Xenophobia in Othello and the Merchant of Venice
William Thomas McNary 10/26/2011 ENGL 3000 The Effect of Xenophobia on Comedies and Tragedies From 1589 to 1613 William Shakespeare produced some of the most original, thought-provoking and emotionally compelling plays, sonnets, and poetry. Two of his finest pieces of work, Othello and The Merchant of Venice feature dynamic characters, and insights into the chivalry and the xenophobic disposition of the English people at the time. Throughout these two stories, three primary female characters emerge, Desdemona from Othello, and Portia and Jessica from The Merchant of Venice.
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The female leads in each of these stories share many things in common such as their devotion to their mate and gracefulness, but the fate each woman ends up with at the conclusion of the story reflects the decisions they made and how those decisions were perceived in England during that time. The death of Desdemona and the happiness found by the newly married Portia and Jessica clearly shows the taste of the English audience during Shakespeare’s time, as an interracial marriage ends in a murder-suicide, and the former Jew Jessica receives riches and a wonderful new life as she converts to Christianity.
Although a hatred of Jews and foreigners can be seen by characters throughout Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare was a brilliant writer, and he would not have been as successful as he had been if he did not write about the controversial racial and religious relations of the time and create characters that related to them. Desdemona begins Othello married to Othello, after having secretly eloped with him. She is a loyal wife, and is gentle and self-determined, shown by her accompanying Othello upon his departure to battle the Turks, in which she states “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind”(1. 3. 52), meaning that she truly understands who she is married to and why she is needed. Her marriage to Othello is likely one that the English people of the time would have frowned upon because of his dark skin, despite the fact that Othello was an accomplished military commander, and from this a seed of doubt can be planted as far as the fate of this marriage and the two characters comprising it. Although Othello is portrayed as an eloquent man, his struggles with his identity as an outsider leave him prey to Iago. His marriage with Desdemona also becomes a problem with Desdemona’s father after the secret is revealed by Iago.
In an obscene way, Iago pesters Desdemona’s father Brabantio about his daughter’s interracial marriage, saying “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe. ”(1. 1. 88) This phrase conjures up the image to the audience that Othello uses a gentle lady like Desdemona savagely, and that interracial marriages are unnatural, or even disgusting. The viewpoint of Desdemona’s father in this instance as a concerned Christian father is one that the English audience of the time could sympathize with, as it was very conservative and stuck to the fundamentals of the contemporary English society.
Brabantio voices his opinion when he refers to the suitors on whom Desdemona passed as “The wealthy curled darlings of our nation”(1. 2. 68); but is largely upset because his close friend Othello did not tell him of the marriage. Brabantio also spitefully warns Othello of the treachery his daughter may commit, stating “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee. ”(1. 3. 292-293) In The Merchant of Venice, Portia and Jessica can be seen to share many characteristics with Desdemona.
Jessica is the most similar situation to Desdemona as she seeks to elope with Lorenzo. However unlike Desdemona, the secret marriage is not looked down upon by the audience, as Jessica is a Jewish girl who is leaving her Jewish father Shylock and taking a significant amount of his money; and she will soon be Christian. Jessica’s decision to convert to Christianity also results in her and Lorenzo living out a happily ever after type of life at the conclusion of the story.
Unlike Brabatino in Othello, the audience would very likely have little sympathy for Shylock, as anti-Semitism was very prevalent in Europe at the time, and thus the Jew Shylock gets what he deserves when he loses everything following the court case; being made to look like a joke. Portia and Desdemona also share much in common, as both women were thought to be very beautiful and graceful, and had many of the finest suitors from all over Europe. Yet Desdemona lacks the cunning and quick wit of Portia, and as a result is easily taken advantage of by Iago whilst he is spinning his web of lies.
Unlike Portia who delivers the pivotal moment of The Merchant of Venice, with her speech while pretending to be Balthazar, Desdemona is unable to alter the course of her story, as she is somewhat meek in defending Othello and cannot do nothing but respectfully hear Othello out as he is accusing her of adultery. Desdemona and Portia also differ in that Desdemona was very independent in eloping from her marriage, while Portia complied with her father’s request to wait for a suitor to choose the right chest.
Desdemona’s decision to elope with a Moor has the end result of her being killed, an end result that English men of the time likely would have found appealing or at least fitting. The beauty of Portia, Desdemona, and Jessica is often noted by Shakespeare through the characters in the plays, such as Cassio in Othello when he states that Desdemona is “One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens”. While these women are all beautiful, they create a great deal of strife among the men with whom they are in company.
In Othello, the trickery of Iago leads to several characters having motivation to destroy Othello’s relationship with Desdemona, with Iago even turning Othello on her. At one point, Cassio, Roderigo, and Iago all have some sort of attraction to Desdemona but they are through different means and motivations. As she is the most beautiful character in a tragedy, Desdemona is put in a precarious position, as her love is sought after by many men but not the man whom she loves. The differences between Portia and Desdemona can also be found in how Desdemona interacts with Othello.
Although she is fiercely independent in fighting for her marriage, she is not independent enough from Othello to offer him any sort of skepticism when he is abusing her and walking all over her verbally. The best attempt at defending herself Desdemona comes up with is “I understand a fury in your words. But not the words. ” This attempt to gain clarity from Othello only causes his anger to increase until he leaves the scene. Quick to comfort Desdemona is Iago, who can see that Desdemona’s actions are working perfectly for his schemes.
Iago recognizes early on that Desdemona is gentle, independent, and somewhat naive, and thus she is perfect to utilize for his revenge scheme. The nature of each play as a comedy or a tragedy also helped to define the end result for Jessica and Desdemona. The Merchant of Venice as a comedy involves the protagonists reaching the highest of highs at the end of the story, and this is possible largely because Portia and Jessica are an important part to the story when they are in disguise during the court case. The story ends jovially with Jessica abandoning her Jewish father.
Because the play was a comedy, for the English people of the time, the Jew Shylock rightfully got what he deserved, and the play could never end with Jessica his daughter still a Jew. Because Othello is a tragedy, bad consequences happen to Desdemona because she betrays her fathers will and marries a Moor. The audience in England at the time likely would see this as a very fitting end, and although they might not have had a problem had Desdemona’s spouse been white, the story gains more tension as a result of Othello being a Moor.
When comparing Desdemona and the women of The Merchant of Venice, it becomes clear that the type of play depicts the strengths and weaknesses of the women involved in it. In the tragedy Othello, Desdemona shares many characteristics with Portia and Jessica in that she is beautiful, gentle, and loyal but her naivety proves to be tragic as she cannot stand up to her husband and is smothered to death by his pillow.
While Portia and Jessica are also remarkably graceful women, they are given a more significant voice in the comedy The Merchant of Venice and because of their firm actions in the court scene they end the story happily married to their new spouses. While the term tragedy or comedy largely depicts what the end result of a play will be, it also bears a lot of weight into the actions and reactions of the characters, as many of the characters in the tragedy are shown to be spineless, foolish and easily manipulated; and the characters in the comedy are shown to be resourceful and clever and from that they benefit.