All posts in the Shakespeare category

Race and Racism in Othello, Mama Day and The Merchant of Venice

Published December 28, 2016 by lorijss

Race manifests itself in three particular works of fiction Shakespeare’s Othello,
The Merchant of Venice and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. Characters in these works experience racism in different ways. “Race” and Racism go hand in hand making it impossible to examine one without the other. Whether it be overt or subtle or expressed in a form that his religious. Hence, there is overt racism in Othello, color blind racism in Mama Day and religious discrimination that manifests itself as racism in The Merchant of Venice. An example of the later would be the Holocaust. That is precisely what we find Shylock experiencing, treated just like he is another “race” and that shows just how much of a social construct race is. Because of the different ways in which race is perceived, the word “race” will be used in quotation marks for this paper. Similarly, when Hitler was convinced that there was a race known as the Jewish one. In Mama Day, Cocoa tries to tie food to the culture of people whose race is inadvertently linked to their religion. Even though Othello faces racism numerous times, the same people in his social sphere that do that know they need him because of his militant skills. He has proven himself to be a distinguished warrior and established himself in such a way that the people, enemies, and friends alike, know that they need him. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice gets discriminated against because of his religion. However, Shylock might as well have been another “race” from everyone else with the manner in which he is treated. Examining the ways in which “race” affects the lives of the major characters, prominent in the varying types of racism that they face, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Mama Day, helps us to understand how it exists in a social and historical context. For when we see how it manifests itself in our world today, we can work to dismantle it and make society a better place.
In Mama Day Cocoa is forced to confront “race” while job hunting in New York City. She said, “it took me a while to figure out that New York racism moved underground like most of the people did.(18)” She then recounts when Mama Day and Grandma told her that there was a time when the want ads and the housing listings had colored and white sections. Cocoa turns this around and says it must have been easier to hunt for jobs then. You were spared having to run up and down all over the place. You knew where you could should and couldn’t shouldn’t go. Apparently, not everyone agrees with Cocoa when one of her “certain people” asked upset, “You mean you want to bring back racism?” She looked at the person as if they were a “fool.” She then clarifies that she only wanted them to bring the “clarity” back and that she wouldn’t have to waste so much money on public transportation tokens, not to mention time. Cocoa goes on to say that the ads that are labeled “Equal Opportunity Employer” might has well have said, “Colored apply” or “Take your chances.(19)”
Naylor does not let Cocoa go out and say explicitly that her experience is “colorblind” racism. She would rather show this to her readers in the novel. In order to understand the phenomenon of “color blind racism,” we must first define color-blind ideology. Jon Greenberg asserts that the term “color-blind” is problematic. It is best described as showing rather than telling. Colorblind ideology posits that discrimination, racism, and prejudice are a thing of the past and we are a colorblind society in which race does not matter. For Cocoa the fact that she is not getting hired in New York City is showing that there is a different kind of racism than in Mama Day and Grandma’s days. This is racism that is under a facade that race does not matter when people’s experiences and the results of their efforts, says that it does. Cocoa experience show us that this is a type of racism that hides itself under “Equal Opportunity Employer.” Hence, the name of this racism is colorblind. Cocoa elaborates further about a one-inch ad for an office manager position. She describes it as a “long job description so there wasn’t enough room to print,’Equal Opportunity Employer.(19)’” She said it could be half Jewish and that maybe they only wanted their own. It shows how a business could be advertising themselves as one thing but want another thing.
A belief that racism is an individual acting against another individual leads to another belief that the civil rights era has “leveled the playing field,” asserts scholar Margaret Zamudio and that any racial inequality is blacks not working hard—”individual and cultural deficiencies.” When we look at Mama Day, we see how relentless Cocoa has been in her search for employment. One can see that the inequality that results from colorblind ideology has nothing to do with how hard a person works. Colorblind racism is the dominant racism that have continued into the post civil rights era (Zamudio 2006). That is the era in which Cocoa lives. Naylor successfully uses Cocoa’s experience to explain the racism that results from a colorblind ideology.
In Merchant of Venice, we see the character Shylock face religious discrimination because he is a Jew. In order to better understand the social atmosphere of the play, let us examine the treatment of Jews in England during the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Russ McDonalds states that in the year 1290, Jews were cast out of England. He added that while some Jews did manage to live and work in Shakespeare London, the law was not actively enforced and was homogenous. At the summoning of Oliver Cromwell, Jew were no longer banned from England in 1655 (276). That is the historical atmosphere under which this play is written and performed. One can argue that Shylock’s experience is akin to racism because he is racialized because of his religion. When the merchant Antonio asks Shylock for money. It took Shylock some time to decide whether to lend Antonio the money. Shylock states that Antonio called him a “dog” and “spit” on him. Here is what he says to Antonio:
Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Shall have I borne it with a patient shrug,
The suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut throat, dog
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for the use of that which is mine own.(103-109)
Specifically, Shylock is saying that Antonio has insulted his business dealings. He adds that he is has borne it like any other Jew has according to him, Jews are good at putting up with maltreatment. He finally adds that Antonio has insulted and cursed at him and spit on his “gaberdine” which is his clothes. Shylock then adds, “Well then, it now appears you need my help.(110)” Shylock doesn’t stop there; he goes on to say Antonio kicked him like he’s kicked a dog. He then asks Antonio if a dog has money and if he, Antonio, can borrow money from a dog. Shylock continues to repeat what his experience with Antonio has been. This is the most poignant scene in the play that displays the extent of Shylock’s treatment. The revenge inside Shylock is barely scratching the surface. Antonio only edges the revenge out when he says that he is not going to stop treating Shylock the way he has been. That Shylock might as well lend him the money as a way to avenge himself if he does not pay the loan. The revenge he has against Antonio actually represents those times he has been treated poorly by not only Antonio but by “Christians.”
Throughout the play, Shylock is constantly differentiated as “The Jew.” Also, In the play, some of the people who are “Christians” see themselves as superior to Shylock and all other Jews. When Antonio loses all of the money that Shylock lends him, he takes this as an opportunity to exact his revenge on his maltreatment by not only Antonio but “Christians” in general. I advocate that when Shylock says “you” in the court, he is referring to who he views as Christians and when he says “your” he is referring to what or in this case, who belongs to the “Christians.” I will go further and state that Shylock’s constant repetition of the word, “you” doesn’t mean only Antonio but the repeated maltreatment of him by other “Christians” besides Antonio. The extent of Shylock’s experience with religious discrimination is evident in his Act 4 Verse 1 speech.In this scene, Shylock is in the court exacting his revenge against Antonio. Prior to this Antonio borrowed some money from Shylock.
“What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs? (88-93)
Here he asserts that the “Christians” work their slaves like animals and that they think that they are justified in making their slaves perform these awful jobs because they bought them. I will go as far as saying that Shylock’s mention of slaves could shed light on the extent of his treatments by “Christians.” Shylock uses this as an argument because he is treated almost as such, a slave. He argues that “Christians” own slaves and if he ever tells them to set their slaves free and to have them marry their children they would not want to do it. Shylock is showing how easy it is for “Christians” to be “racist” against Shylock, if they already have human beings in bondage. It also demonstrates the racism of the “Christians” towards not only Jews but apparently to the slaves they own who are human beings. By virtue of how he is being treated in Venice, Shylock identifies somewhat with, according to him, the slaves that “Christians” own. He would not have brought slavery up in the first place if he did not identify with human beings in bondage. Like the slaves of the “Christians”, he is also viewed as inferior. That is why Shylock carries on his argument so fervently. Who better to articulate the immorality of slavery than Shylock? A “Jew” who has been treated as if he is not human.
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands? You will answer
“The slaves are ours:” so do I answer you: (94-97)

Shylock’s speech hints that the slaves should be treated like and entitled to what their masters entitle themselves to. Shylock continues his argument asking sarcastically if he can tell them to free their slaves, exclaim on how hard they work them, make the beds that they sleep on as soft as their own and make them eat their food. The repetitive use of the word “they” here is contingent on Shylock’s use of the word “you.” Shylock then predicts that the “Christians” would object to all of the above and say that the slaves are theirs.
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it?” (97-100)
He then goes into saying that he would answer the same as they’d answer, that the pound of flesh is his. He concludes that if he is refused what he wants, the laws of Venice are not valid.
The latter four lines of Shylock’s speech switches back into a different Shylock. Perhaps he at once sympathized with the slaves why that speech sounded so anti-slavery. But now he is just revenge seeking, possibly blinded by it.
In Mama Day Cocoa continued reference to people as food reveals how she has been treated. Cocoa refers to people as food when she calls Asians “kumquats” and Puerto Ricans “Tacos.”
“Why are people food to you?’ George decides to ask Cocoa on one of their dates in New York City.
“That’s a disgusting thing to say,” Cocoa responded.(62)
Then George goes on to explain that Cocoa has been saying that most of the evening, “fudge sticks, kumquats, bagels, zucchinis,” and that she called, “Herman Badillo a taco.(62)”
After getting to know George and New York Cocoa changes her views on people in New York City. “And best of all, you’d stop calling people food,” said George about Cocoa. (100)
Cocoa explains that she was scared coming to live in New York City and that not used to her neighborhood having more people than the island she was raised on —Willow Springs. She says that the way she talks is her way of always being in the dark about what to expect from anybody. Shylock is like that in the sense that he didn’t know his daughter, Jessica would Elope with Lorenzo. Cocoa tells George that she is not a Bigot and that if she sounds like one, it is because she is “as frightened of….difference as they are. (63) ” This suggests that Cocoa is aware of differences that people judge to see in her and like Shylock is just as afraid as the ones who might judge her. In Shylock’s case, that would be the “Christians” in Venice— the ones that judge him.
Shylock is like Cocoa in that he is behaving towards others the same way they have acted towards him but it seems for Shylock that is more severe. D. M Cohen asserts that Christians hate Jews because they killed Jesus Christ, and that is the root of the persecution of Jews by “Christians.” He then brings into play authors such as John Palmer and Harold Goddard, who express a view of Shylock as a manifestation of the Jewish heritage of persecution and suffering. That is a Shylock that has been done wronged by the world he inhabits and who symbolizes a tortured people. The treatment of Shylock is echoed in his speech about the “Christians” that own slaves.
Shylock is not the only one to experience racism in The Merchant of Venice. There is racism towards The Prince of Morocco that is often overlooked by scholars. Portia, a wealthy heiress, is governed by the choices of her dead father. He leaves a will stating that she can marry whoever picks the right casket covering the picture of her. Portia judges Morocco harshly in the play. That harsh judgment points to a difference in Morocco’s physical appearances. Morocco chooses the wrong casket that does not contain her picture. In response, Portia says behind his back when he is out of hearing distance, “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains and go. Let all of his complexion choose me so.(78-9)” In other words, she was glad that the dark skinned Morocco did not choose silver and hoped that every man with his “complexion” would choose wrong also.
Background of Africans in London
Mcdonald asserts that Londoners of Shakespeare’s London were exposed to Africans. They were objects of curiosity and so dehumanized shows the homogeneity of the culture and the “cultural anxieties”(176) that Londoners, I add, allowed themselves to feel around strangers. Instead of Mcdonald’s “strangers tended to generate.(176)” I wonder then about the perspective of the “stranger.” While reading Othello, I think of how a Jamaican would react differently in similar circumstances because of cultural upbringings. This led me to the conclusion that since Shakespeare was European because he grew up British, he will naturally have his characters behave European. The Moor in Othello, known as Othello, is portrayed as has black skin but he behaves European. This shows that Shakespeare possibly didn’t know anyone that was “black” so he didn’t portray the character as authentically from any North African culture. Scholar, Mary Preston argues that Othello was “in reality Black but in character white.” This is quite different than when one argues that Shakespeare is racist because of how he portrayed Othello, who is a black man, as someone who couldn’t understand his wife and murdered her, an innocent woman. Phyillis Braxton goes on to assert that making Othello black does not do anything to the play’s storyline. She suggests that the reasons for the character’s black skin areinherent in the dramatic elements of character and plot. Also, she purports that the motive of jealousy in the play does not require Othello to be black (10). I agree to a certain extent and want to add that it does nothing to the storyline because Othello is essentially European. If the portrayal of Othello was of a culture that was not European, that would be expressed in his experiences as an immigrant. Additionally, immigrants experience culture shock then assimilation when they come into a new culture and environment. Any possible advent of Othello’s assimilation in Venice is omitted from the play. I think that would have made Othello’s “race” more vividly essential to Othello’s storyline.
Othello is ‘black in as far as everyone else around him who is predominantly white or caucasian call him so. Phyllis Braxton states that Othello calls himself “black.(3)” I want to add that, Othello only calls himself “black” because the people around him call him so. Rather, when Othello says, “Haply for I am black” (266-67) it is him internalizing the view of him by those around him. He does go on to say, “As Dian’s visage is now begrimed and black as mine own face.(293-93)” Roderigo, A Venetian gentleman, sets the stage for Iago viewing Othello in racial terms when he describes Othello behind his back as “the thick lips.(3)” The latter is what seals the deal for there being no question as to what Shakespeare wanted Othello’s physique to be. Braxton states that the “thick lips” is a “common feature to native Africans and their descendants.(3)” She then adds that the playwright seems to have chosen these physical features to clearly distinguish Othello from native inhabitants of Venice and would make the character foreign to an audience of Englishmen.(10) We know that Roderigo dislikes Othello because he is supposedly in love with Othello’s wife, Desdemona.
Racism towards Othello is overt and rampant throughout the play. Jealousy and hatred towards Othello doesn’t stop at Roderigo. Iago serves Othello who is his general and establishes his jealousy of Othello when he says, “Another of his fathom have they none/To do their business…” (153-54) In other words, even though Iago hates Othello because he did not promote him to the rank of lieutenant, he admits that there lacks a man that can get the job done better than Othello. Scholar Philip Mason notes that when Iago speaks to Brabantio about Othello he does so from the “dark” and from the “Shadow” when he says in scene 1: “Even now, now, very now, and old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe. Arise! Arise! (88-9)
I would like to add the effect of Shakespeare having Iago say this in the dark. It is an effective metaphor that serves to show the overarching racism towards Othello. Iago speaks to Brabantio from the dark to distort Othello’s character to Brabantio by associating darkness of the night with skin color and making both seem evil. He is successful because Brabantio replies: “It is too true and evil. Gone she is,(161)” That eventually leads to Brabantio executing orders, “And raise some special officers of the night!” (183) The later adds to the notion that because Othello is dark in skin tone, he should be treated differently and that because it is night Brabantio has to get some officers that are good at dealing with things when it is dark out. All of the above only highlights the racism that ensues Othello. It is those experiences that make him have to prove himself to his fair-skinned acquaintances by being an outstanding general.
Mason states that Othello is constantly “racialized” by Iago. When he manipulated Othello to the point of “suspicion” and “agitation” by telling him that if she deceived her father, she can deceive him also. Mason also argues that Iago—“a man coldly obsessed with sex” and “unable to love” is the kind of man one can expect to also be “racialist.” I would like to add that Iago racializes Othello in order to be racist towards him. So Iago being a man that is lustful would clearly be one that is focused on the physical and so would be racist as he still would be focused on the physical except now in appearances. I suspect that Mason does not deem Iago to be racist because of his jealousy towards Othello. That means that he being jealous of Othello means that he believes that Othello is “better” than him. That is evident in the fact that Othello is a General and in a far superior militant position to Iago. Iago does not even consider yet to take Othello’s place; he only hates that Cassio was promoted instead of him and wants Cassio’s position as lieutenant. Mason elaborates further that Othello’s doubt of Desdamona’s love for him spurred on by Iago, is rooted in “racialism” when Othello says, “And Yet how mature erring from itself…(232)” and is unable to finish the sentence (158). When Iago states, “Of her own clime, complexion and degree. (235)” That is precisely when Iago plunges the knife deeper into Othello’s insecurity. (Mason 158)” Daniel J. Witkus notes textual evidence of Othello’s blackness serving as a contrast to Desdemona’s white innocence.(173) I want to add that this is when Iago’s racism towards Othello is at it’s climax. Its as if Iago is saying that Desdemona did not truely want the dark-skinned Moor and she actually wanted one of Venice, Cassio. He also tries to establish himself as superior to Othello through his manipulation and trickery that is left unchecked by Othello.
Shylock is the one that is “racialized” because there is no textual evidence stating that Shylock’s skin complexion is any different from say that of Antonio or Portia like the way Morocco or Othello’s is. When Portia enters the court, she asks, “which is the merchant here and The Jew?(169)” Shylock is racialized and mistreated for being a Jew throughout the play. Othello was already dark-skinned, so he is not necessarily racialized when compared to Shylock. The later is first racialized only to face religious discrimination incredibly akin to racism. Both Othello and Shylock are needed for some special skill. Othello is needed because of his above-average militant skills. While Shylock is needed because of his money and in that time Jews could only open banks and weren’t allowed to invest their money anywhere else (Siegfried 2016).
Both Othello and Morocco face racism as they are judged by their complexions. As evidenced earlier Iago, Roderigo and Brabanzio are all racist towards Othello, and constantly refer to him as the Moor. Portia is also racist towards Morocco. Both Othello and Morocco feel that they have to defend their complexion in a society that constantly brings attention to difference in their appearances, specifically skin color. This is how Moroco defends himself: “Mislike me not for my complexion,/ The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,/ To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.(2.1.1)” Like Othello, Morocco feels like he has to defend his appearances by being twice as better than other men that do not have those appearances. That is why Morocco does not just stop there and continues, “I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine/Hath feared the valiant.(2.1.9)” Othello, as discussed earlier, is forced to defend himself by showcasing his bravery and militancy. He can be seen as a more in-depth version of Morocco. Both Othello and Morocco are not racialized compared to Shylock, who “looks” no different than the “Christians.” Both Othello and Morocco’s “race” gets talked about behind their backs in the play. In their behavior, they sense that this is the case and have it done to their faces too.
Shylock’s treatment by the people in Venice seems to be much worse than Morocco’s. This leads to the assumption that Shylock has character traits that make him susceptible to constant bullying. It is not only that he is labeled “the Jew.” Morocco basks in being treated differently and proclaims that his dark skin color is what makes supposedly brave men fear him. While Morocco acts the star, Shylock constantly feels victimized. In his insistence that he gets a piece of Antonio’s flesh, lies the kind of revenge that indicates a tiredness of being bullied and the need for dignity like Morocco’s.
Both Othello and Cocoa experience insecurities about their appearances in reference to their significant other and it can be argued that insecurity has to do with “race” and racism. Cocoa and her husband George get into their “worst fight ever. (230-232)” Cocoa is getting dressed for an evening out which would have guests that she went to school with. She wants to get extra special for the occasion as she doesn’t want the guests that all know her to think he “couldn’t get any other woman but [her] (233)” and asks George how she looks. When he answered that she looks fine, she was unsatisfied with that answer and didn’t think George was being honest. She tells George, “I think you’re the last authority on make up for me since you spend all your time running around with white women before I rescued you.(233)” They then go into a squabble about who is being stupid and Cocoa pouts, “Well I’m sure all your white women weren’t ignorant.” George responds, “A Woman—Shawn. Shawn! (234)” Here George employs “colorblind ideology” that Cocoa does not adhere which we see earlier from her experience job hunting in New York City. George would rather he and his wife see Shawn as a woman and not as a white woman. However, perhaps Cocoa is already under a knowledge that Shawn has gotten her job or has gotten to George first because of her “race.” This leads us back to when Zamudio and other scholars state that, “given the forty years of real or [illusory] gains of a substantial number of people of color, whites [purport] that race is no longer a …significant obstacle for people of color” (484). Under this framework, George is one with those gains—a successful engineer, so he adheres to the colorblind ideology of most whites. While Cocoa coming from the rich black heritage of Willow Springs sees otherwise. George, an African American, sympathizes with the slave owner, Bascombe Wade, at his grave following that argument with Cocoa (248).
When one looks at a hierarchy of race in Othello’s social sphere, he starts to think he is not good enough for his wife, Desdemona, “the white ewe.” When he fully believes Iago, or rather, Iago’s successful manipulation is through that insecurity that has developed in Othello through his experience with racism. We have seen it from Iago and Brabantio, whose treatment of him as if he is lesser than them and not good enough for Desdemona. Even though he has proven himself because he was led to feel as if he should. Cocoa, possibly like Othello, has to work harder and like Othello has garnered more in reward. In Cocoa’s case, that would be she wins George over Shawn and in Othello’s, a reputation and superior warrior skills than his fellow light-skinned soldiers. Both Cocoa and Othello develop character even though Othello had a tragic end.
Race and racism plays significant roles in Mama Day, Othello and The Merchant of Venice. Sometimes fiction can help us to see events that we would not be able to see otherwise. We understand the interplay of race and racism in all three works. We see how racism affects how the characters view themselves and how they navigate their world. I think Morocco is the only character that finds some way to use his “race” to what he perceives to be an advantage. There are examples of that when he says men fear him and also when he states that girls adore him because he’s “different.” One can argue that the overt or traditional racism like that towards Othello is not significant in present day United States. However, with recent incidents like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, a combination of the two exists today. The racism that stems from “colorblind ideology,” that scholars call “colorblind” racism is the dominant form in the 21st century. Jews are still beings persecuted around the world today. Seeing “race” and racism come full circle in the three works discussed builds empathy and understanding and helps us to be more culturally and racially sensitive.
Works Cited
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Cohen, D. M. “The Jew and Shylock.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31.1 (1980): 53-63. Print.
Greenberg, Jon. “7 Reasons Why ‘Colorblindness’ Contributes to Racism Instead of Solves It.” Everyday Feminism. Everyday Feminism Magazine, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.
Mason, Philip. “Othello and Race Prejudice”. Caribbean Quarterly 8.3 (1962): 154–162. Print.
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Siegfried, Brandie. “The Merchant of Venice.” Lecture. Jesse Knight Building, Provo. 7 Mar. 2016.
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