The Racial Question in The Merchant of Venice based on The Prince of Morocco
Art reflects the social context it was created in, and so can be useful in determining social opinions of different time periods. Live theatre is no different, and the way minority characters were written and portrayed on stage can be valuable to understanding how they were viewed by the larger majority at the time the play was produced. Their outward physical appearance is especially important, as their clothing and makeup determines the initial thoughts of the audience: whether they come on stage in blackface or covered head to toe in cloth, their characterization is significantly impacted. In many examples of portrayals of people of color, the characters themselves acknowledge their minority status at great length, and the rest of their actions in relation to the plot are largely related to that subject position. While the most obvious outsider in The Merchant of Venice is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender vilified for his insistence on the bodily harm of a man in his debt, a character with a much smaller role operated in a sphere similar to his. Named only as the prince of Morocco, this man sought Portia’s hand in marriage: a wealthy white woman who would be desirable for the purpose of increasing both wealth and class status. His presence in the play is interesting, as he functions as a parallel to Shylock at times while asking Portia to view him just as she would see anyone of her own race, as well as an example of how to view Shylock in relation to the white characters as the play progresses.
In his initial speech to Portia, the prince takes a somewhat contradictory approach to winning her favor. His first words to her anticipate that she already is against him because of his race: “mislike me not for my complexion” (2.1.1), although he seems to argue that his skin tone does not define him while also praising it. He bears “the shadowed livery of the burnished sun” (2.1.2), and the word choice of ‘livery’ an interesting one. Literally defined as “clothing or uniform” (OED), it suggests that his skin is a kind of clothing, and so nonpermanent. Because it is not permanent, it may not be essential to his character, creating the possibility that Portia need not judge him by his skin tone at all. Additionally, the sun is described as burnished, or “having the appearance of polished metal”. This connotes an idea of wealth and status, as it takes care for metal to be polished enough to shine; it also adds a sense of beauty, as metal is more attractive when it shines. His characterization of his complexion is so odd because he speaks positively of it while simultaneously distancing himself from it.
While there were different ideas of what caused skin tone in the 1600s, the prince apparently subscribed to the concept that race was based upon climate, as he calls himself a ‘neighbor’ of the sun before asking to be compared to a person from so far north that “Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles” as a means of requesting a person who is extraordinarily light skinned. This belief is fitting when compared to his earlier characterization of his skin tone as clothing, because if skin tone is based on the climate a person lives in, moving to another climate could change that skin tone— making it nonpermanent. This furthers the idea that the prince can escape the negative traits he assumes Portia sees in his skin color. Additionally, the contest he suggests involves the not his skin color but the color of his blood, placing importance on his internal characteristics rather that internal. Specifically he calls for the judgement of the redness of his blood, a scale by which “virality […] and strength” (OED) can be measured. He uses this new aspect of his body in order to assert his masculinity, as well as his fitness for marriage to Portia: if he is virile and strong, he is able to function both as a mate as well as a protector.
Crucially, the person the prince asks to be compared against is described to be the “fairest creature northward born” (2.2.4), as opposed to asking for someone who was simply paler than he was. The prince asks specifically for the person who as white as is possible, as fits one definition of fair, but invites a number of other traits in using that word specifically. To be fair is also to be “beautiful [and] agreeable”, as well as “admirable [and] noble” (OED). The prince’s use of a word associated with such positive traits creates a stronger dichotomy between himself and his hypothetical competitor, as in his choice to elevate the fairer man as someone to compete with is to indirectly agree that a darker skin tone carries the opposite traits. If he is asking for the most worthy competitor to be compared to, and that competitor is beautiful and noble because of his fair skin tone, the prince agrees that the traits associated with blackness are not beauty and nobility but some form of their opposites. The prince again works to distance himself from his blackness and present himself as worthy of marrying Portia.
However, immediately after the prince asks for the opportunity to separate himself from his skin tone and be judged by an internal trait, he brags about the behavior that his skin has excited in others: it “hath fear’d the valiant” (2.1.9) and has been loved by “the best-regarded virgins of our clime” (2.1.10). Through these new claims, the prince presents his skin tone as something decidedly desirable— and again as both a mate and a protector. While his appearance strikes fear in his opponents, it seems that it is fear stemming from the prince’s strength rather than his skin tone itself being scary, as he makes a point to describe the frightened people as characteristically valiant. The argument he presents with the virgins of his climate can function in two ways: if he is being modest, the fact that the best women his region had to offer desired him makes him at least adequate for Portia; if he is being cocky, his experience could function as a way to show off to Portia the benefits of what she could gain by marrying him. Regardless, the prince defends his skin tone and presents arguments that counter possible claims that he would be unfit to be Portia’s husband. He’s also appealing directly to Portia here, an extension of his original request for her not to “mislike” him on the basis of his skin tone before he has a chance to elaborate on his character.
The prince’s last appeal, however, seem a way to cut the tie between himself and his race almost entirely. While he’s expressed the positives of his body and what he has been able to achieve with it, he tells Portia that he “would not change this hue / except to steal [her] thoughts” (2.1.11-12). This last statement manages to combine the sentiment of his speech above, as contradictory as it was: he is proud of his skin tone and does not see it negatively, but understands that Portia is likely to and so is willing to give up his own identity to make himself more appealing to her. This statement does not seem to be hypothetical, rather, the prince seems willing to change himself if it will gain him Portia’s hand. Again, and oddly to the modern reader, the prince refers to race as a non-permanent trait— and while he does not propose a precise method by which he would make himself lighter skinned, he does not present it as an insurmountable obstacle. This viewpoint can be reflected in the larger context of how he values his outward appearance in relation to his internal character traits.
While the prince describes his skin with words connected to wealth and status, he ultimately requests that Portia look further than his most basic appearance. The test of his character is a test of his blood, something she would be unable to see simply by observing the color of his skin. The presence of a proposed act of violence, although small, speaks to the motivation he has to prove to Portia that he is worthy to marry her. Additionally, his pointed comparison to himself to someone that is fairer reveals his own awareness of the way his race is perceived when compared to a white person. He knows that Portia is viewing him from a lower starting point than a white person, and to him, a test of blood is the easiest way for him to level the playing field and hopefully have Portia judge him separately from his Moorish status and the connotations of the identity. Beyond that, he is willing to give up his racial identity entire for her, in the hopes that it will make her desire him. The final effect is somewhat confusing, as he offers to discard the very aspect of himself he praised only lines before, but ultimately adds to the sense of his dedication in wooing her.
Ultimately, his place as Portia’s husband is not up to her, but dependent on the box he chooses out of a set of three: lead, silver, and gold. Each comes with a riddle, and the box each suitor chooses is understood to relate to their character. Morocco surveys them all, and chooses the golden box inscribed with “who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (2.7.37). He reasons that Portia, in all her beauty and status, must be what all men want and so his choice is a rational one. More telling, however, is his thought process while deciding against the other two boxes: he reasons that a picture of a person as beautiful as Portia could not be contained in a box of anything less than gold, as it must be fitting of her outward appearance. This reasoning is so confusing because it goes against his driving claim of his earlier monologue that outward appearance is not the determining factor of value, yet he immediately reaches for the prettiest box he finds and treats its inscription as an afterthought to support his choice. He seemingly spins his perspective on perception, but in truth that spin may have more to do with the difference in his race as related to Portia.
In his earlier speech, the prince makes it clear he is aware of the negative traits associated with his skin tone, and thus encourages Portia to value his internal rather than his external traits. However, his need to wave away his race at all is likely the reason he accepts Portia at face value and chooses the golden box. While he is black and feels he must make up for that ‘disadvantage’, Portia starts from the position of a wealthy, attractive white woman— and so there is no need for him to make a special effort to look past the surface. Her appearance does not have an immediate negative effect on the perception of her as a person, and so he does not need to wonder at her internal traits. Unlike himself, Portia is more than able to get by on the privilege of her visible whiteness. For her, there is no need to look deeper, as what is on the outside is already socially acceptable.
Looking at the prince of Morocco through this lens, it is easier to see how he functions as a character in the relation to the rest of the play. As another version of the outsider, and thus comparable to Shylock, he serves as a way to view the rest of the characters along this same dichotomy. The prince and Shylock both must take great pains to explain their actions and make their internal motivations blunt to the white Christians in the play, who operate from a privileged position which assumes that they are already moral and just in their actions. While the ‘fairest’ in the play can get by on their outward appearance and the inherent assumption of goodness those like them connect to it, the minority characters must work harder to reveal their internal traits, as their outward appearance does not suffice to redeem them.
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