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The Merchant of Venice
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Essay: On Race and Religion

Although the plots of Shakespeare's plays are specific, the motivations of the characters -- as well as of Shakespeare himself -- have been the source of much debate. Arguments continue over interpretations of Shakespeare's intentions in part because his plays remain so profoundly relevant.

On Race
Race is a particularly critical factor in Othello, the story of the "dark Moor" who succumbs to sexual jealousy amidst a white society. Why does Iago mislead Othello so cruelly? And why does Othello believe Iago's lies, and ultimately commit the heinous act of killing his beloved wife? What does Shakespeare mean to say in this scenario?

Shakespeare doesn't make Iago's intentions clear, nor does he shed light on Othello's personal fears and insecurities. Instead he supplies situation, action, and often vague dialogue. The play opens with soldiers Iago and Roderigo speaking ill of their leader, Othello (unnamed here), who has just eloped with Roderigo's love interest, Desdemona. They refer to him as "thicklips" and "the devil." Iago later describes Othello as "an old black ram ... tupping your white ewe." In Davies' adaptation, there is no doubt that the society surrounding John Othello is racist. Early on, police commissioner Carver makes crude comments about his black officers and, confiding in Jago about promoting black officers, says, "Wouldn't it be nice just to relax and tell the truth for once? They're [blacks] just not up to snuff, not yet."

In the play, Iago notes bitterly that Othello has passed him up for a promotion. And in a later aside, he declares, "I hate the Moor, and it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets he's done my office. I know not if't be true but I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety." In the modern version, he says, "You know I'm eaten up with sodding envy. You do know that, don't you?" Is Iago a racist? A disgruntled employee? A cuckold? Does he lust after Desdemona, or even Othello himself? Or is he simply a psychopath? Shakespeare doesn't say. Even when Othello ultimately asks Iago his motives, Iago answers cryptically, "Demand me nothing; what you know, you know; from this time forth I never will speak word."

In the 17th century, racism was an accepted part of public life; people of color were often thought of as "savage." Shakespeare would have encountered no societal pressures against presenting such ideas. Yet he doesn't actually portray Othello as inferior. Although Iago and Roderigo make him sound despicable in their disparaging first-act conversation, Shakespeare then shows Othello as a well-spoken and highly regarded military leader who has won the hand of an aristocratic woman. Iago's treachery is what ultimately tears him apart. Does Shakespeare mean to portray Othello as inferior? Or does he show Othello's internalization of the harsh prejudice against him, ultimately believing himself incapable of winning Desdemona's love?

Perhaps Shakespeare was only trying to sell tickets. Shakespeare was brilliant at creating absorbing scenarios that drew in crowds and kept their attention. Racial tension in Othello (with a good dose of sexual jealousy) is no small part of the drama that rivets the viewer -- in modern as well as Elizabethan times. Norrie Epstein recounts in her book The Friendly Shakespeare: "During one production in the Old West, a member of the audience took out his pistol and shot the actor who was playing Iago. On his tombstone were the words 'Here lies the greatest actor.'"

Movie director and actor Orson Welles felt that Iago must be impotent to be so angrily motivated, and directed the character as such. Director Tyrone Guthrie and actor Laurence Olivier went to psychoanalyst Ernest Jones' office to discuss motivations in Othello, and heard the Freudian version: Iago was subconsciously in love with Othello rather than jealous of him, and thus had to destroy his marriage. Olivier took this interpretation to heart, and as Iago, delivered a kiss full on the mouth to Ralph Richardson's Othello with the line, "I am your own forever." Avant-garde dramatic director and writer Charles Marowitz believed the play to be a significant statement about race. He saw the character Othello as "a toady and as someone who made a contemptible adjustment to his white masters." At the end of Marowitz's 1972 play, as Othello is to commit suicide, Iago asks him, "Are you going to be a tool of white audiences just to give them a catharsis?"

On Religion
Religion has also been a source of controversy in Shakespeare's plays, specifically in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is vilified by a flagrantly anti-Semitic society. He is presented in the most stereotypical of anti-Semitic terms: he has red hair (a 17th-century reference to the devil) and a big nose, dresses in filthy clothes, and is a seemingly greedy loan shark with little compassion for others. When his daughter runs off with a Christian suitor, taking a considerable sum of her father's money with her, the devastated Shylock can't decide which loss is greater -- his ducats or his daughter.

But Shakespeare also lets a Jewish character make an impassioned plea for empathy. When maligned by Antonio and his Christian cohorts, Shylock says in his now-famous speech, "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions...If you prick us do we not bleed...?" Bassanio, the Christian courtier, is as fond of money as Shylock is. In Shakespeare's time, audiences expected a Jewish character to be fiendishly cruel. Since Elizabethans believed that conversion amounted to saving one's soul, Shakespeare gives Shylock, in Elizabethan terms, a happy ending.

Critics have come to contradictory conclusions about Shakespeare's intentions regarding Shylock. While many see the play as anti-Semitic, some believe the play to be pro-Jewish, citing Shylock's now-famous speech as proof. More confusion is added by the next section of the speech, where Shylock consigns himself to revenge: "...If a Jew wrongs a Christian, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction." While some see this as attributing an eye-for-an-eye harshness to the "despicable" Jew, others view it as Shakespeare taking Christianity to task for hypocrisy. Trevor Nunn, director of the Masterpiece Theatre production, comments, "My intention is to show that the play is as much anti-Christian as it is anti-Semitic. It is a masterpiece about human behavior in extremis."

Shakespeare does make clear Shylock's provocation for revenge -- Antonio and his friends have goaded him publicly -- but any political or social statement made by this motivation remains unresolved. Some argue that Shakespeare made Shylock both detestable and sympathetic mainly so he could increase the dramatic tension in the play.

The critic Harold Bloom in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human notes, "We can keep finding the meanings of Shakespeare, but never the meaning." As each generation re-interprets Shakespeare, it's likely that these issues will continue to challenge, infuriate, and intrigue audiences.


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