Shakespeare’s Racial Vision
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.
Shakespeare’s Racial Vision Essay Example
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 feelings and attitudes” (181).
The Merchant of Venice may be a play most obviously touching on the tension of Jews in a Christian society, and thus one can argue as to whether the play is anti-Semitic or not. Yet, as the title suggests, the play is mainly about “the merchant of Venice,” that is, Antonio, who embodies friendship or love of the highest degree, against usury or any mercenary form of profit that is often associated with merchants.
Although the play is “otherwise called ‘The Iewe of Venyce,’”2 and it is certainly Shylock’s tragedy and often performed as such,3 most people still regard it as a comedy for Bassanio and Portia or as a tragic-comedy for Antonio. If the play, as C. L. Barber suggests, is to dramatize “the conflict between the mechanisms of wealth and the masterful, social use of it” (179), the emphasis is placed first and foremost on wealth as a personal, rather than racial, matter, for wealth is primarily one’s personal, rather than racial, belongings.
Othello is another of Shakespeare’s plays that has the greatest potential to develop into a “problem play” about race. In its source tale, as Susan Snyder points out, Cinthio does not dwell much on the theme of skin color, but Shakespeare dwells on it a great deal in the play (31). And as Stephen Greenblatt puts it, “blackness is the indelible witness to Othello’s permanent status as an outsider” (45). Yet, as it is, the tragedy is primarily about jealousy,4 and Othello’s tragic fate lies more in his personality (e. g. is rashness or gullibility) than in his racial situation: there is no racism detrimental enough to hinder him directly through racial hatred in his military or matrimonial life.
The racial problem raised in the play is, at most, but a problem subordinate to the problem of villainy, which makes use of others’ personal traits as well as racial prejudices existing in a society. Three of Shakespeare’s other plays, namely Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, also have characters other than “the white race”: Aaron the blackamoor, Cleopatra the Egyptian, and the Indian-like Caliban.
But who would think of these plays primarily in terms of racism? Aaron is but a convenient agent to bring forth Shakespeare’s revenge theme, Cleopatra a type of love overpowering political and military power, and Caliban an example depicting the master/servant relationship or the nature/nurture contrast. In none of these plays, as in neither The Merchant of Venice nor Othello, does the theme of race ever really come to the fore to bedim other possible themes. Although race was never Shakespeare’s central theme, race and racism actually never escaped the playwright’s notice.
In fact, as will be discussed in this essay, Shakespeare’s comprehensive soul has made him comprehend a lot of things related to the problem of race, his comprehensiveness has become an impartial attitude toward races, and his soul has created a racial vision bespeaking his comprehensiveness most impressively. II. Racial Personae We have mentioned five characters (Aaron, Shylock, Othello, Cleopatra, and Caliban) from five plays (Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest) as Shakespeare’s dramatis personae that may have something to do with race and racism.
But the five characters do not exhaust Shakespeare’s racial personae. In The Merchant of Venice, at least, we have two other Jews (Shylock’s daughter Jessica and his friend Tubal) and one or two Moors (the Prince of Morocco and the Moor mentioned in passing whom Launcelot Gobbo made big with child), who either directly or indirectly help make up Shakespeare’s racial vision. If we count also Aaron’s black baby by Tamora and Caliban’s hag mother Sycorax (who is also not presented but mentioned in the play), then Shakespeare’s racial personae may be said to be above ten.
Of the eleven racial personae, only four are female (Jessica, Cleopatra, Sycorax, and Launcelot’s Moor), but they are enough to connect race with gender. Among the eleven characters, again, we find three Jews (Shylock, Jessica, and Tubal), five Moors (Aaron and his baby, the Prince of Morocco, Launcelot’s woman, and Othello), one Egyptian (Cleopatra), and two Algerians (Caliban and his mother Sycorax, since she is said to be from Argier).
Up to Shakespeare’s time, as we know, any race that was non-Greek, non-Roman, or non-Christian was thought to be barbarous. So, all of the characters would have been considered barbarous if none of them had converted to Christianity (like Jessica and Othello) or had been born of nobility (like Cleopatra or the Prince of Morocco). Anyway, in Shakespeare’s vision race is also linked to religion and class, besides gender.
In ancient times, the Moslem region west of Egypt in north Africa was called Barbary. It was the place where Moors (a Moslem people of mixed Arab and Berber descent) used to live. 6 The English word “Moors,” it is said, is related to the Spanish Moros and the French Maures and derived from the Latin maurus and the Greek mauros, which means “dark,” and the word originally referred to “the dark ones” inhabiting northern Africa because they were darker in complexion than the Europeans.
Later, in the 15th century, when black slaves were brought back from west Africa, “black Moors” or “blackamoors” was the word used to distinguish the negroes from the “Moors” of northern Africa, though people often failed to make the distinction and kept calling all Africans “Moors” no matter whether they were black or merely swarthy, from north or west Africa. 7 In Shakespeare’s drama, Aaron is identified as a blackamoor but Othello is said to be a swarthy Moor.
To Shakespeare, “a Moor was not clearly distinguished from a black” (Asimov 609). And I am of opinion that no matter whether Othello is brown or black, this particular Moor is enough to become a racial topic though critics including Coleridge and A. C. Bradley have strongly argued for the necessity of making Othello a swarthy Moor rather than a blackamoor. 8 Racism is indeed often based on visible morphological characteristics such as skin color, hair type, and facial features.
It happened that Moors were usually Moslems. It followed, therefore, that Moslems were associated with colored people and a foreign race in Europe. But Moslemism was not the only religion to suggest religious difference to Christians. Judaism was another religion that made the Europeans differ from Jews. To be sure, no religion is ever conspicuously written on anyone’s face: Moslemism or Judaism is a cultural manifestation, not a physical appearance.