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Does Shakespeare Reinforce or Question Contemporary Attitudes to Cultural Outsiders in 'Othello' and the Merchant of Venice?

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Does Shakespeare reinforce or question contemporary attitudes to cultural outsiders in 'Othello' and The Merchant of Venice?

In the plays the Merchant of Venice and Othello, Shakespeare explores the effects of racial oppression and attitudes to race in general.
The idea of cultural outsiders is one of the main themes present in the plays.
'Culture' is the customs and social behaviour of particular groups of people and societies and an outsider is a person who does not belong in a particular situation, organisation or community. This definition relates to both Othello and Shylock as throughout the play we see them as victims of prejudice and injustice because of their cultural differences.
In the play Othello, Shakespeare expresses the culture outsider, Othello himself in this instance. As a moor. The term Moor means a person or persons of an African descent. During the renaissance time period there were various stigmas attached to 'moors' and other cultural outsiders. Leo Africanus wrote a book named 'the history and description of Africa (1526)' where he portrayed Moors as being extremely prideful. 'Subject unto Jealousy; who would rather lose their lives than put up any disgrace on behalf of the women.' This is ironic and would lead one to believe Shakespeare reinforced Africanus' ideology in the tragic ending of Othello.

Shakespeare also reinforces contemporary attitudes to Jews through the protagonist Shylock. During the 1600’s Jews were extremely disliked and according to Peter Gintro were ‘usurious, cunning, malevolent and potentially murderous’. A stereotype of the Jewish community originated from medieval and again is ironically attributes we see surrounding Shylock.
One way Shakespeare reinforces and challenges contemporary attitudes to cultural outsiders is through Othello’s character. Othello is a Moor and Shakespeare presents him in a way which would suggest that he is humble around the other characters and aware of the fact that his cultural differences cripple him in the society he lives in. ‘Rude I am in my speech and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace…’ this puts his lack of confidence in himself into perspective as it suggests that his language skills are inadequate. Othello also seems to bow down to the pressure of his situation and puts himself ‘below’ what he actually is; a polite, well-spoken gentleman, who just happens to be black. This challenges the contemporary attitudes that the people would have in this era if presented in a similar situation. It also challenges the reader’s original perceptions of Othello as in Act One Scene One our first insight of the moor is through the eyes of another character, Iago. He is described as a man who ‘loves his own pride and purposes’. This a reflection of Leo Africans view on people of an African heritage being ‘ very proud and high-minded’ which again would of resulted in the renaissance audience having a similar opinion. Plosive alliteration is used in a remark made by Iago ‘Pride and purposes’, and the use of plosive normally suggests negativity to something or someone. Which would lead the reader to believe Iago felt a great deal of envy and or hatred towards Othello. This negativity from the surrounding characters was seen more and more throughout the play. This is reflected in the animalistic connotations used to dehumanise and degrade Othello. ‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise; Awake the snorting citizens with the bell, Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you. Arise I say!’ I believe Shakespeare purposely described Othello as a tired, ugly work animal as a way to reflect how people of the renaissance audience would see a moor next to and in comparison with Desdemona. Whom he describes as a ‘white ewe’ an animal in theory, so perfect and innocent and which also greatly resembles sheep; an animal that is closely associated with following Jesus.
Religious imagery is an effect used twice within this quote. Iago describes Othello as the ‘devil’. Here Shakespeare is playing on a sixteenth century belief that all black men were evil and participated in the dark arts. There were very few black people in the Elizabethan times, even in Venice, and often what happens in regards to something people aren’t well educated in, is they start to come up with their own notions. Shakespeare’s use of the word "tupping" connotes this. As it direct reflection of the belief that black men have an animal-like hyper-sexuality. The fact that Othello is depicted as a sexually violent man through, once again, the use of the animal imagery. The reader can only but believe that Shakespeare is trying to manipulate and or taint out image of Othello. The noble moor is reduced to a being nothing more than a ‘ram’ and by introducing the thought of a dirty black ‘ram’ tarnishing a pristine white ‘ewe’ by lying with it, we are subjected to quite aggressive, unloving pornographic images of the sexual relationship between Othello and his wife. ‘David McPherson, Othello and the Myth of Venice’ supports this argument and highlights that ‘Iago is able to use the pornography to manipulate other characters. Othello is the most noticeable of these…’ this is reflective of my point as Iago deceives Brabrantio, leading him to believe his daughter is having relations with a Barbary horse, another play on violent animal imagery and offensive racial. Taking into account all the different interpretations and elements regarding Othello in the opening scenes, Shakespeare reinforced contemporary ideas to moors in this instance.

In contrast Shakespeare allows his audience to meet the cultural outsider and make their own judgements of Shylocks character. Our first encounter of the Jew was him counting his riches ' three thousand ducats'. I believe Shakespeare did this purposely as using such a line as his first would give us a first impression that would resemble the thoughts and opinions of the renaissance audience towards the Jewish community. You begin to think of Shylock as a man who conforms to the typical Jewish stereotype at the time; materialistic and money hungry.
Later on in the scene we see Shylock express how he ' hate him (Antonio) for he is a Christian'. This particular quote says a lot about Shylocks character, as we now see the cultural outsider, so in sense the person who we should emphasise with, being prejudice towards another man for their religion. This would then entrench the idea of Jews in general, but Shylock in this instance, being the villain/s in the eyes of Shakespeare audience as this would be the norm of their society.

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