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An exploration of Prejudice in Shakespeare’s Othello and the Merchant of Venice

Prejudice is a preconceived opinion not based on reason or experience. In both plays, prejudice is shown to have three distinct categories: racial prejudice, religious prejudice and gender prejudice. It is shown particularly through the use and power of language and terms of reference. Shakespeare offers his audience a chance to develop their own perception of the characters that are highly prejudiced against. On one hand, he seems to be in favour of the ill treatment of the Jews, the women and blacks. On the other, he seems to be vilifying the Venetians for their prejudice against these groups of people. This essay will explore the presentation of prejudice and will go further to decide if Shakespeare is pondering to his audience’s ugly prejudices or challenging them to reconsider their views.

Othello is a racial outsider. The prejudice against him is primarily as a result of the fact that he is a dark skinned foreigner. His ancestors are men of royal siege, he is a black moor, has been sold into slavery and escaped, has earned a ranking as the commander of the Venetian military and, worse still, has gone against accepted modes of behavior by marrying Desdemona, a white Venetian. Once Othello attempts to be an equal by marrying Desdemona, the ingrained prejudices are unmasked. The prejudice against Othello is not explicitly shown but several hints are made towards it as Othello is constantly referred to using epithets that place emphasis on the fact that he is black such as ‘his Moorship’, ‘the Moor’, ‘thick-lips’, ‘old black ram’, ‘the devil’ and ‘lascivious Moor’. A.C. Bradley wrote ‘He does not belong to our world, and he seems to enter it we know not whence’ and this reflects the truth of the fact that sixteenth century Venice did not readily accept blacks or anyone at all that could have been classified as “other”. Shakespeare defies the norm by bestowing a high level of importance upon a black man, in the person of Othello. By doing so, Shakespeare creates a sense of dramatic irony because sixteenth century Venice would not have placed so much power in the hands of a man of an alien race. Othello is not aware of how deeply prejudice has affected his being. If not for the prejudice in society, Othello would not have been readily urged by Iago to believe that his wife was unfaithful. The fact that Othello is black portrays him with connotations of sin, evil, and darkness. Light and dark are juxtaposed in Act I scene 3 when the Duke says to Brabantio, "if virtue no delighted beauty lack your son-in-law is far more fair than black." This statement is filled with irony as Othello is black in colour but is “fair” because he is a man of virtue. The juxtaposition of light and dark serves as a reflection of the prejudice with which the Venetian society is filled. The racial prejudice against Othello is so deeply rooted that it leads to his unfortunate destruction. It becomes complex for a modern day audience to decipher whether Othello should be seen as a villain or as an unlucky individual, destroyed by prejudice. This complexity arises from the fact that Shakespeare makes it difficult for the audience to decide whether he is in favour of the prejudices against Othello or if he is against them. On the one hand, Othello is ‘valiant Othello’, but on the other, he is ‘thick lips’ and ‘the devil’. Similarly, Shylock is seen as evil due to his request for Antonio’s flesh. However, the audience is drawn to pity him as he loses his daughter, his home and his right to his religion. In comparison, Shylock is a Jew in a society where Christianity is the dominant religion and Jews are highly disfavored. Shylock has been made the hard, savage, relentless creature that he is because he has been treated as inferior. Shylock is despised for his religion, culture, and occupation, betrayed by his daughter and is destroyed by the city in which he lives. He...
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