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Racial Prejudice in Othello and Merchant of Venice

Shakespearean Close-reading

By Natalie G.Published 2 years ago 7 min read

In both Othello and The Merchant of Venice racial prejudice is one of the dominating themes that prevail in both plays as characters base their judgments mainly on race and religion. In Othello racism stems out of appearances as the characters judge and are judged based on what they look like and their origins, whereas in The Merchant of Venice racism stems out of religion as seen through someone not being a Christian and being discriminated against.

The racial prejudice in Othello is overwhelming as we see a lot of how Othello is perceived and affected by how he looks and where he comes from. The play opens with Iago and Roderigo using beastly language and racial terms to describe Othello, like “barbary horse” (1.1.125) and “thick-lips” (1.1.72). They use such terms because Othello is a dark-skinned man who has African/Arab roots making him stand out to them as he doesn’t fit the typical white, Christian image. This comes to show that appearance in this play plays a huge role because it is used to identify a person’s status and belongingness. Roderigo dreads the fact that Othello may even be near Desdemona, his daughter because he does not see Othello fit to be her husband and even suggests that he performed magic on her: “thou hast enchanted her” (1.2.82). For Roderigo and Iago, Othello will never be like them even if he identifies as Christian as his appearance would never allow him to.

Furthermore, Iago states that he hates Othello because he believes that he had an affair with his wife and because Othello didn’t promote him to lieutenant over Cassio. However, racism plays a huge role in Iago’s hatred for this man, as it seems like the main reason Iago hates Othello is because he is a racist. Iago is a person that indulges in prejudice against people in the play who don’t fit the typical white male standard. Othello for him is not fit to have all the things he has like Desdemona and being a military general, because of his race.

In Act 1, Scene 3 Iago in his soliloquy says, “I hate the Moor” and constantly refers to him as Moor whenever Othello is not around. Choosing to not refer to him by his name shows how Iago wants to dehumanize Othello by removing his name from the picture and choosing to use his race as a way to reduce his identity. However, during the soliloquy, he mentions Othello by his name once when he says, "to abuse Othello’s ear” showing how when he talks about his plan in sabotaging Othello’s life, he is using logic instead of his emotions, which brings up the theme of logic vs emotion. Whenever his emotions and hate come into the picture, he uses the word Moor, or whenever he means to insult Othello. In this passage, the word Moor is used as an insult unlike what the OED shows which is simply a word used to identify people of Arab descent, instead of something hateful which Iago makes it out to be. When Iago says “The Moor is of a free and open nature” which is almost a compliment, he chooses to, once again, not call him by his name and reduce the semi-compliment he gave him by using the word he uses so hatefully.

The word ‘Moor’ is one of those words in Othello that you do a doubletake on when you’re reading the play because it is not a word, we use today in the 21st century, towards another person. It’s a complex word because we are never sure what it actually means and why it’s used towards our protagonist Othello. Othello is called a Moor because it is implied that he is a Muslim of Arab descent living in Northwest Africa. According to the OED “in the Middle Ages, and as late as the 17th century, the Moors were widely supposed to be mostly black or very dark-skinned.” The second definition of Moor in the OED is “a Muslim inhabitant of India or Sri Lanka”. These definitions bring up a lot of questions regarding Othello and his origin because it is never clearly stated where he is from in the play. This word segregates Othello from the rest of the people in the play because he has this label assigned to him because of his race and it’s inescapable, highlighting the theme of racial prejudice in the play.

Iago in his soliloquy expresses so much hate for Othello without a truly legitimate reason and when he plans his ‘revenge’ on Othello it is evident that he has no legitimate reason to go against Othello other than jealousy and racism. His hate for women also aids his plan as he believes all women are promiscuous and desire to betray their husbands, so framing Desdemona gives him a way of satisfying his hate for the Moor and his hate for women in general. He even goes as far as saying that Cassio has “a smooth dispose to be suspected, framed to make women false” (1.3.440-441) to show how easily he believes women can be swooned and that even Othello will believe she was swooned since Cassio is “a proper man” (1.3.435). Iago’s soliloquy where he plans against the Moor end with the words “Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (1.3.446) highlighting how racist Iago is with Othello as he even goes as far as calling Othello a monster and that his true nature will be revealed once he is overtaken by the green-eyed monster. Jealousy does terrible things to all people and Iago wants to use jealousy to expose ‘the Moor’ as the monster he believes he is.

In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare reveals prejudice in a different way as it is more focused on religion rather than appearances due to racial differences. The play seems antisemitic as seen through the treatment of Shylock who is Jewish and Antonio has borrowed money from to give to his friend Bassanio. Shylock throughout the play is stereotyped as a greedy Jew who believes is entitled to “the pound of flesh which I demand of [Antonio] is dearly bought” (4.1.100-101). He is defined as greedy simply because he is a Jew that goes after what he believes is his but if it was a Christian in his place, he would have the justice he deserves.

The antisemitism and racism through religious differences in this play are evident during Shylock’s monologue in Act 3. Shylock is aware of the religious difference between him and other Christians and knows that Antonio hates him simply because he is a Jew “and what’s his reason? I am a Jew” (3.1.57). He knows that because of his religion he is discriminated against and treated in ways Christians wouldn’t have been treated and says “hath not a Jew hand, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” (3.1.58-59) showing how even though he acknowledges the religious differences between him and other Christians that he still sees them as human beings whereas Christians like Antonio mistreat him simply because he is a Jew.

The word ‘revenge’ is used a couple of times by Shylock, especially during this monologue where he talks about being a Jew and the mistreatment, he goes through in Act 3. In the OED the first definition for revenge is “the action of hurting, harming, or otherwise obtaining satisfaction from someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at his/her hands.” Further in the OED is the word ‘revenge’ as seen in Shylock’s monologue where he says, “if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” (3.1.52-53) and it’s used with a possessive adjective making the definition “a person’s desire for vengeance; the action of gratifying this”. The keyword of gratification shows that in seeking and getting vengeance there will be a sense of gratification and he will feel like justice has been served. He clearly states that Antonio’s flesh has no use, but it will feed his revenge and that’s all he desires.

Shylock’s desire for revenge clearly stems from him feeling mistreated by the Christian characters that are antisemitic and Antonio is the biggest symbol of his mistreatment “if a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge” (3.1.67-70). Shakespeare here shows that Shylock seeks revenge because that is what Christians do when they are mistreated, and so why shouldn’t he seek the same? He feels like in partaking in revenge there is a sense of equality between him and Antonio, but we know that he will not have the revenge he desires as Antonio is a Christian supported by other Christians, and therefore Shylock would never win against him. Revenge for Shylock is a symbol of equality and justice and therefore a very important word in the play as he never gets the revenge he seeks or justice for that matter and instead is forced to convert to Christianity by the end of the play.

In Othello and The Merchant of Venice racial prejudice comes to light in different ways as Shakespeare presents the theme through differences in appearances and religion. In Othello racism stems out of differences in appearances as the characters rely on their judgments based on what people look like and where they come from, whereas in The Merchant of Venice racism stems out of religious differences as seen through Shylock who was a Jew vs the rest of the characters who were Christian. The word Moor shows a lot about how Othello is perceived throughout the play as Iago criticizes him based on his appearance, even if he identifies as a Christian while the word revenge highlights the need for justice that Shylock seeks in an attempt to feel equal to the Christians in the play, but he never gets it because of the religious beliefs he was born in.

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