In both of Shakespeare’s plays, “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice”, there are several instances in which the non-white and non-Christian characters are marginalized and are often the victims of prejudice and outright racism. This occurs in both “Merchant of Venice” and “Othello” particularly through the use and power of language and terms of reference. What is most fascinating about this seeming racism and bias against these characters, Othello and Shylock, is that they aren’t represented in either text as completely fitting the villainous or negative stereotypes other characters wish to put them in. Both Othello and Shylock are presented as sympathetic to varying degrees and although they posses several character flaws that some of the white and Christian characters wish to attribute to their race (Jewish as greedy and heartless and Moors as savage and barbarous) Shakespeare does not completely rely on these stereotypes to draw his characters of these two men. AlthoughShylock is indeed money-hungry, greedy, and oftentimes heartless, he is still portrayed sympathetically at points and his faults are not shown to be something associated with his race. Othello, most notably at the end of the play commits a savage act, but throughout the rest of the text, he is shown to be mild-mannered and exceptionally “civilized” as a general and aristocrat. This softening allows the characters to be represented as more rounded, but the fact still remains that racial bias and outright racism and prejudice are present in both texts.
In “The Merchant of Venice”, the Jewish moneylender, Shylock (full character analysis here) seems to fit the stereotype common in Shakespeare’s time of the greedy and unfeeling Jew. Although we are not told about the racial bias by any narrator, several of the characters refer to him using racial epithets, Antonio in particular. Although stated in the past tense, as Shylock accumulates the bill for Antonio, he cannot help but remember the times he had been termed as a “misbeliever, cut-throat, hound” and all the times that Antonia has, as stated in one of the important quotes from “The Merchant Venice” by Shakespeare, “spit upon [his] Jewish gabardine” (I.iii.107–108). Although Antonio is the most guilt of throwing out the racist insults, there is always the background cacophony of these ideas being bandied about amongst the several minor characters.
For example, when Shylock believes he is losing his daughter, the “throwaway” characters, Salerio and Solanio attempt to express Shylock’s feelings by exclaiming in one of the important quotes from “The Merchant of Venice” by Shakespeare, “My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!” suggesting that Shylock ranks his wealth equal to that of the love of his family (II.viii.15). In The Merchant of Venice, it doesn’t seem to matter who is making the racist comments since the fact remains that these statements are so apparent throughout the text that they cannot be ignored or put aside. The reader is not allowed to forget that Shylock is foreign and subject to stereotypes and only at rare moments are we allowed to see the humanity and great sympathy he is capable of. He seems, very much like Othello at once very aware of his status as an outsider and attempts (although through different means) to handle this.
Even though Othello is humble about his race in the face of so many slights from his enemies, he seems to bow down to the pressure and put himself “below” what he is really is—a well-spoken and interesting gentleman that happens to be a Moor. He states, “Rude am I in my speech, / and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (I.iii.81–82) as though he were claiming that he might not be worthy of status because of his race (and because there are always these slights occurring in the background). Shylock, on the other hand, handles this quite differently. Instead of bowing to the social pressures that demand he be more “Christian” in his lending business and other matters, lashes out and refuses to do so. He is angry at the slurs and treatment, therefore much unlike Othello, he seeks to enhance his difference by being cruel. To the reader it may seem at first as though he is simply embodying these stereotypes, but as his character develops, we see that he is merely frustrated with the comments of white characters like Antonio, thus is seeking merely to react with mutual cruelty.
Even though Shylock cannot be completely taken out of the stereotypical context since he does exhibit many of the same features the characters mock him for, we cannot be allowed—as the result of constant reminders throughout the text—to forget that he is Jewish, just as the reader cannot let themselves forget that Othello is a Moor. In Othello, there is not one scene that is devoid of at least some reference to his status as “other” or black. The difference between the representations of Othello versus Shylock is that there seem to be a few less stereotypes associated with Moors than there exist for Jews. Othello, unlike Shylock is seen as an exotic and desirable personage, mostly because of his status in society, but also because he is someone unique. Strangely though, one cannot ignore the marginalization and prejudice that occurs amongst the white characters from the very beginning of the play. It is not until well into the text the reader is given a name to associate with the less than flattering descriptions of simply, “These include “the Moor” (I.i.57), “the thick-lips” (I.i.66), “an old black ram” (I.i.88), and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113). These racism laden descriptions in Othello associate him with something less than human and certainly not with the desirable and noble person we are finally acquainted with later in the text. In fact, once we are introduced to Othello, there is no doubt that he is a fantastic and impressive figure and everyone seems enamored with him. Quite unlike the undesirable associations of being a Jew in the case of Shylock, Othello’s stories of “otherness” impress others and even seems to know this himself. When asked about his winning of Desmonda, he merely replies, “[Desdemona’s] father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life / From year to year” (I.iii.127–129). Unsurprised by this tale of winning love, the Duke responds,” I think this tale would win my daughter too” (I.iii.170). The representation of Othello as apart from the stereotyoes is very much a seesaw relationship between racially driven bias and admiration of the other, which is what sets the differences between Shylock and Othello as characters in the midst of discrimination apart.
Just as Shylock seems to embody some of the stereotypes placed upon him, so too does Othello. After he has committed the murder of his wife, he laments, saying “Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away/ Richer than all his tribe” (V.ii.356–357). One has to wonder if this quote means that Othello feels that he has succumbed to the stereotype of being a “Moor” and a savage since his normally haughty speech has been reduced to addressing himself to a “base Indian,” one who is unfit for the civilization he has now found himself cast out from. In many ways, it seems as though Shakespeare, by choosing such language for the character of Othello, is attempting to cause us to pity him. Although the reader already has some sympathy for him since he is obviously, throughout most of the play, marginalized and the victim of prejudice because of his status as an outsider, this final act causes some conflicting feelings and makes us realize that perhaps what he did was in fact savage. Much as in The Merchant of Venice, we are being constantly reminded of Othello’s and Shylock’s status as “other” and by the end of each play, it seems this status has somehow been resolved. In the case of Othello, he has verified the stereotypes by committing a rash and brutal murder (even if Desmonda seems to forgive him and even though the audience understands he was the victim of deceit). In Shylock’s case, he goes against these stereotypes by almost admitting that being a Jew is wrong, thus converting to Christianity. Moreover, Shylock, unlike Othello, makes a direct appeal to the audience for sympathy and understanding when he pleads in one of the important quotes from ‘The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare,” Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions . . .? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?” (III.i.49–55). He wants to emphasize his humanity and sameness despite all of the racially motivated criticism he faces from he peers and wishes the audience to see that much of his seeming cruelty is not so much the result of being Jewish (thus being subject to any number of stereotypes) but because he is constantly being upbraided and demeaned because of being Jewish.
Both of these texts, while filled with racist comments and stereotypes, nonetheless succeed in presenting the reader with a “whole” picture of both Shylock and Othello. While, as mentioned above, both men do adhere to certain stereotypes that they are criticized for (Othello as being still essentially a savage because of his race and Shylock, a greedy money-lover that is cruel and exacting) they are not represented as being only what the stereotypes dictate. For example, in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock finds out that Jessica has given the ring from his wife away in exchange for a monkey, he is grief-stricken—not because the ring was valuable, but rather because it was personally precious to him. “It was my turquoise,” he says. “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (III.i.100–103). We are informed that the ring is not of diamond or pearl, but of a non-precious stone. This is also the first time we are given much information about the inner life of Shylock, proving that he is capable of love and emotional attachment. This is truly a heartbreaking scene, not just because the reader realizes that the story of the ring is itself sad, but because we realize the Shylock, much like he claims in his self-justifying speech mentioned previously, is very much human and given to the same desires and passions of the white characters rather than being a mere stereotype of a Jew in Shakespeare. The reader begins to feel much the same way about Othello’s humanity, even after he murders his wife. Unlike the strong and exotic character we have seen throughout the play, his breakdown in calling himself a “base Indian” is quite moving. We realize him not be a victim of the “noble savage” stereotype, but rather simply a man that was the victim of trickery.
Although the theme of prejudice is easily apparent through the speeches and actions of the white, Christians in each play, what is less noticeable is the way in which Shakespeare is able to circumvent these ideas and present these two non-white characters as fully developed. Even more interesting is the way in which Shakespeare uses the racial stereotypes while at the same time rejects them by presenting fully-developed characters that are at once true the stereotypes yet act to destroy them at the same time. While it would be possible for readers to imagine that The Merchant of Venice is simply a text about a villainous Jew that is eventually “conquered” by his conversion, it is more rewarding to view it as a treatise on the fallibility of stereotypes since we are allowed to understand that Shylock’s actions are more a result of his anger at insult rather than because of something inherent in his nature. Similarly, we see that Othello’s final “savage” act of murdering his wife was not because he was inherently barbarous due to his color, but simply because he was driven to this final act because of base trickery. In light of this, it should also be stated that Shakespeare doesn’t attempt to form the idea that the white characters are any better than those who are subject to the discrimination. They are also, in both texts, prone to malice, trickery, and falsehood—perhaps even more so than those whom they detest simply because they are different.
Other articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Close Reading of a Passage in Othello by Shakespeare : Analysis of Race • Character Analysis of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” • Perceptions of Race in Othello by Shakespeare • The Power of Words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello
“Othello.” The Unabridged William Shakespeare. New York: Running P, 1997. 1093-1133.
“The Merchant of Venice.” The Unabridged William Shakespeare. New York: Running P, 220-24