Shakespeare’s plays The Merchant of Venice and Othello illustrate how powerful stereotypes in a society are. With Shylock and Othello we find two characters that represent groups within a society that are likely to find themselves isolated from others because of stereotypes: people of color and Jewish people. Both figures are driven into their fall because their environment judges them over stereotypes that are attached to religion and race.
Shylock, the Jew in The Merchant of Venice is isolated in a physical sense. The Venetian society forces him to live in a separate, locked area of the town, the ghetto. Moreover, he is isolated by his faith, and by the way he is treated when he is among the Venetians (symbolized through Antonio, who calls Shylock “”cutthroat dog” and “spat on [Shylock’s] Jewish gabardine” (1.3.121-122)). The court scene of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice beautifully illustrates what stereotypes can do to individuals, as it demonstrates that, although the law is on Shylock’s side, the Christians manage to twist it in a way that brings him to his knees and to reinforce all stereotypes upon him. Whereas Shylock in the beginning of the play was highlighted as the inhumane and greedy money-lender, we perceive him as a broken human at the end of the court scene. This shift in perception is achieved through Antonio, who is constantly portrayed as the good and suffering friend of Bassanio. In the way Antonio interacts with Shylock however, we can observe that it is actually him who is the inhumane dog. His melancholic suffering seems like a farce given to how humiliating he acts towards Shylock – in public, in Shylock’s house, and before court. Especially in the court scene Antonio portrays himself as the vulnerable individual, as it is obvious to him that he must obey the contract, and give his pound of flesh, as demonstrated in his following lines: “Make no more offers, use no farther means,/But with all brief and plain conveniency/Let me have judgment and the Jew his will” (4.1.84).
Shylock knows he also stands for the law, as he states in 4.1.104. It is the only institution in his society that allows him to be equal to other Venetians. He may insist on Antonio fulfilling the contract because he is driven by hate over Antonio’s behavior, but he wants nothing else but his contract to be fulfilled. He knows the law should be on his side, and it seems as if he will seize the moment of the trial to teach the Christians a lesson about moral and virtuous behavior. Shylock’s intention seems to work out well up until the disguised Portia takes over. She demonstrates that the law may be on Shylock’s side however, it is up to the person who judges to interpret it – a component that, until then, is foreign to Shylock, who is of the opinion that all should be treated equal before the law. The entire society of Venice, it seems has conspired against the Jew, and is unwilling to move away from the stereotypes and restrictions they have put up for people like Shylock.
Othello, although giving the impression of being well integrated in the Venetian society, is isolated audibly and visibly over his language and skin-color, as well as invisibly through his ethnic background. Like Shylock, Othello is aware of the stereotypes that are attached to his race as we can observe in his speech before the court: “…Rude am I in my speech, / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace (O 1.3.81-82). In Othello Iago makes use of the existing stereotype for dark-skinned people. Since the majority of the Venetian society was white Iago could easily rouse them against Othello, and thus persuade them of the accuracy of these racial stereotypes. One he had instilled a sense of doubt in the people’s minds that Othello was not the virtuous citizen of Venice for whom they took him behind his “blackness” it was simple for him to introduce Othello’s fall.
Interestingly, neither Shylock nor Othello find allies who step up for their cause among the fellow actors. Both, however, had a person in their immediate environment that could have been supportive of them, Shylock’s daughter Jessica and Othello’s wife Desdemona. Nevertheless, even these people were isolated away from Shylock and Othello by the means of society. Whereas Jessica is seduced to convert to the Christian faith, Desdemona is implicated in actions that drive Othello farther away from her, and allowed for the denuding of characteristics, which answer to the stereotypes attached to his race.
Both cases demonstrate the destructive power of stereotypes, as they show us that not necessarily the people who are categorized by stereotypes are the bad citizen, but those, who invent the stereotypes. However, these plays also highlight how blind people get over stereotypes, as in neither play any of the characters recognized how virtuous these isolated characters, Shylock and Othello, in fact were. Like Portia demonstrates in The Merchant of Venice, it is up to us individuals to interpret and to judge and question stereotypes. However, in a society pressure is often so high, that people rather follow the masses than to swim against the stream. Stereotypes bring home to us what isolation means, and not many people want to be isolated, even for a good cause. As Antonio in The Merchant of Venice points out in 1.1.78, the world is “A stage where every man must play a part”, and stereotypes assign the parts to the people. But should we accept this?