More than any other writer, Shakespeare embodies the distinctive principles of Western Civilization. Men and women of the West are drawn to Shakespeare because his plays and poems continue to express their aspirations, to articulate their concerns, and to confront the tensions and contradictions in the Western vision itself. He is admired not as an uncritical encomiast of his own culture and society, but rather as an exemplum of the spirit—both critical and conservative—that is among the West’s most enduring legacies to the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that academic literary critics, who owe their very existence to Shakespeare and other great writers, have cast doubt upon Shakespeare’s exalted position at exactly the moment in history when the societies of the West have become most anxious about their own integrity and probity.
No issue has proven more vexatious than race in the assessment of the moral stature of Western Civilization. The drive toward multiculturalism, which is especially vigorous in the academic world, rests on the proposition that the culture of the West, in virtually all its manifestations, is an elite hegemony of white European males, which routinely marginalizes, represses, and generally victimizes women, the poor, adherents to non-Christian religions, and—above all—the dark-skinned races indigenous to other continents. While the chief playwright of the Western world is, according to this view, fully implicated in the crimes of his culture, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, plays that offer characters and incidents with a plausible relation to contemporary concerns, undermine any such judgment. Both plays unsettle assumptions and disturb the conscience—these are among the effects of great works of art, which are strengthened by the inquiring spirit of Western Civilization. Nevertheless, the disturbance arises from an essentially Christian vision of human nature and the human condition that, while affirming their reconciliation in God, acknowledges the tension between justice and mercy in this world.
The Merchant of Venice can be an extremely troubling play for contemporary audiences. While commentators of an earlier generation sought to save Shakespeare and the Christian characters from the charge of intolerance and anti-Semitism by turning the play into an allegory, more recent readings often maintain, to the contrary, that Shakespeare in fact lays the groundwork for the racialist anti-Semitism of a later era in the character of Shylock. Now The Merchant of Venice, although it involves significant symbolic elements, is not an allegory; and although it has certainly had an impact on European culture, the play has not—among reasonable persons—contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism. Such provocation for anti-Semitism as it provides has been there in the culture all along, and the principal effect of The Merchant of Venice is to disrupt any ideological complacency deriving from the apparent Jewish stereotype presented by Shylock. This disruption does not entail Shylock’s romantic transmogrification into a tragic hero; in fact, it is his stubborn villainy that generates the uneasy tension that runs through the drama. Shylock is certainly a more malicious individual than Antonio, Bassanio, or Portia, yet there can be no question that the Jew suffers ill use at the hands of the Christians. Shakespeare’s critical spirit is nowhere more manifest: in literature as in life, the individual whom we find pleasant or engaging is not always good, not always fair; and justice is not always served by just any action taken against a malefactor. It is precisely because Shylock is so cruel and repellent that his appeal to our common humanity is so poignant.
Regarded as a depiction of a Jew, The Merchant of Venice stands out because there is nothing else like it. Villainous Jews are not unusual in medieval literature. Indeed, Jews who compel our attention as suffering human beings are virtually unheard of before Shakespeare. It is generally agreed that Shakespeare takes most of the plot from the tale of Giannetto, which appears in a fourteenth-century Italian collection, Il Pecorone (the “blockhead” or “dolt”). Shakespeare adds depth of meaning and richness of texture to every element of plot and character that he has imitated, but especially in his creation of Shylock, who is a nameless, dimensionless figure in Il Pecorone. Shakespeare not only provides the Jewish usurer with a name, but also with a daughter who elopes with a Christian, as well as with a history of hostility and abuse from the Christian merchant Antonio. Above all, Shakespeare gives Shylock an intense bitterness and sense of humiliation that certainly explain—although they do not excuse—his murderous intentions toward Antonio.
To be sure, Shakespeare had in Christopher Marlowe a more formidable competitor in the dramatization of a villainous Jew than the anonymous compiler of Il Pecorone. Still, in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Barabas is a caricature out of medieval mystery and miracle plays. He gives an account of himself in close accord with the superstitious folk image of the Jew as ritual murderer, poisoner, and ruthless enemy of humanity—but especially of Christians. “Be mov’d at nothing,” he urges his servant, “see thou pity none, / But to thyself smile when the Christians moan.” To this image of mythical terror out of the Middle Ages Marlowe adds a very “modern” Elizabethan fear of the amoral Machiavellian schemer—“Machavill” speaks the prologue to the play and claims Barabas as his follower. The title character of The Jew of Malta is thus an Elizabethan archetype of villainy.
When The Merchant of Venice was first performed, probably in 1596 or 1597, The Jew of Malta had enjoyed an extraordinarily successful revival, having been staged at least thirty-six times between February 1592 and June 1596. What may have kept interest in the subject alive and even provided an occasion for the composition of Shakespeare’s play was the notorious affair of Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew who had served as physician to Queen Elizabeth. Jews had been officially banished from England in 1290 by King Edward I, and Lopez, like the rest of the handful of Jews living in London in the sixteenth century, was at least nominally a Christian convert. Such conversions were, however, always suspect among Christians throughout Europe, and when Lopez became implicated in an alleged Spanish plot to poison the Queen in 1594, old fears of Jewish duplicity and cruelty were seemingly confirmed.
The trial and execution for treason of Roderigo Lopez thus furnished a sensational backdrop for The Merchant of Venice. But in sharp contrast to the model he had in The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare mutes the sensational possibilities in the material. Both Barabas and Shylock have only daughters who, their fathers feel, betray them by becoming Christians. Abigail, the daughter of Barabas, having counterfeited a religious vocation in order to help her father recover his money, eventually becomes a nun. Barabas responds by poisoning her, along with all the nuns in the convent. Shylock’s daughter Jessica, unhappy at home, elopes with a prodigal Christian, Lorenzo, and steals money and jewels from her father. Shylock is enraged at the loss of his ducats, but he is also heartbroken over his daughter’s heartless betrayal of him. He cries out in his rage and frustration, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” The discrepancy between Barabas’ atrocity and Shylock’s malevolent but perfectly understandable human exclamation could hardly be more pronounced. The one is a monster, the other a man.
From the outset Shakespeare sets about providing Shylock with powerful motivation for his hatred of Antonio. When Antonio offers Shylock surety for a loan of 3,000 ducats to the improvident Bassanio, the aggrieved moneylender reminds the merchant that he has called the Jew “misbeliever, cut-throat dog” along with a host of other insults. “Hath a dog money?” Shylock asks, “Is it possible / A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” Antonio is unmoved by Shylock’s indignant response to such humiliations and tells him to lend the money “to thine enemy, / Who if he break, thou mayst with better face / Exact the penalty.” Antonio is, in modern parlance, asking for it, and we may suspect that a modern playwright with this plot on his hands would make the long-suffering Jew first conceive his hatred here, when his genuine longing for reconciliation is rebuffed one time too many. Shakespeare, however, has already let us know, in an aside earlier in the scene, that Shylock hates Antonio because “he is a Christian” and because “He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice.”
But Shylock’s studied malice no more justifies Antonio’s self-righteous complacency than Antonio’s insults justify Shylock’s premeditation of murder. In fact, the Christian merchant is more of a Pharisee in his self-assured moral and spiritual superiority than is the Jewish usurer, and this ironic tension adds bite to the gaiety of this romantic comedy. Antonio’s acceptance of the “merry bond” of a pound of his flesh to be granted Shylock in the unlikely event of forfeiture allows Antonio to avoid entering an agreement involving interest, to which he was willing to agree “only to supply the ripe wants of my friend.” It is important to note that Antonio’s complete condemnation of any taking of interest is an extreme view for Elizabethan England during Shakespeare’s time. Although usury was theoretically forbidden, in practice it was allowed at rates of no more than ten percent per annum. Francis Bacon probably expresses the common attitude in his 1625 essay “Of Usury,” where he maintains that lending at a profit is so necessary that “to speake of the Abolishing of Usury is Idle. All States have ever had it, in one Kinde or Rate, or other. So as that Opinion must be sent to Utopia.”
What turns Shylock from a petty, circumspect miser into a ruthless avenger is his daughter’s elopement. It is this betrayal by his own flesh and blood, and the jeering of the minor Christian characters Solanio and Salerio, that render Shylock implacable, not the mythical Jewish bloodlust of medieval fantasy. Salerio and Solanio do not, at first, take Shylock seriously; they cannot believe that he will go through with his threat. Shylock, for his part, has indeed become remorseless in his murderous intention toward Antonio, but it is strictly a matter of personal hatred growing out of a sense of wounded pride. If the Christian Venetians would only look at him with unbiased eyes, they would see that he acts with a human, perfectly understandable motive.
In a masterstroke of irony, Shakespeare has Shylock claim his common humanity most poignantly in the course of justifying his most inhuman act. In one of the play’s two most famous speeches, Shylock berates the Christians for failing to acknowledge his equally human status even as he is bent upon shedding it: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he cries. “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions . . . ?” He is like them in his faculties, he maintains, and the moral corollary follows inevitably: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” It is significant that Shylock makes his plea on a very basic level, and that he is not a very good man himself. A man ought not to be required to appeal to others on an exalted spiritual plane in order to have his fundamental humanity acknowledged. Essential human dignity should not be contingent upon a winsome personality.
Hence the trial scene in Act IV, which so unsettles modern audiences, manifests not the failure of Shakespeare’s art, but rather its triumph. In fact, the success is a direct result of the tremendous tension it generates in readers and theatergoers. While it is a mistake to attempt to save the play’s gaiety and romance by turning its turbid religious conflict into an abstract allegory in which the feelings and experiences of the individual characters do not count for much, an equal error is made by critics who diminish or dismiss the importance of religion for the Christian characters. The trial scene is constructed from a Christian perspective, which highlights the Pauline dichotomy of Old Testament legalism opposed to the New Testament gospel of grace. Before Portia, disguised as Balthasar, enters the scene the issue is framed in an exchange between the Duke and Shylock. “How shalt thou hope for mercy,” asks the former, “rend’ring none?” To which the Jew replies, “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” Shylock is persistent in his demand that the legal contract be carried out exactly as it is written, confident in the justice of his cause: “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond.”
Having uttered one of the most moving speeches in all of Shakespeare’s plays, he is deaf to another, Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, which closes with a reminder of universal human fallibility: “Therefore, Jew, / Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.” Some critics are skeptical about the sincerity (or at least the depth) of Portia’s Christianity, because they see little that is specifically Christian in her plea to Shylock—clemency was, of course, an important Stoic theme. But in fact the prayer that “doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy” is the “Our Father,” and the notion that we cannot be saved by our own justice is the heart of the gospel, especially as preached by St. Paul. The opposition between the covenants of law and grace, which comes to the fore in the trial scene, is central to the play as whole, and there is no reason to presume that this understanding of moral and spiritual reality is not integral to the minds of Shakespeare’s Venetian Christians.
Even so, these are not fervent or exemplary Christians. Fervent, exemplary Christians are called saints, and their number is regrettably small. As is so often the case in Shakespeare, the irony is doubled: Shylock gives utterance to an impassioned plea for the common humanity in all men even as he is hardening his heart to exact a terrible vengeance; Portia eloquently extols the virtue of mercy in the hearts of kings and seems promptly to forget her own speech when she comes to exercise power herself. The Duke, Bassanio, and Antonio—once the threat is past—are all willing to allow a chagrined Shylock to walk away with his money; it is the iron-willed Portia who demands that he be held to the strict letter of the law, just as he himself has insisted. The end of the play would be much more comfortable for us if we could treat the Portia of the trial scene as an allegory of the Divine Judge who forces Shylock (the allegorical sinner) to relinquish all his wealth with the conditional restoration of a part of it upon his baptism—that is, he must throw down everything he has and follow Christ. But this will not work because we already know Portia as the high-spirited, self-possessed mistress of Belmont and also as a tender, longing young bride. She has no business playing God.
Here again is Shakespeare’s critical spirit at work: Portia provides a fine account of mankind’s universal need for the grace of forgiveness but then fails to be gracious and forgiving herself. Even she, “a Daniel come to judgment,” is fallible and in need of forgiveness. If we miss the point, Shakespeare underscores it with a further irony. The character who immediately begins jeering at Shylock when Portia turns the tables on him, the character who offers Shylock only “A halter gratis—nothing else for God’s sake” (emphasis added), is named Gratiano, which of course suggests grazia, the Italian word for “grace.” The character contradicts the name, and this is the man who most avidly seconds Portia in her complete humiliation of Shylock, though the others join in readily enough. The Christian principle of gracious forgiveness is, then, a good one, but it is extremely difficult for Christians themselves to observe it. Shylock is prevented from cutting away a pound of Antonio’s flesh from very near his heart, but in a sense the Christians cut Shylock’s heart out of his body without shedding a drop of his blood. And they do so with clear—if blinded—consciences. In thus dramatizing the doctrine of grace by showing how those who profess it often fail to fulfill it, Shakespeare highlights a distinctive and specifically Christian element of Western Civilization: its inability to live up to its own finest insights, which are always too exalted to be grasped by mortal men and women.
The devastated Shylock slinking off the stage casts a shadow over the comedy and romance of The Merchant of Venice, but we cannot suppose this effect to be inadvertent on Shakespeare’s part, because he does the same thing in other plays. Falstaff certainly ought to be banished from the royal court at the end of II Henry IV, but his dismissal still disrupts the solemnity of the coronation. Even more striking is the storming off the stage of the “much abus’d” Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night. As his name indicates, Malvolio is a man of ill will. His genuine grievance against Olivia’s other servants, however, dampens the gaiety of the play’s conclusion. Moreover, the parallel with Malvolio assimilates Shylock to another category: in Twelfth Night Maria calls Malvolio “a kind of Puritan.” Shakespeare’s audience, which would have had little chance to associate with Jews, would have found Shylock’s disapproval of plays and revelry familiar enough: “What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica: / Lock up my doors, … / Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter / My sober house.” Everything in Shakespeare’s plays—not to mention his profession as playwright—suggests that he was not fond of Puritans. Yet as a man who was surely reared a Catholic and who may have died a Catholic in the ferociously anti-Catholic England of Elizabeth and James, he may well have sympathized with anyone under the pressure of religious conformity. This fact may well explain the poignancy of Shylock’s forced conversion, troubling the penultimate act of this comedy. Shylock is thwarted, but we cannot forget him and his demand to be recognized as a man, not a monster.
In Othello Shakespeare develops the ambiguous status of the dark-skinned African in Renaissance European society. As in The Merchant of Venice, religious issues complicate considerations of race and ethnicity, but Shakespeare’s drama again leaves an attentive audience or reader with a powerful realization of the essential humanity of the racial “other.” Othello is not, then, an expression of an established racism; rather, it highlights the danger of racial categorization at a point in European history when it was soon to become a problem. The danger is apparent in several disdainful references to Othello’s black skin, African features, and general foreignness; these are mingled with brutish sexual images after Othello, the hired commander of Venice’s military forces, has secretly won the hand of a prominent senator’s beautiful daughter. “What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe,” exclaims Roderigo, a rejected suitor, “If he can carry’t thus!” Iago rouses the father, Brabantio, by shouting under his window, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe,” and soon adds, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” When Brabantio first confronts Othello, he denies that his daughter without magical compulsion “Would ever have, t’ incur a general mock, / Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou.”
In the face of such scurrility, the dignity and calm of Othello emerge with great force when he takes the stage in the second scene. More than any other Shakespearean tragic hero, he commands respect and radiates authority as the drama begins, and also embodies the values of aristocratic chivalry. Iago attempts to ruffle the Moor’s magnificent self-possession to no avail. “You were best go in,” Iago warns, when he thinks that Brabantio and his retainers approach. “Not I; I must be found,” Othello tranquilly replies. “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly.” He is supremely confident in his virtues, his standing in the city, and his clear conscience. When the outraged father’s party does finally confront Othello and the officers who have come to summon him to the Duke’s council chamber “upon some present business of the state,” and the blades of drawn weapons are gleaming in the torchlight, the Moorish general quells the threatened tumult with a relaxed yet magisterial authority: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” Only a man accustomed to being obeyed could utter these words with such self-assurance. After the vile slanders of Iago and Roderigo, who would paint Othello as a lecherous savage in the play’s first scene, Shakespeare is at pains to present the Moor as a gentleman of fully heroic stature.
Othello’s stature is confirmed when the Duke and his council consider Brabantio’s accusation that his daughter “is abus’d, stol’n from me, and corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.” Othello gives an account of wooing Desdemona by means of the stories he told of perilous adventure and suffering in exotic lands: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I lov’d her that she did pity them. / This only is the witchcraft I have us’d.” The Duke himself affirms Othello’s conclusion: “I think this tale would win my daughter too.” For her part, Desdemona dispels the aspersions cast upon her bridegroom’s appearance and supposed barbarism with an exemplary assertion of the spiritual transcendence of human dignity: “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, / And to his honors and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.”
When we consider the racial or ethnic dynamics of the play, two points stand out: First, racial difference is a source of animosity, suspicion, and disdain; second, despite the animosity, suspicion, and disdain, not even Shakespeare’s fictionalized Venice can be described as a racist society in the modern sense of the term. Brabantio’s denigrations are the response of a man who has lost a daughter on whom he doted to a foreigner who was welcome as a guest but not as a son-in-law. Roderigo, who refers to Othello as “the thick-lips,” is apparently a wastrel whom both Desdemona and Brabantio have scorned as a suitor. And then there is Iago, who is an officer on Othello’s staff. Surely he is the most wicked of Shakespeare’s villains, a man who seems to delight in evil for its own sake to such an extent that he inspired Coleridge to his famous phrase, “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.” Over against the malicious slanders of these men is the nearly universal admiration for Othello. Plainly, the Duke and Venetian senators regard him as their best general and only hope against a Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Even Iago is constrained to admit to Roderigo, “that, for their souls, / Another of his fadom they have none / To lead their business.” Finally, and most important, there is the generic evidence: Othello is a tragic hero, and although a tragic hero necessarily has a flaw, he cannot be despicable or inferior. Tragedy, Aristotle observes in the Poetics, is “a representation of men better than ourselves.”
The significance of Othello’s status as a tragic hero may be easily gauged from a criticism of the play made by Thomas Rymer at the end of the seventeenth century. Othello was one of the more popular tragedies on the English stage throughout the century, and in 1693 Rymer complains that it “is said to bear the Bell away.” He is quite evidently incensed at the changes Shakespeare has made in the source, a novella by Giraldo Cinthio, all of which serve to ennoble the characters and elevate the action: “He bestows a name on his Moor, and styles him the Moor of Venice—a Note of preeminence which neither History nor Heraldry can allow him. Cinthio, who knew him best, and whose creature he was, calls him simply a Moor.”
Rymer will grant to a black African not even the “dignity” of a name, much less the nobility of a soldier or the grandeur of a heroic figure. He scornfully quotes a few lines of Othello’s account of the “magical” wooing and remarks, “This was sufficient to make the Black-amoor White, and reconcile all, tho’ there had been a Cloven-foot into the bargain”; and he is outraged that a white Venetian like Iago should be depicted as a conniving liar: “He is no Black-amoor Souldier, so we may be sure he should be like other Souldiers of our acquaintance.”
Clearly something has happened that enables or impels white Englishmen (and other Europeans) in Rymer’s time to regard black Africans as naturally inferior. When Othello was first performed in 1603 or 1604, it was rare for slavery to be seen as an institution exclusively imposed by Europeans and Arabs upon black Africans, but this would soon change. Less than ninety years later, Thomas Rymer finds it intolerable for a noble black man to win the love of a noble white woman and marry her. The power of this viewpoint is displayed in the less-than-edifying spectacle of various critics in the course of the next two-and-a-half centuries attempting to make Othello merely swarthy or “tawny,” and not a sub-Saharan African. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who ought to have known better, will serve as an example: “it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro.” Coleridge is apparently unaware of how much he sounds like Brabantio.
Postmodern efforts to “save” the play—to make it “relevant” to contemporary audiences—are often equally unsatisfactory and substitute patronizing pity of Othello for Rymer’s unvarnished contempt. Stephen Greenblatt, for instance, in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), the foundational work of the New Historicism, reads Othello as a virtual allegory of the European conquest of the New World. Greenblatt maintains that the dominance of the “mobile society” of the modern West is characterized by a sinister “empathy” that enables a man to enter into the situation of another and beguile him. Iago, according to this view, is the embodiment of Western Civilization in its aggressive essence.
Now there are two major problems here, even if we only consider the play and not the implications of the schema as a definition of Western Civilization. First, there is the problem that Iago is the villain of the play and not its hero: far from looking like the complete Renaissance man, he resembles nothing so much as the unstable, decentered postmodern subject. “I am not what I am,” he confides to Roderigo. Like so many of Shakespeare’s tragic antagonists—think of Edmund in King Lear—Iago is best regarded as a threat to traditional Western Civilization, not as its exemplar. Second, the “empathetic” relationship that Greenblatt proposes between Iago and Othello reduces the latter to little more than a “noble savage”—precisely Iago’s “erring barbarian” out of his depth in a marriage to a “super-subtle Venetian.” Yet everything in the text of the play tells us that while Othello is certainly noble, he is not in the least savage. Greenblatt would make Othello’s vulnerability to deception by Iago no different from Roderigo’s, but Iago plays on the passions of the latter. It is just his nobility that makes Othello vulnerable, and in this he is very much like Hamlet. When Claudius is planning to have Laertes murder Hamlet with a poisoned foil in what is ostensibly a friendly fencing match, he tells Laertes that Hamlet, “Most generous, and free from all contriving, / Will not peruse the foils.” In a soliloquy at the end of Act I of Othello, Iago informs the audience that Othello has a similarly ingenuous character: “The Moor is of a free and open nature, / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.”
But Greenblatt sees Othello as the victim of another aspect of Western Civilization, the tension between “erotic intensity” and “Christian orthodoxy.” Othello’s blackness becomes a symbol of the sexual guilt that torments a man who must be forever proving his claim to a place in society: “This tension is less a manifestation of some atavistic ‘blackness’ specific to Othello than a manifestation of the colonial power of Christian doctrine over sexuality, a power visible at this point precisely in its inherent limitation.” Greenblatt’s alarm about the “colonial power of Christian doctrine over sexuality” is based on Othello’s response to Desdemona when she asks to accompany her new husband on the campaign in Cyprus; if she cannot, then “the rites for why I love him are bereft me.” Othello certainly wants her company, but he is anxious lest the senators take the wrong impression from her impassioned plea: “Vouch with me, heaven, I therefore beg it not / To please the palate of my appetite, / But to be free and bounteous to her mind.” Now the obvious interpretation of this passage would stress both Othello’s interest in reassuring his employers that he will in no way “scant” their “great business” and his modesty in wishing to deflect any general speculation about the sexual ardor of the newlyweds.
For Greenblatt and other postmodern critics, however, this passage suggests that Othello is a sexual cripple captured by “a still darker aspect of Christian orthodoxy,” which Greenblatt illustrates by quoting St. Jerome (out of context): “An adulterer is he who is too ardent a lover of his wife.” Certainly the sexual standards of both Shakespeare’s era and Jerome’s were generally sterner than what we encounter at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but it is another question whether husbands ought to treat their wives as they would an adulteress. In any event, the postmodernist interpretation of Othello as a psychologically crippled victim of Christian sexual morality depends, again, upon making Iago the exemplar of Western Civilization. In this view, the man who is identified simply as a “Villaine” in the list of characters in the first folio edition defines the norms that govern the play. After Roderigo has witnessed the expressions of love that pass between Othello and Desdemona in the presence of the Duke and the senators, he is ready to give up his hopes of ever possessing her; but Iago rekindles his ardor by assuring him that “love” is a mere illusion of carnal passion: “It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” Postmodernist interpreters join Iago in scorning the protestations of Othello and Desdemona that their love is actually something more than mere sensual attraction, and only by this great negation can they deny that Othello, like all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, is the embodiment of a Western ideal who fails and suffers catastrophe.
Othello, like The Merchant of Venice, is both an affirmation of the principles of the Western world and a daring challenge to that civilization to embody its principles with more constancy. The Merchant of Venice sets a concept of justice tempered with mercy over against unbending legalism and self-righteousness, but it reminds us—in the troubling figure of Shylock as well as in the failure of the Christian characters to integrate him into the comic conclusion—that even expressions of mercy can be tainted with self-righteousness. The challenge is all the greater—and Shylock’s eloquent denunciation of the way he has been dehumanized is all the more poignant—because he is in many ways such an unattractive individual. It is, after all, sinners who require grace. In still more daring fashion, Othello exemplifies the highest virtues of Western Christendom—fortitude, courtesy, devotion to duty, and sexual delicacy—in a character who seems, to some observers, their antithesis: a black African who could routinely be associated with Islam or with barbarism. Shakespeare thus reminds us that the essence of Western Civilization is a matter of the mind and the heart, not of outward appearance or blood inheritance. In Othello’s tragic fall—a tragedy deepened by the loftiness of his nobility at the play’s outset—we see the fragility of virtue and honor, especially their vulnerability to betrayal by those, like Iago, who seem to be their champions. Anti-Semitism and racial prejudice against black Africans are two of the uglier maladies in the history of the West, but in the work of its greatest dramatist we see that these evils are not integral to its civilization, and that in the West’s critical spirit lie the means of its continual reform.
R. V. Young is Professor of English at North Carolina State University. His most recent books are Doctrine & Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (Boydell &Brewer, 2000) and A Student’s Guide to Literature (ISI, 2000).