Shakespeare's Othello and Merchant of Venice


Othello and Merchant of Venice are arguably Shakespeare's most racially inflammatory plays. In Othello, a "black" Moorish (anti)hero is shown as killing his white wife in a fit of animalistic jealousy, while in Merchant of Venice a villainized Jewish Usurer is shown as trying to literally take the flesh of those to whom he lends. In both cases the racial themes hardly deserve the name of undertones, as the remain primary and active motivators for the characters and subjects of constant dialog. What is less obvious, and yet equally important in considering these plays, is the role which gender marginalization plays in the stories. Jean Howard wisely points out that characters such as Iago display a profound misogyny which informs these plays, and yet that in Shakespeare's work, the "outcome depends on more than the deep-seated misogyny... It also depends on the hero's own outsider status." (Howard) Indeed, it may be argued that racism and sexism are deeply and inherently linked in these two plays. In both plays, the experience of racism and class-ism lead to violence in the hearts of the masculine characters. Those who are victimized eventually play the villain, so that the audience is left to question whether they indeed deserved their abuse or if, indeed, it was this abuse that turned their hands to evil. In both cases a racial minority strove to overcome his status and ended in tragedy. At the same time, in both plays female self-empowerment is likewise directly with victimization. Portia and Shylock may be seen as foils, while Desdemona and Othello share the same basic fate. In both stories, those who seek to overcome the victimization of society, whether through masculine violence or through mere feminine independence, are inevitably and mercilessly crushed.

This link between resistance and tragedy may not be immediately obvious, but a consideration of the stories will show it to exist most clearly; one might start this observation by seeing how Shylock, Othello and (curiously) Iago are each punished for seeking to violently overcome the limits of their social and racial placement. With Shylock the link between his over-stepping and his punishment are most clearly marked. Had he contented himself with taking twice what he was owed in coin, and accepted with that coin the curses and phlegm of Antonio, then he would have retired wealthy from the court. However, his attempt to overcome the limitations of his place and seek bodily revenge on the Christian Antonio are directly cited as the reasons why he is fined, forced to convert, and stripped of his rights of choosing an heir: "For it appears by manifest proceeding [in court] That indirectly, and directly too, Thou hast contrived against the very life Of the defendant;..." (Merchant of Venice 4:1) That it is not merely his violence that so condemns him is made evident, however, in the fact that he is ordered to convert on pains of death.

In the case of Othello, the over-reaching is equally obvious. Othello, the moor, aspires to marry the white daughter of a Venetian lord. Through-out the text, as Jean Howard points out, "the 'fair' Desdemona is constructed in relation to the 'black' Othello..." (Howard) Immediately upon his wedding to Desdemona, Othello is accused of witchcraft, as it is assumed that he could not have otherwise gotten her affection. Othello steps outside his place in society by going after Desdemona, and it is a trespass that will end up destroying him. Iago consistently plays on Othello's insecurities. If Othello were not so marginalized by race, it is likely that he would not have been so prone to Iago's needling. When Othello lashes out against Desdemona, he is also lashing out against the idea that the white Cassio could unman him. Othello is constantly taunted in the play by those around him for his race and described as an animal, as when Iago says "an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe." (Othello, 1:1)

Something that is particularly interesting in the play Othello is the fact that both the title character (the hero Othello) and the villain Iago can be construed as marginalized figures. Iago is consistently socially snubbed, and in a speech whose passions are reminiscent to those of Shylock he claims that he hates Cassio for his unfair promotion. Iago is consistently referred to as a slave, and his wife is forced to be a servant. This marginalization is seen in conversations such as the following one, in which Cassio shoves his prestige in Iago's face:


For mine own part, -- no offense to the general, nor any man of quality, -- I hope to be saved.


And so do I too, lieutenant.


Ay, but, by your leave, not before me; the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient. Let's have no more of this; let's to our affairs." (Othello, 2.3)

Obviously this is not a racial issue, but rather a matter of class privilege. Nonetheless, such class passions, as any good Marxist can attest, can be just as powerful and potent as racial or gender-based issues. Iago's hatred and his evil, like Shylock's, stems from his consciousness of being marginalized, while Othello's hatred and evil comes from his fear of being marginalized out of his wife's life. In all three cases, this marginalization leads to a willingness to commit great and violent sins. Yet in each case, this violence ends poorly. Shylock loses his daughter, his faith, and some measure of his wealth. Othello fares worse, loosing his life. Iago is likely the worst off, for he is condemned to be tortured before he is killed!

In each case, the violent uprising against the social/racial order is severely punished.

One can see a similar process with the women of Othello and Merchant of Venice; obviously these women do not respond violently to their oppression, but they do in fact react and comment against it. In Othello, Desdemona defies the social order even more profoundly than does her husband. Not only does she marry across racial boundaries, but she also defies her father's authority. She takes control of her life most decisively into her own hands, choosing to elope with a Moor and subsequently taking initiative within the relationships on issues she feels strongly about (for example, she attempts to force Othello to decisions in regards to Cassio). It is tempting to see Desdemona as a passive creature, because of the way in which she surrenders to her death at the end, but this is a mistake in light of her other pro-active behavior. Desdemona dares to blatantly defy social convention and patriarchal authority in her marriage. Her eventual brutal death at the hands of Othello is precisely what society might have predicted as the logical result of her marriage to a person who is consistently imagined as animalistic and unChristian, and by the end he himself seems to blame his race for his death, speaking of himself as a "circumcised dog." (Othello, 5.2) It would not be out of line to suggest that Desdemona's death is a way of maintaining the balance of power within society, and that the play can actually be read as a profound statement of support for bending one's neck to the dictates of father and society.

If there were any doubt that these two plays spoke out in subtle defense of the status quo, it would be the story of Portia. Portia is even more cruelly suppressed by the patriarchal system than is Desdemona, a fact which she laments in lines such as " I stand for sacrifice..." (Merchant of Venice, 3.2) She is entirely disallowed from choosing her own mate, and that decision is left up to something approaching chance. Portia proves herself intelligent and capable on her own, but rather than resisting a society that oppresses her, she embraces it. By patiently surrendering to parental authority, Portia is given everything she desires in a husband. That Portia believes strongly in upholding the social order is shown in the way she rules against Shylock, following the law to such an absurdly literalist point that disallows him to take less than his bond. "But just a pound of flesh; if thou tak'st more Or less than a just pound-.... If the scale do turn But in the estimation of a hair- Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate." (Merchant of Venice, 4.1) Her strong knowledge of the law is precisely what enables her to overcome Shylock and keep him in his place.

One might say that Portia defied the law by cross-dressing and taking the place of judgment reserved for me. However, a closer examination will show that this is not so. On the contrary, by hiding herself as a man, Portia showed that she respected the fact that society required that only men pass judgment and that it also required that women attempt to protect their husbands -- she cleverly found a way to meet both expectations, without upsetting the apparent…