How are relations between different ethnic groups represented in The Merchant of Venice and Othello ?
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.