghetto. Unlike her mother, who died when she was born, she is a superficial, spoiled girl, not interested in learning Hebrew and practicing Jewish laws. She would like to leave the ghetto, wear lovely clothing, marry a Christian and convert. She sees the Virgin Mary as a mother figure and frequently steals away to the cathedral in the Piazza San Marco to pray.

Nerissa d'Orocuora, a sensual, earthy woman from Padua, works for the ben Gozan family for a brief period in the Venetian Ghetto, as a maidservant. She and Jessica form a fast friendship. When caught entertaining men in her quarters, Shiloh tosses her out of the house and she promptly finds more enjoyable work for better wages in the houses of the Malipiero as a high class prostitute, a legal profession in Venice. Nerissa is savvy and gets by on her wits. She quickly moves up in the world when she is taken in and kept by prominent and influential Cardinal Grimani. All is well, until Nerissa meets Lady Portia Bel Mente, an eccentric young woman with beautiful hair and a brilliant legal mind. She wears men's clothes so she can attend legal meetings and court sessions, learn and debate. The two become best friends and Nerssia moves to Portia's large estate in Belmont, where she will become her lifelong companion and confidant.

According to Portia Bel Mente's father's bizarre will, she must marry, no matter her inclinations, if she is to inherit her parent's money and land, which would then be turned over to her husband anyway. She is determined to think of a legal way out of this misogynistic dilemma, so she can remain in charge of her estate and her life, and not allow some wastrel to dissipate her wealth and make her miserable.

Thus, the other characters in Shakespeare's Merchant enter the narrative: Antonio di Argento, Bassanio di Piombo, Lorenzo di Scimmia and Graziano di Pesaro. However, they are perceived and described somewhat differently here than in the Bard's famous work - from the feminine perspective, which is not always as flattering, but perhaps more realistic! The men have all squandered their money and are looking to make more by marrying wealthy women, (except for Antonio who seems to prefer men). Antonio, a terrible businessman, has come up with some ridiculous schemes to make a profit in the past, and his friends always went along with him enthusiastically. They will probably continue to do so once they restore their lost capital through advantageous marriages. As in The Merchant of Venice, the Jew hating di Argento makes a contract with Shylock to borrow 3,000 ducats to help Bassanio court Portia in the manner to which she is accustomed. However, Antonio recently spat in the man's face and has insulted him on other occasions, calling him a dog and worse. The shrewd Shylock, is a bitter man. He has prospered through hard work, yet lives in a world which hates him and his people. The two adversaries make a bizarre pact to guarantee the return of the loan. Shylock agrees to charge no interest. Antonio agrees to give Shylock a pound of his flesh if he does not repay the loan in three months.

Xanthe is a servant in Portia's home, and another refugee from Toledo. Her father was a Marrisco, a moor converted to Christianity, her mother a Jewess. Her father made the turquoise ring, a lifetime ago. Only Xanthe can unlock its mysteries now, as well as the secrets of the past.

I really enjoyed this beautifully written, well researched novel. It is addictive. The more I read the more hooked I became. Grace Tiffany artfully blends fact and fiction to tell a story of a century in transition, social injustice and religious intolerance, romance and wit. Just before reading this book, I saw Michael Radford's film adaptation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, with Al Pacino as Shylock. The play has become much more meaningful to me after reading The Turquoise Ring.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews


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About the Author:

Grace TiffanyGrace Tiffany grew up in Virginia. She has been a professor of Shakespeare at Western Michigan University since 1995, and has spoken as an invited lecturer at a number of colleges and universities, including Wheaton College in Chicago and the University of Salamanca in Spain. Before moving to Michigan she taught for five years at the University of New Orleans and for one year at Fordham University in New York City. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Notre Dame.

She and her family live in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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