The Merchant Of Venice And Titus Andronicus: Race And Racism In Shakespearean Texts Essay Example
Race is a complicated part of society, and one that many authors struggle with even today. The relationship between different people of different racial backgrounds can be fraught with complications, and the representation of racial minorities in literature has long been problematic. Because of the introduction of certain characters into his literature Shakespeare has sometimes been lauded as a post-racial or a progressive writer for his time; some have even suggested that Shakespeare’s work was not racist, because it contains portrayals of some racially diverse characters that are free of racial stereotyping. However, in Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice, it is easy to see that while Shakespeare is more progressive than many of his contemporaries, he is certainly not post-racial or completely devoid of racial consideration in his works. The Merchant of Venice is a text that is decidedly racist, while the way Shakespeare handles race in Titus Andronicus tends to be somewhat less problematic.
Perhaps the biggest issue in The Merchant of Venice is the character of Shylock. While the idea of race has changed significantly over the years, the perception of Jewish people has always been problematic; Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of their existence, and in many places, continue to be persecuted today. Shylock, as a character, is somewhat problematic insofar as the discussion of race is concerned in the play.
There is no denying that, as a character, Shylock is something of a stereotype. Shylock is a complex figure, and this is part of what makes him interesting—and part of what makes scholars so apt to disagree about whether he is a tragic figure or a figure acting out of willful malice. Shylock is certainly one of the most interesting characters in the play. He can be considered money-grubbing and bloodthirsty; he is nearly completely heartless, and has no time for anyone but himself. Even today, there is a very real bias in society towards Jewish people; they are commonly portrayed by racist people as money-hungry and unwilling to compromise in the face of penny-pinching and saving. Many of these stereotypes are developed from Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in the play The Merchant of Venice.
However, there are other sides to Shylock as well. As a character, he is very interesting; he is a Jewish man, living in a very Christian society. That society is incredibly unfriendly and unwilling to accept him as its equal. When viewers of the play meet Shylock, he is not a particularly young man; he has undergone years of mistreatment at the hands of the society that he has tried so hard to be a part of, and there are distinct arguments that can be made that suggest that a lifetime of hate and mistrust made Shylock into the character that he is by the time the play starts.
Antonio, the erstwhile hero of the play, borrows money from the sly Shylock during the early parts of the play. Antonio and Shylock have a difficult relationship from the beginning of the play, and Antonio makes it known to the audience from very early in the play that he has no love for Shylock as a character—because Shylock is Jewish. This “hero” of the play is not only openly racist, he is unapologetically so; Shakespeare makes no apologies for the behavior that Antonio exhibits, making it seem as though open discrimination and even hate was par for the course for characters like Shylock. In Act I, Scene III, Antonio and Shylock have the following exchange:
SHYLOCKYou call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,ANTONIO I am as like to call thee so again,To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
It seems as though this type of behavior should excuse Shylock for any bad behavior on his part: Antonio spends all his time berating and even spitting on Shylock, and then expects a loan when he asks for it. It seems unremarkable that Shylock should hate Antonio unquestioningly. It is this portrayal and this reading of Shylock that commonly allows people to claim that The Merchant of Venice is a post-racial or not racist text.
There are problems with this interpretation, however. The casual way in which Shakespeare treats the issue of race reflects a casual racism. There are certainly circumstances that have structured the ways in which Shylock became a racial stereotype, but there is no doubt that Shylock became a racial stereotype after his poor treatment at the hands of the Christians in Venice. Even Portia cannot be said to be a post-racial character; she is unhappy about the potential situation of marrying a Moroccan prince because of his race. She is supposed to be the moral “good” of the play, so it seems unlikely that Shakespeare could have considered racism to be a moral evil if one of his morally-upright characters is more than willing to engage in this type of behavior and thought.
Alternatively, Shylock is also the speaker of one of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare: in Act III, scene I, his monologue reads:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poisonus, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we notrevenge? If we are like you in the rest, we willresemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christianwrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be byChristian example? Why, revenge. The villainy youteach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but Iwill better the instruction
In this monologue, Shylock is suggesting that even though he is a Jew, he is also human; he has the same inclinations and the same drive as all the other characters in the play. He is both good and bad in the same way that the Christians are good and bad; he has almost accepted his descent into villainy because of the poor treatment he received at the hands of the other characters in the play.
In Titus Andronicus, the issue of race is handled slightly differently. This was one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, and it is also one of his more violent works; the racism in the text shines through much more brightly in the early works than in the works Shakespeare created later in his life. In Titus Andronicus, a Roman general returns home with a wife—the Queen of the Goths—her three sons, and a character named Aaron the Moor. Moors are interesting in Shakespearean plays, because of course, Shakespeare would later other plays in which the idea of being the “other” and a Moor is treated quite sympathetically by the author.
However, Aaron is certainly an earlier character; he is not a tragic hero or sympathetic in the same sense as the more famous Moor. Aaron is criminal down to his core, and openly admits this fact throughout the play. The character is one of the driving forces behind the conflict in the play, more than happy to whip Tamora into a frenzy whenever it suits him. He is also Tamora’s lover and bedfellow, which has a double meaning in Shakespearean plays, and often helps cause more drama in the household.
Tamora herself is not racialized to the same extent as Aaron the Moor, but she is also a racially and ethnically separate character from many of the others in the play. She is a captive of Titus, and early in the play, Titus kills two of her three sons in an attempt to avenge his lost sons. This action infuriates Tamora, although she remains a character that is not sympathetic to the viewer; in today’s world, a mother whose two sons are killed would be perfectly understood for her anger and murderous rage. Instead, Tamora becomes enraged and her only support is Aaron the Moor. He encourages her to act out against Titus, even confessing that his intentions are not pure. In Act III, scene I, Aaron the Moor speaks the lines, “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace./Aaron will have his soul black like his face.” This is reflective of the early Shakespearean treatment of race as something that is visually seen and is reflective of an individual’s deep-seated personality and character.
At the end of the play, Tamora—the war-won prize of Titus—gives birth to a baby, which has dark skin. If ever there was a reaction of the characters in the play that embodies the fact that Titus Andronicus is a racist play, it is during the reveal; Marcus speaks the lines,
Of this was Tamora delivered;The issue of an irreligious Moor,Chief architect and plotter of these woes:The villain is alive in Titus' house,And as he is, to witness this is true.Now judge what cause had Titus to revengeThese wrongs, unspeakable, past patience,Or more than any living man could bear.
This is certainly not the reaction of an individual who is accepting of racial differences. The Moor—Aaron—is the other, and that is unacceptable in this society; Shakespeare wastes no time in demonstrating that the child conceived by the pair is the reflection of poor behavior and villainy on the part of the Moor and the Goth.
There are certainly elements of progressive thought in both of these plays, and Shakespeare does treat the “other” character as far more human and complex than many would have during this time. However, it is important to note that these racially different characters are, by and large, villains; there are notable differences, but by and large these characters are the characters that prove the rule, not characters that break out of their restrictive molds and defy racist caricatures.
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