Race was never Shakespeare’s central theme, but Shakespeare’s comprehensive soul has created an impressive racial vision. Five of his plays have touched on racial problems and his racial personae are above ten. The Jew and the Moor are two most prominent figurers representing two basic types of racism in Shakespeare. Racialism can be distinguished from racism. Intrinsic racism and extrinsic racism are due to racial pride and racial prejudice, respectively. Shakespeare’s world was a white-centered Christendom. Skin color and religion were thus the elemental features (of nature and nurture) that induced racism, Venice or Italy being Shakespeare’s convenient locale for dramatizing his racial actions and reactions. In this paper, instances of racial pride and prejudice in Shakespeare are presented, the causes of racism are investigated, Shakespeare’s views of race and racism are discussed, and his racial vision is delineated. The conclusion is: Shakespeare recognizes the existence of racial differences but he is not a racist. Shakespeare is in fact an impartial, humanitarian dramatist preaching interracial liberty, equality, and fraternity. In his vision there is always a Shylock locked up shyly in his racial ideology, accompanied by an Othello crying “Ot, hell, O!” for villainous misuse of racial consciousness. The playwright’s comprehensive soul wants every one of us to shy away the racial “bond” that cuts our hearts and discard the racial “handkerchief” that brings us tragedies instead of curing our headaches.
Key words and phrases:
1. the Jew 2. the Moor 3. racial vision 4. racialism/racism 5. comprehensive soul 6. racial personae 7. pride and prejudice 8. Shylock 9. Othello 10. Venice and the Mediterranean
I. Comprehensive Soul
It is well known that John Dryden, in his “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” makes Neander praise Shakespeare as “the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul” (247). But what exactly did the term “comprehensive soul” mean to Neander or Dryden? The statement that immediately follows the praise is: “All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them, not laboriously, but luckily; when he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too” (247). This statement seems to explain that what made Shakespeare’s soul comprehensive was his ability to grasp “all the images of nature” and render them “luckily” and touchingly. Except this apparent explanation Dryden or Neander provides no further explication in this famous essay.
In an editorial of 1998, Christopher Flannery says: “When Dryden speaks of Shakespeare’s ‘comprehensive soul,’ he means that Shakespeare’s genius plumbs the deepest depths and scales the loftiest heights of human nature and encompasses the broadest reaches of the human condition.” Thus, he goes on to say, “Shakespeare’s themes include virtually every interesting aspect of human life.” However, the Shakespearean themes he mentions are such as “love, revenge, beauty, ambition, virtue, vice, justice, free will, providence, chance, fate, friendship, loyalty, betrayal; the interplay among passions, reason and will; truth and illusion, men and women, mortality and immortality; the vast variety of human characters and societies.”1 Somehow, he has failed to mention the theme of race.
Race is, of course, part of nature, and each human race has always had its distinctive “image(s)” formed and known in various “societies.” Nevertheless, race was indeed not so important an issue in Shakespeare’s England as to become a central theme of his drama. According to Michael D. Bristol, at the end of the 16th century “racism was not yet organized as a large-scale system of oppressive social and economic arrangements, though it certainly existed as a widely shared set of...