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William Shakespeare was an English poet and a playwright; in fact he produced several works such as tragedies, comedies, tragicomedies. His plays remained very popular till this day and are reinterpreted in the diverse culture and different political contexts throughout the world. Two of the plays which I will be delving in are "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello", both of which are intrinsically related to Renaissance Venetian society.
Starting with "The Merchant of Venice" which hence is a 16thC play, its settings are in Venice and Belmont from where the latter is a residence just outside the city. It is an important play since it is one of his main comedies. However some scholars state that this play is also one of his tragedies.
Meanwhile "Othello" is set at the time of wars between Venice and Turkey in late 16thC. In the course of the 16thC Venice's Dalmatian possessions were subject to Turkish intrusion. The Republic possessed 2 empires: one maritime and the other territorial (in the mainland). Of the eastern Mediterranean islands, the most important were Crete and Cyprus, having rich corn while being wine and sugar producers. Cyprus however was lost to the Turks in 1570. Shakespeare views the events as tragic since the marriage between Desdemona and Othello is viewed as noble and heroic.
One of the best things about writing is unlocking the characters that dwell in your mind  and this is the case in point that the major characters in both plays had a particular motivation since their major themes were very likely to Venice's time during the Renaissance period.
Othello is the General of the Army in Venice. The Venetian government trusts Othello enough to put him in full martial and political command of Cyprus; indeed, in his dying speech, Othello reminds the Venetians of the "service" he has done their state (Act 5, S 2, 348)  . Roderigo (Venetian gentleman) and Iago (Othello's Ensign) refer to Othello as "he" or "him", they do so with racial designation and call him names such as "the Moor" (Act1 S 1, 57), "the thick-lips" (Act 1, S 1, 66), "an old black ram" (Act 1, S 1, 88), and "a Barbary horse" (Act 1, S 1, 113). These descriptions to Othello make him inhuman and certainly not wish able to a person like him. He is a well-liked person but not respected when it comes for his foreign roots. Othello when becoming a general moves to Cyprus after marrying the white daughter of a Venetian senator-Desdemona. He is honest and thinks that people are honest too but in case for Iago he manipulates Othello as the latter stops trusting Desdemona when he eventually kills her.
Shylock is the successful Jewish money lender in Venice:
"I am a Jew Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" (Act 2, S 1, 58).
Shylock's character is villain from his very start of his existence; this is revealed through the cruelty he reveals upon Christians. He is the loan shark who detests Antonio as he took advantage of Bassanio's standpoint by demanding him to accept the loan by permitting to cut from Antonio "a pound of flesh". He is harsh with the treatment he received from Antonio and as a cause he wants him dead.
Antonio is rather a sad character in fact he appears in as hopeless who cannot name the cause of his melancholy and this throughout the play devolves into a self-pitying lump:
"I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, A stage, where every man must play a part, And mine a sad one" (Act I, S 1, 78-79).
This evidence points out his status of love where the lack of a girlfriend or a family shows he is solitary. Antonio is best friend with Bassanio:
"Your worth is very dear in my regard. I take it your own business calls on you, And you embrace the occasion to depart" (Act I, S 1, 62-64) who supports him with loans. Antonio is a Venetian merchant who traded overseas yet he is obliged to accept the loan from Shylock (Jewish money lender). Antonio is left without money as his ships were destroyed in the English Channel and hence he was left without money to pay Shylock:
"Pray God Bassanio come, To see me pay his debt, and then I care not" (Act 3, S 3, 35-36).
Antonio seems more likely to end his life but then Portia intermediates by suing Venice's law and Antonio's life is saved while turning the tables on Shylock. Also Antonio is determined to offer a pound of his flesh. Antonio terminates the play full of happiness, restored back to wealth even if not delivered into love. Without a mate, he is indeed the
"tainted wether"-or castrated ram-of the flock, and he will likely return to his favorite pastime of moping about the streets of Venice (Act 4, S 1, 113)  .
He undermines himself from pursuing his other hobby of abusing Shylock on insisting that the Jew convert to Christianity.
Themes related to Venice's society
The Merchant of Venice depends greatly on rules and laws, obviously these were the laws of the Venetian state and the fixed rules regarding wills and contracts. Laws and rules can be manipulated for mean purposes but they can produce well when exercised by the correct people. Portia's implicit caging by the three caskets works perfectly in the end since the one who chooses the correct casket will win Portia's hand. In fact Bassanio chooses the right casket and this is an indication that the choice is more an indicator of human nature than any person could ever provide. This is alike to the law in Venice where Shylock is the law's strictest adherent, and it seems as if the city's adherence to contracts will result in tragedy  . But as soon as Portia arrives she manipulates the law from where Antonio is saved while Shylock had to abandon his religion. Everyone expected Shylock to show mercy, throughout the trial he asks even Portia what could oblige him to show mercy, and Portia replies
"The quality of mercy is not strained," clarifies what is at stake in the argument (Act 4, S 1, 179). This meant that mercy is superior to having power or law. What Portia promotes is a pro-Christian and anti-Jewish agenda. Renaissance drama in this case shows how the character of Shylock demanded to be a villain and incapable to show compassion.
This is also in comparison with Shylock's demand in having a "pound of flesh" from Antonio which seeks the attention of Shylock's rigid obedience to law. This pound of flesh is significant to Shylock's firmness of the world he lives in. He is a Jew, a money-lender therefore since money is numerical calculations he demands "for a pound in exchange for his three thousand ducats"  . The qualities of a Jew are really evident in Shylock by his numerical quantities.
During the epoch of Elizabeth I, English society was seen as anti-Semitic. This is due to the fact the English Jews which were barred during the Middle-Ages were not allowed to return back. The Jews description in the play depicts very well the way Jews in Renaissance Venice were portrayed. These Jews were seen as avaricious usurers when it comes to money as they were evil and greedy. Similarly in Venice and other places, Jews were obliged to wear a red hat, bright red wigs whenever they found themselves in pubic in order to be identified and if they did the contrary they had to face a death penalty. Not only, Jews had to live in ghetto confined by the Christians which was a shelter for Jews and were likely to pay their guards. Since Shylock was not a Christian but a Jew, Shakespeare lacked mercy and showed he is a vengeful Jew.
It is claimed that the Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun was an inspiration for the play Othello. There isn't any agreement regarding Othello's racial categorization but the latter's character was as a black person. In fact in English Literature Renaissance, Othello was referred to as the "Moor" as he was a dark-skinned man. Also, his friend Iago used for twice the word "Barbary" or "Barbarian" as a reference to Othello from where apparently referred to the Barbary Coast which was occupied by the "tawny Moors". In Renaissance Venice, these types of Moors existed and this is a clear example with the protagonist Othello. One can mention also the fact that these Moors were insulted simply for the fact of their thick lips which hence indicates the prejudices of European conceptions of Sub-Saharan African physicality. In addition, Honigmann questions whether the ambassador of the Arab King of Barbary, who stayed with his retinue in London in 1600 for several months and occasioned much discussion, might have inspired Shakespeare's play, written only a few years afterwards  .
The dissimilarity between Christian characters and Shylock is that the former value human relations while the others have an interest in money making. The Jew money-lender Shylock agonizes over the loss of money in fact he says he will run through the streets shouting: "O, my daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!" (Act 2, S 8, 15). It appears that Shylock values more his money than his daughter Jessica. There is a form of arguing between Christians and Jews in Venetian society which is present in "The Merchant of Venice" play where Shylock fluently expresses that Jews are like Christians as they are both human beings but Antonio who is a Christian hates Jews merely because they are Jews:
"If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.Â If a Christian wrong, A Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge.Â The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction". (Act 3, S 1, 68)
Antonio's character in "The Merchant of Venice" though not a Jew traded overseas. This trading was common particularly with Jews because their contribution in trade was significant to Venetian society. It has been generally accepted that the Jews played an active part in the overseas commerce of Venice during the 12th and 13thCs, that they were present in the city not only as transients but also as residents. Levantine Jews with Sephardic traditions moved into Ghetto Vecchio in 1541 while the Spanish and Portuguese Jews also came to Venice in the late 16th century. The latter formed the wealthiest and prosperous community amongst the ghetto. Once moving to Venice, several Marranos such as Spanish and Portuguese Jews became "Jewish" again. By the mid-1600s, Venice's foreign trade was under Jewish hands. The Sephardic groups gained influence and wealth in the Venetian economy.
In both of Shakespeare's plays "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice", there are several instances where non-White and non-Christian characters are marginalized and which are often depicted as victims of prejudice and absolute racism. This instance particularly occurred through the use of language. What is astounding is the fact that the apparent themes in both plays in the characters of Othello and Shylock are seen as sympathetic despite the fact that the other characters attribute Jewish people as being greedy and therefore heartless while Moors as savages and barbarous.
Venice was always looked upon as a model ideal city state of political and social economical stability in middle ages. It was one of the flourished during the 16thC. This idea is being looked upon as a model, as a city with political and social mobility in the myth of Venice. Therefore the Republic showed that Venice demonstrated a unique capacity for survival. The usage of racial patterns in both plays leave space for the reader to imagine the Venetian era through such characters.