The Merchant of Venice and Othello
The Merchant of Venice and Othello are similar Shakespeare plays with a number of occurrences where both non-whites and non-Christian characters are victimized on the basis of race and prejudice. The plays have expressed this outright marginalization through language power and terms of reference. (McNeil & Carey, 2000) Shakespeare’s’ suspense play “The Merchant of Venice portrays Shylock as a socially unlikable character which evokes a mixed feeling within the mind of the reader. This character often takes advantage of economically challenged people and makes a considerable gain out of their vulnerability.
According to the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, Shylock dislikes friendships; he is bad-tempered, and always rigid in the line of his belief. Character analysis on Shylock should take note of his recurrent behavior of selfishness and thinking. Shylock is often self-thinking and unreasonable and demanding. An important quote in The Merchant of Venice goes, “a weight of chariot flesh” (Shakespeare, 2004) from a character he thinks will be unable to repay him because to him it is a “humor” doing so.
Shylock is a villain whose actions require punished by a manner matching his infringement of laws and social norms. The said punishment contravenes the Christian faith despite the crime being absolute. By insisting that Shylock be punished according to his behaviors raises the doubts about Christian love, purity and mercy. Being a Jew and occupying the profession of a money fraudster, Shylock’s plays a great role ensuring that the society dislike him because of his stubbornness and unreasonableness, even in instances that would otherwise warrant Christian virtues such as love and pity.
According to the review “Prejudice in Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice, 2010”, the reader can feel a curious comparison for Shylock when performing a basic character analysis of a socially disliked character. Shylock has created his isolation by declaring a Jew should not “eat/with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” (Shakespeare, 2004), the reader starts to comprehend the reason he has isolated himself from the social life during his speech in Act III Shylock asks about the victim of racism, “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, sense, affections, passions?” (Shakespeare, 2004). It becomes clear at this point that Shylock has never been understood because the society has always seen him on the side of a Jew. The reader’s relationship with the character becomes complicated by the sympathy he receives as an outcast, a Jewish.
Shylock teaches most of his peers and the reader about the Christian love and mercy in the Merchant of Venice, but at one point in his speech he misses about the greediness and love for money. Reading the first act of Othello might dupe a reader to believe that racism is inherent in the whole play since description of the protagonist lacks in the play than texts for racial discrimination. Othello’s reference by many terms other than his name become evident as the play develops. Such words are like “the Moor” and other direct racial mockery names. This kind of act opening induces the reader to believe the play is fused with racial ideologies as it is in most works of William Shakespeare. Despite the initial impression, the play is not about racial discrimination, but a society who consider Othello, an equal partner. Crawford (2003) describes the racial impressions as counter-balanced as the story development, and Othello’s character becomes clear. However, the reader finds it hard to forget the racial reference made to Othello, especially when doing a close reading as the theme of equality is not portrayed in the opening of the play. Shakespeare introduces the reader to two characters in the darkness one of whom is a villain, and they discuss their common enemy Othello, although there is no mention of his name. “The Moor is a name used by Roderigo, which implies that he is a lesser human who does not even deserve a name. A discriminating term, “thick-lips”, is a name used by Roderigo to refer to Othello. The reader’s mind creates an ugly image of the character, but later goes on to tell Desdemona’s father “you will have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you.” These words create another image with a different dimension, and the two images confuse the leader in figuring out the actual nature of Othello. By considering the children to be half-horses because of animal, blood is compromising readers’ perception of Othello.
The Merchant of Venice and Othello creates sympathetic mood despite the character flaws presented by the writer that the whites and Christians would wish to incorporate in their race. Examples of these are the greedy character for the Jews and Moors as barbarous. The plays by Shakespeare do not entirely rely on stereotypes to develop the characters (Shylock and Othello). However, Shylock is vividly greedy, money-hungry and heartless. At some points, he is portrayed sympathetically despite his faults not attributed to race. On the other hand, Othello notably commits a savage act, but the rest of the text describes him as “civilized” as an aristocrat and a general. The action at the end softens the view of the character, but the ultimate theme of racial discrimination and prejudice are evident in the two texts (Wheeler, 2011).
In the play “Merchant of Venice”, Shylock (the Jewish moneylender) fits in Shakespeare’s time of the unlawful and greedy Jew. Not a single narrator has told of the racial bias, but several characters such as Antonio refer to Shylock in a racial manner Shylock accumulates the bill for Antonio but he cannot help but remember the instances he had been referred to as “cut-throat, misbeliever, hound” and all the times he has “spit upon Jewish gabardine” (Shakespeare, 2004, pp. 107-108). Such racist insults have been bandied about by other characters, although Antonio is the guiltiest of all. A perfect example is when Shylock feels he is losing his daughter, and Solanion and Salerio use a famous quote by Shakespeare from the Merchant of Venice, “My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!” which suggesting that Shylock equates his wealth with the love of his family. The play The Merchant of Venice seem to take less note on who makes a racial comment since the statements are inherent throughout the play that it is easier to take note of them.
The reader is exposed to sympathetic and humility parts of the Shylock leaving the dark side of him as a foreigner and subjective to stereotypes. The humility and sensitive capabilities of Shylock are much similar to that of Othello: at one moment, he seems much aware of social status as a foreigner and attempts to handle the situation through different means. Othello’s character has been portrayed as a humble character in the light of his race; he bows down to the racial pressure and carries himself below his real capability. The play shows him as a polite, well-spoken gentleman and attractive, but happened to be a Moor. On the other hand, Shylock handles the so0cial pressure differently with a rather rogue character. Social pressures demand that he become more “Christian” in his lending and other related matters, but he seem reluctant due to his stubborn nature. Shylock seems angry at the treatment and slurs making him much different from Othello. He seeks to alleviate his difference by being rogue. In the beginning the reader may be induced to believe he is embodying these stereotypes, but it becomes evident along the story that he is only frustrated with the negative comments of some white characters such as Antonio, leaving him with a sole option of cruelty for mutual co-existence.
Shylock cannot be entirely excluded from the stereotypical context because he exhibits many of the traits the whites mock him for: the text always reminds us that he is a Jewish. Just like the reader cannot forget that Othello is a Moor. In the case of Othello, there is no single scene without some reference to his status as black or “other”. Holderness (2010) describes the contrasting representation of both Shylock and Othello, where a few stereotypical associations with the Moor exist, than there is for the Jews. Othello’s character is more likable and exotic, largely due to his social status and his unique personage. The reader cannot forget the marginalization and prejudice that is evident from the beginning of the play, especially with the whites. It is until later in the scene that the reader has been introduced to names associated with the flattering descriptions of the terms like “the Moor, the thick lips, an old black ram and a black Barbary horse. Such descriptions portray Othello with undesirable character of animal and indeed undesirable traits. Later In the text, Othello is described as a fantastic and desirable figure and everyone seems to like him. This association is quite unlike the case of a Jewish, Shylock. The “otherness” stories relating to Othello impress many, and he knows this himself. On the question of Othello’s winning on Desmonda, he replies in a manner to suggest a see-saw relationship between others’ admiration and racial driven bias, which sets a distinction between Othello and Shylock characters in the line of partial discrimination.
As discussed in this piece, both men stick to certain stereotypes they have been accused of Shylock as a greedy person with the love of money and Othello being a savage attributed to his race. However, they are not just presented in a manner that stereotypes would dictate. Taking examples from the plays illustrates this argument: Shylock in The Merchant of Venice discovers that Jessica gave away the ring from his wife in return for money. He is not impressed by the action not because the ring had some monetary value but because it is a precious item to him. He says, “It was my turquoise”…. I had it off Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (Shakespeare, 2004). The writer informs us that the ring is a non-precious stone, but not a diamond or pearl. It is at this point the author give us detailed life information about Shylock, showing that he can express love and emotions. The reader views this scene as a heartbreaking one considering the ring incidence. His reactions to this scene confirm his self-justifying claim of a human and possess the same desires and passions of the whites, unlike the stereotyping by Shakespeare about the Jews. The reader’s feeling starts to relate Othello’s humility with Shylock’s human character despite the murder of his wife. Further from the often exotic and high character we encounter during the play, the later remarks where he calls himself a “base Indian” is much moving. We realize that Shylock is not a victim of the general stereotype, but rather a victim of trickery.
The theme of prejudice is evident in the actions and speeches of white characters. However, Shakespeare is able to present and develop two non-white characters entirely. It is also clear that Shakespeare can use racial stereotypes, and at the same time give a contrary set of fully developed characters that act as stereotypes at one moment, but later destroy them by doing some unpredictable. It is equally simple for a new reader to imagine The Merchant of Venice as a text about villains, a Jew who is ultimately overpowered by the conversion. It is right to view the plays in the light of fallibility of stereotypes because we later realize that Shylock actions result from his anger at discriminating insults, but not because of something intrinsic to his nature. A similar case is evident in Othello’s savage act of murder of his wife, not as a result of his inherent barbarous character due to color, but due to being driven by bad trickery (McNeil & Carey, 2000). At this point, it would be important to say that Shakespeare does not try to insinuate that whites are much better than characters subjected to discrimination. In both texts, there are prone to malice, falsehood and trickery and much more.
Prior to the revelation of true identity of Othello, there are confusing images of animosity and beasts. The relevance of this is the perception of parallel between the black and animals that are less human, therefore, not deserving the use of humanization name instead use such images. It is obvious there is elements of civilization and savagery that are induced to such discriminative description although it becomes evident later that the character described is, in fact, more civilized than perceived. Othello also demonstrates the ability to a real language orientation, well spoken and respected personage. Here, the reader mindset remains confined to racism because of the offered descriptions.
Marginalization has been strictly related to the fear of the unknown at the beginning of the play. In the case of Othello, race is the discriminating factor that alienates him from the society: an example of this disparity arises when a character called Brabanzio discovers that his daughter has an affair with the “Moor” and his mind becomes corrupted by the imagination of trickery and powers of dark magic to confuse his daughter, Desdemona. Although at some points he becomes unaware that Roderigo and Iago referred to the colored man as Othello, he could only imagine of some dark magical works in process. He accuses the unknown man of color (Othello), of witchcraft and seems not to understand why the daughter can go against all rules of nature to fall in love with something she feared to look on (Shakespeare, 2004). Shakespeare uses a one most revealing quote about racism demonstrates how race might have been used to imply dark magic among the colored persons. The father does not consider whether the love can go beyond the confinement of color and cultural back bounds: he thinks such a union as pure controversy to laws of nature considering that Moor is a colored man. Such perception creates a distinct mindset that black men use the power of magic to seduce and convince a white girl to have an affair with them (Sohmer, 2007). This remark further suggests that race should bound marriage, where blacks and the whites should not intermarry or have a romantic association, as this is not natural. Another important quote by Shakespeare in Othello points out that “For if such actions may have passage free, /bound slaves and pagans shall our statement be” says Brabanzio (Shakespeare, 2004). This quote proves that the character disapproves the black men as real, but merely bound slaves and pagans that should not have a space in the white society. He seems to defend his position about the racial disparity when he discovers the character in question is Othello, and this brings about another question about the development of Othello’s character as a “Moor” since his actions, dress code and speech relates to that of the whites men (Wheeler, 2011). As the texts develop, his character becomes evident that he is just like the whites with the color being the only difference.
At most instances, both characters seem to embody the stereotypes placed upon them: Othello commits the murder of his wife after which he laments the by saying “like the base India, threw a pearl away/Richer than all his tribe”. The reader has to figure out the meaning of this quote and judge whether Othello has succumbed to “Moor stereotype: his haughty speech has been lowered to a point of addressing himself as a “base Indian”, being cast out of the society for being unfit. It would be right to argue that by using such words as the character Othello, Shakespeare tries to make the reader pity him. It is however obvious that the reader has pre-developed sympathy for him from the previous scenes, until the later act that brings conflicting feelings that makes us thinks he makes a savage act. In the play by Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, he always remind us of the of the Shylock and Othello’s status as “other”, but this has been resolved towards the end of each play. Othello’s case has ended by a brutal and rushed murder of his wife despite the forgiveness by Desmoda though the audience understands Othello was the victim of dishonesty. Similarly, Shylock’s case goes contrary to the stereotypes by admitting that it is wrong being a Jew and consequently converting to Christianity. In addition, Shylock makes a request to the audience for sympathy and understanding: a famous quote from the Merchant of Venice goes “Hath not a Jew eye? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimension, senses, affection, passions…?” Shylock empathizes with his humility to the audience ignoring all the racially inclined criticism from the society and peers (Shakespeare, 2004). His anger is not inclined to him being a Jew but due to constant upbraid and demeaning he receives for being a Jew. The two texts succeed in presenting the reader with a complete picture of the two main characters (Shylock and Othello)
Anonymous. (2010, June 14). Prejudice in Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice. Retrieved January 21, 2015, from Academia Articles: http://www.articlemyriad.com/prejudice-othello-merchant-venice/
Crawford, A. (2003). Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakespearean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear; (6th ed.). Boston: R.G. Badger; [etc.]
Holderness, G. (2010). Shakespeare and Venice. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.
McNeil, W., & Carey, G. (1981). Merchant of Venice: Notes (New ed.). Lincoln, Neb.: Cliffs Notes
Shakespeare, W. (2004). Othello. In W. Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice (p. 122). London: Simon & Brown
Shakespeare, W. (2004). The Merchant of Venice. In W. Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice (p. 122). London: Simon & Brown
Sohmer, S. (2007). Shakespeare for the wiser sort: Solving Shakespeare’s riddles in the Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, King John, 1-2 Henry IV, the Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth and Cymberline. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Wheeler, D. (2011). Shakespeare’s presentation of Ethinic Groups in The Merchent of Venice and Othello (Kindle Edition ed.). New York: Dog’s Tail Books.
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