Shakespeare

Better Essays
Amber Grootenboer

0855189

Dr. J.F. van Dijkhuizen

Literature 6B: Shakespeare: An introductory course

5 August 2011

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 as fallacious and inhuman. 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 racist attitudes which modern audiences are likely to find objectionable and offensive. The 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, furthermore 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 (p. 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 bigotry. There was more a sense of curiosity it seems, than unthinking condemnation.

Nevertheless, 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 warrior, brave leader and he is an honoured member of the Venetian state. Venice needs the fighting and



Cited: List Janik, Vicki K. The Merchant of Venice: a Guide to the Play. 2003. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group. Print. Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. 2000. London: Penguin. Print. Long, Michael. The Unnatural Scene: a Study in Shakespearean Tragedy. 1976. London: Methuen. Print. Robinson, Elaine L. Shakespeare Attacks Bigotry: a Close Reading of Six Plays. 2009. New York: McFarland. Print. Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. 2000. London: Methuen. Print. Shakespeare, William. Othello. 1998. London: Penguin Print.

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