Now in the early twenty-first century we tend to associate racist attitudes with out-moded and old-fashioned beliefs. The Merchant of Venice and Othello can, therefore, present challenges to modern readers and audiences because, to a certain extent, Shakespeare presents relations between the different ethnic groups in a negative way: both plays contain characters with extremely racist attitudes which modern audiences are likely to find objectionable and highly offensive. The burning issue for readers and audiences is how far Shakespeare endorses the racist attitudes of the societies he portrays. This essay will show that, although both plays contain characters with racist attitudes, the plays as a whole condemn racism as illogical and inhuman, and Shakespeare’s condemnation of racism is part of a larger critique of Venetian society in both plays.
It is hard to discover Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes to non-whites like Othello and non Christians like Shylock. Robinson (pages 20 – 25) summarizes the research that has been undertaken to reach the conclusion that sixteenth century Englishmen may have seen themselves as superior to non-Europeans, but there is no evidence that they indulged in the murderous, destructive bigotry that can still be found today in some political organizations of the far right. There was more a sense of curiosity it seems, than unthinking condemnation.
Othello is an unusual Elizabethan play because its protagonist is non-white, and it could be argued that this in itself is proof enough of Shakespeare’s desire to present Othello as a man (regardless of race) – al-be-it a man who enjoys great status because of his military skill shown over decades of service to the Venetian state. Othello is presented as a magnificent warrior and a brave leader of men: he is honoured by the Venetian state and his status is at least equal to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio. Before falling in love with Desdemona, Othello was a frequent guest at Brabantio’s house and was treated as an equal. Indeed, the decision of the Duke to allow the marriage of Othello and Desdemona shows that, in some ways, certainly in a pragmatic military sense, Othello is more important than Brabantio. Venice needs the fighting and military skills of Othello, but there does not seem to be any evidence of institutionalized racism in the authorities that run Venice. His commission to take control of Cyprus shows the trust and faith the state of Venice has in his prowess.
Nonetheless, racist attitudes abound within the play but they are largely confined to Iago and Roderigo who both often refer to the color of Othello’s skin and to other stereotypical features of non-whites. As early as Act One, scene one, Roderigo refers to him as “thick-lips” (line 66) and shortly afterwards Iago says to Brabantio, “ Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.” (lines 89-90). However, this is a more a reflection of Iago’s nature and there is no sense in which Shakespeare endorses it. In that quotation it is not simply the racial slur that tells us about Iago: to describe the act of love as “tupping” suggests a crude and animalistic attitude towards human sexuality. As Robinson (94) puts it:
What Iago and Roderigo call ‘unnatural’ and unjust only reveals, ironically, how humanly unnatural and morally unjust they are. Racism is so reviled by Shakespeare that, in Iago, he presents one of the moist vividly ugly and alarming life-sized portraits of unequivocal racist hatred of black people in literature.
It is true that Brabantio reacts with horror at the thought of Othello marrying his daughter: Iago is clever enough to tap into this primal and illogical fear of miscegenation, but Othello’s first appearance and the way Shakespeare presents him as a well-spoken, articulate and persuasive human being demonstrates that Shakespeare does not endorse any stereotypical view of non-white people at all. In Act One, scene two Shakespeare portrays Othello as calm, measured and sensitive – hardly the “black ram” that Iago has so crudely referred to. In fact, Shakespeare’s presentation of Othello highlights the ironic untruthfulness of Iago’s words. He is much more than the “Barbary horse” that Iago calls him (Act one, scene one, 113).
Shakespeare presents Iago as the character with the most psychological problems. This is not just a question of his racism – it is also his obsessive pursuit of Othello’s downfall and his cynical, debased attitude to life. Iago’s speech throughout the play is full of disgusting animal images – this shows us more about his conception of what it is to be human than it does about Othello and other non-Europeans. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (quoted in Kermode, page) wrote about Iago’s “motiveless malignity”, but that is not strictly true: Iago does give two reasons for his hatred of the Moor – at the end of the opening scene of the play he expresses his anger at being passed over for promotion to lieutenant and at the end of Act One, scene three he says that he suspects that Othello has had sex with Emilia, Iago’s wife: “It is thought abroad that twixt my sheets? He has done my office.” (lines 369 – 370). Therefore, Iago does have clear motives. However, that does not explain the sheer joy and relish Iago feels at triumphing over Othello. But even this sadistic enjoyment of destroying other people’s lives is not inherently racist: he destroys the lives of all the characters in the play – without a hint of remorse – white and black, Venetian and non-Venetian. Iago is a bully – and he bullies Othello because of his color, but he might just as easily have bullied him about his age.
And yet Othello is an outsider in Venetian society. There are points in the play where he himself seems to draw attention to it. In Act One, scene three, he apologizes for his lack of eloquence:
Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace. (lines 81 – 82).
Some critics might seize on these lines and argue that Othello is aware of his status as an outsider and very conscious of the color of his skin, but the statement can also just as easily be seen as that of an experienced soldier who is adept at fighting but not used to making long speeches. Indeed, one might argue that if the racial difference between Desdemona and Othello did not cause the marital problems they encounter, what was responsible? Of course, Iago’s malicious sadism is the main cause, but there is also a huge age gap between husband and wife; Othello is experienced as a soldier, but not as a domesticated lover and husband. the differences between him and his wife are greater than the racial difference. Indeed, Desdemona makes no reference whatsoever to Othello’s race and color when she explains why she fell in love with him. Nonetheless, we might feel that falling in love with a man because of his past deeds of bravery and courage is perhaps not the best way of choosing a husband.
Long argues that the problem in the play is Venetian society and its values of courtesy and civilization, not it s racism as such. Any act which seems to diminish the high ideals of Venetian humanity prompts disgust and self-loathing. So Cassio’s reaction to being drunk is an over-reaction:
O god, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should with joy, pleasance, revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts! (Act Three, scene three, 280 – 283).
As Long (page 45) comments, “The interesting and appalling thing is that this culture cannot contain so ordinary a manifestation of man’s physicality [as being drunk].” It is little wonder, therefore, that when Othello has been convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity he is filled with sexual disgust and sees his wife as “a cistern for foul toads to gender in”. Iago thrives in the play because he recognizes and accepts the bestial part of being human: earlier he had told Brabantio that Othello and Desdemona were “making the beast with two backs” (Act One, scene one, 117 – 118), a crudely disgusting way to speak about the act of love.
What is tragic in Othello is not simply the sight of a great man destroyed by Iago’s machinations, but the scenes late in the play between Othello and Desdemona where they are so trapped in their roles, the roles Venetian society has given them that they cannot communicate with each other. This inability to communicate leads, as much as Iago’s plotting, to the tragic end. Othello cannot bring himself to express his doubts and fears to his wife – he can only be eloquent when talking about his deeds of bravery. By the same token, Desdemona is trapped in the role of a submissive Venetian wife – aware that she is about to die but lacking the words to ask Othello why her death is imminent. This play is not about racism at all, although Iago does occasionally use racial slurs to offend Othello or to make friends with others like Roderigo.
My response to The Merchant of Venice is similar, but not exactly the same because it is a different play and Shakespeare presents relationships between the different ethnic groups rather differently. Feelings of anti-semitism are more widespread in The Merchant of Venice than the racism in Othello, and Shylock lacks the status and kudos that Othello has. More importantly, Shylock’s Jewishness is more important in the plot for the simple reason that for centuries the Church in Europe forbade usury – the lending of money at an interest rate – and so Jews were tolerated in many parts of Western Europe since they fulfilled this financial function. However, The Merchant of Venice is not an anti-semitic play and, although certain characters, express anti-Jewish sentiments, Shakespeare does not endorse their views, but uses them to reveal and highlight their own shortcomings. As Janik (131) so succinctly puts it:
He is despised by the Venetians as a greedy, deceptive, possessive and materialistic Jew. But Shakespeare suggests an irony in this Venetian anti-semitism, because the Venetians hate Shylock for qualities they themselves possess.
Shakespeare’s play was written shortly after Christopher Marlowe had enjoyed huge success with The Jew of Malta which presents stereotypes of Jewishness (Janik, 34) with no redeeming features whatsoever. Shakespeare seems to have been drawing on the traditional stereotypes of Jewishness, but he makes Shylock a far more sympathetic figure and a fully rounded human being. For example, the animosity between Antonio and Shylock is based on religious and cultural differences, but Antonio has been wrong in the past to speak so badly of Shylock and it is Antonio’s past treatment of Shylock that leads directly to the terms of the deal he strikes. The speech that most humanizes Shylock is one that asserts our common humanity is more important than that which divides us:
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? (Act Three, scene one, 49 -55).
Of course, the speech ends with Shylock lowering himself to the same level as that of his anti-semitic Christian enemies in vowing total revenge, but in other respects this speech is a remarkable one for its day and age, and its expression of common human values across ethnic and religious divides. Even Shylock’s determination to get revenge has to be seen in the context of an anti=semitic society, as Janik (131) writes that Shakespeare presents Shylock’s desire for revenge as clearly and directly influenced by the biased treatment he receives and… his course of action, a response to the greedy materialism that permeates the world of Venice, is the only available to a powerless individual who hopes to survive and thrive. It is, in fact, modelled on the greed of the Venetians.
Shakespeare is even cleverer in giving a voice to the marginalized Jews of Europe. In the trial scene when asked to justify his hatred of Antonio, Shylock is given a long speech beginning what if my house be troubled with a rat, and I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats to have it banned? (Act Four, scene one, 43 – 45)
We should look for no clearer endorsement of Shakespeare’s religious toleration and his complete lack anti-Jewish feeling. For centuries Jews have been attacked throughout Europe and the animal they are most often compared to (from the medieval church up to the Nazis during the Holocaust) is the rat (Kermode, 24). In this speech Shakespeare allows Shylock to parody the illogicality of anti-semitism by appropriating its vocabulary!
In conclusion, both Othello and The Merchant of Venice present racist attitudes and relations between different ethnic groups as an area of potential conflict, but Shakespeare uses both plays to attack racist attitudes and stereotypes.
Janik, Vicki K. The Merchant of Venice: a Guide to the Play. 2003. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group. Print.
Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. 2000. London: Penguin. Print.
Long, Michael. The Unnatural Scene: a Study in Shakespearean Tragedy. 1976. London: Methuen. Print.
Robinson, Elaine L. Shakespeare Attacks Bigotry: a Close Reading of Six Plays. 2009. New York: McFarland. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. 2000. London: Methuen. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. 1998. London: Penguin Print.