Thursday, June 9, 2011

Contrasting Notions of the Outsider in The Merchant of Venice and Othello

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The captivating effect of the mysterious and the strange upon the human imagination is a quality that has been exploited by storytellers since the advent of storytelling itself. As such, master dramatist William Shakespeare, in the stories he brought to life upon the stage, has crafted entire worlds, and many famous characters therein, around this enticing notion of “otherness”. Thus, theatre patrons who had never been to Venice, and in all likelihood would never get the chance, could be transported there for the mere cost of admission, and characters of strange appearance and custom could be seen and wondered at without risk of actual confrontation. Of course Shakespeare did not employ this “foreign” aesthetic only as a mere gimmick to sell tickets, but rather, Shakespeare’s genius utilized the public’s fascination with the “other” as a means of communicating something much more three-dimensional.

This becomes evident when looking at Shakespeare’s Othello, and The Merchant of Venice, both of which elaborate on the theme of the outsider through the characterization and actions of Othello and Shylock respectively. These figures of “otherness” are similar in that both find themselves trapped within the perceptions of the dominant society they are in (in both cases this is Venice), and are motivated through the actions of the plays, and ultimately led to their individual downfalls, by the roles of “the outsider” placed upon them. However, through their contrasting portrayals of “otherness”, Shakespeare demonstrates a kind of basic duality in how outsiders are perceived, and both Othello and Shylock serve to represent the two distinct sides of this coin. On the one half, Othello the Moor is seen as romantic and exotic, and his strangeness is therefore attractive to most of the Venetians in the play; Shylock the Jew, on the other hand, is imbued with a sense of malignant evil, and is held with utter contempt by almost everyone. Also, Othello’s downfall is seen as tragic, and the result of outside malice and manipulation; whereas The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy, and as such, Shylock’s demise is treated as a victory, and appears to be as much the result of Shylock’s inherent wickedness, as it is the unjust perceptions heaped upon him by the Venetian lovers. Thus Shakespeare’s duality of otherness seems to rely on a kind of purity of soul, as Othello’s strangeness remains appealing because he is a Christian and his heart still may be understood by the members of Shakespeare’s audience, while Shylock remains an absolute outsider, to the play, and to the audience, and although Shakespeare does much to convey a sense of three-dimensional humanity within Shylock’s spirit, he is ultimately portrayed as a villain because he is Jewish.

The background of both plays is the oft-used Venetian setting, within which Shakespeare seems to find an agreeable combination of exoticness, and familiarity. Thus, romantic Venice, “notable for its wealth, its power, and its justice,” (Riverside, p.148), was a kind of idealized London for Shakespeare’s contemporary audience to relate to. Certainly the moral and religious sentiments felt within the London audience at the time, could find strong parallels in the actions and virtues upheld by the citizens of this fictional Venetian society. The chivalric, noble undertones with which most of the characters of Othello mark their speech, can be seen at least as notions an Elizabethan audience would like to think reflected in themselves, and the attitudes towards usury in The Merchant of Venice, though it was a relatively common practice in Shakespeare’s England, still, “the medieval conviction that it was wrong to take interest remained emotionally powerful,” (Riverside, p.85). And though both plays do stray form their Venetian settings to locations of even more exoticness, the dominant society, of which Shakespeare’s London may be seen as a convenient parallel, is the society of Venice, and it is this which places judgement upon Othello and Shylock.

As such, the English attitude towards people of Jewish faith at the end of the sixteenth century, was also an important factor in the shaping of Shakespeare’s dramatic sentiments within The Merchant of Venice. At the time the play was first published, “Jews had officially been banished from England for three centuries,” and thus Jewish people were perceived by the popular imagination of Shakespeare’s audience “almost as mythical beasts strange, evil beings who had once crucified Christ and might be expected to persevere in anti-Christian activities,” (Riverside, p.84). Moreover, the Jewish people of the time had recently “achieved an unwelcome notoriety when Roderigo Lopez, a Portugeuse Jew who had been Queen Elizabeth’s physician, was tried and executed for his part in a supposed poisoning plot aimed against her,” (Riverside, p.84). Thus the perception of the Jewish outsider prevalent in Shakespeare’s England, and indeed throughout most of Europe, was one that imagined him as having an innate tendency towards hatred and malice.

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This perception can certainly be seen to translate into Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock the Jew. Indeed, Shylock seems to epitomize the miserly, cold-hearted figure of the Jewish stereotype. Thus, whereas the Christians in the play speak in merry tones, adorned with the metaphor, and double-meaning characteristic of Shakespearean discourse, Shylock’s speech seems restrained towards a more narrow, economical interpretation of words. For instance, when Shylock first considers the bond between himself and Antonio he agrees to accept it because “Antonio is a good man,” though Shylock does not mean ‘good’ in the moral sense that Bassanio does when he retorts “Have you ever heard any imputation to the contrary?” (Merchant, Act 1, Sc. ; 1-14); he means it merely in the narrow sense that Antonio is economically sufficient for the bond to be considered. Shylock also only seems to understand personal relations in a purely business-like manner, and as such human losses are equated only in terms of their economical consequences. Thus when Launcelot the Clown leaves Shylock’s service, Shylock merely interprets it as chance to rid himself of the “huge feeder” on his ducats, and also as a chance to “help to waste [the] borrowed purse,” of the hated Bassanio, (Merchant, Act , Sc. 5; 46-51). Even more callous is Shylock’s reaction upon discovering his daughter Jessica has taken off with a Christian and a large portion of his riches. Though understandably upset at the betrayal, Shylock shocks the audience with his cold declaration that “I would rather my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!” (Merchant, Act , Sc. 1; 87-0).

The Christians of the play seem to value friendship and love above all, and though they do place much importance on money, as Bassanio requires it in order to seek an audience with Portia, this importance is related to the potential of money to bring happiness. Shylock seems to accumulate “barren metal” for its own sake, whereas the Christians transform their wealth into “silks and spices, ships that venture across the world,” and shows of generosity and friendship, (Riverside, p.85). Bassanio is a terrible spendthrift, but this is not at all seen as a flaw in his character�indeed the very idea of risking your money is linked to virtue in the play, a notion which is exemplified in the fact that the correct casket Bassanio chooses to win Portia, bears the inscription “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,” (Merchant, Act , Sc. 7; 16). Thus, Shylock is represented as an alien within a society “whose religion, pleasures, aims, and attitudes are radically different from his own,” (Riverside, p.85).

The characterization of Othello also seems to manifest such inherent qualities of race, but whereas Shylock’s strangeness isolates him, Othello’s essentialist characteristics actually appear to commend him within Venetian society. Othello is noted for his courage and honour and seems to have an innate inclination to the art of battle “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it/ Without a prompter,” (Othello, Act 1, Sc. ; 84-5). Also, Othello is seen to be quite boastful and “rude” in speech, “little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace,” (Othello, Act 1, Sc. ; 8), and these attributes would seem to evoke the romantic stereotype of the ‘noble savage’. However, Othello is mainly perceived as quite exotic and therefore attractive to the people of Venice, and the stories he relates of “men whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders,” (Othello, Act 1, Sc. ; 144-5), wins him the heart of the beautiful and virtuous Desdemona who, “lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I lov’d her that she did pity them,” (Othello, Act 1, Sc. ; 167-8). Othello’s valiant and noble nature also grants him the coveted position of General within the Venetian army. Thus it is obvious that Shakespeare’s intent was not to portray Othello as simply being one step removed from the jungle, but rather as a magnanimous and exotic outsider, who ingratiates himself within the folds of Venetian society because of his romantic, noble nature and his “perfect soul,” (Othello, Act 1, Sc. ; 1).

There is no doubt however, that Othello is a relative stranger within this Venetian society which still seems to hold him at a distance because of his difference in appearance. The baseness of Iago’s and Roderigo’s profane shouting at the beginning of the play is indicative of this, as is Brabantio’s outrage at his daughter’s marriage to Othello, and his conviction “That with some mixtures pow’rful o’er the blood, / Or with some dram (conjur’d to this effect)/ He wrought upon her,” (Othello, Act 1, Sc. ; 104-6). But what gives the drama its sharpest element of tragedy is the fact that Othello, for all his worldliness, is ignorant of the hearts of men, and the capable evil therein. This naivety is what enables Iago to “work his poison” on Othello’s senses, turning him against the virtuous and most honest Desdemona “I know our country disposition well/ In Venice they do let God see the pranks/ They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience/ Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown,” (Othello, Act , Sc. ; 01-4). He also makes Othello painfully self-conscious about his appearance and to fear that Desdemona “May fall to match you with her country forms, / And happily repent,” (Othello, Act , Sc. ; 6-8). Othello is not in a position to dispute with Iago’s “learned spirit of human dealings”, because he is new to Venice, “Till now some nine moons wasted,” (Othello, Act. 1, Sc. ; 84). Therefore, Iago is able to use Othello’s position as an outsider against him, and as such Othello is truly “led by th’ nose/ As asses are,” (Othello, Act 1, Sc. ; 401-) to the play’s tragic conclusion.

It is interesting to note however, that Shakespeare actually subverts the original moral intended in the Giraldi Cinthio novella from which Shakespeare takes his source. Cinthio’s sentiment was basically that “Desdemona made an unhappy choice in marrying a man so different from her in every way�unsuitable by reason of race, creed, and education,” (Riverside, p. 146). In Shakespeare however, though differences in race and manners are emphasized, Othello is firmly established as a Christian throughout the play, and as such Othello and Desdemona’s love is sanctified, so that “The heavens forbid/ But that our loves and comforts should increase/ Even as our days do grow!” (Othello, Act , Sc. 1; 1-5). Moreover, the morals that were intended in the original version of the story are degenerated by Shakespeare into an aspect of ignorance, or malice by those that harbour them in the play�thus Iago and Brabantio are the only characters seen to echo Cinthio’s sentiments. What seems most important to Shakespeare is that Othello is Christian and thus his soul is just. Even when he commits evil there is still honour in his deeds as he urges Desdemona to pray before he kills her as “I would not kill thy soul,” (Othello, Act 5, Sc. 1; ). Furthermore, at the end of the play, when Othello commits suicide, he actually transforms his status as an outsider, from that of noble romantic to malicious heathen, by equating himself to “a malignant and a turban’d Turk,” who “Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,” (Othello, Act 5, Sc. ; 5-4). The Turks, of course, were Muslim, and as such, viewed by the Christians as enemies to civility and order. Thus Othello carries out the justice of Venice, by stabbing himself as a Turkish outsider.

This perception of the “malignant Turk” in Othello, is comparable to the perception the Christians have of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. However it is important to note that Shakespeare does not present his audience with a mere one-dimensional stereotype, such as is found in Christopher Marlowe’s contemporary Jewish representation of Barabas, the hero-villain in The Jew of Malta. Indeed, quite unlike Barabas, “Shylock is a closely observed human being, not a bogeyman to frighten children in the nursery,” (Riverside, p.85). This sense of humanity is conveyed perfectly by Shylock in his famous speech to Salerio and Solanio in which he asks “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? […] If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? […] And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (Merchant, Act , Sc. 1; 5-67). Shylock is persecuted by the Christians in Venice�even Antonio who is upheld throughout the play as a figure of sublime virtue, ridicules Shylock in the street, calling him “misbeliever”, and “cut-throat dog”, (Merchant, Act 1, Sc. ; 111). Thus Shakespeare makes Shylock capable of evoking sympathy from his audience, and this adds a significant degree of complexity to the play, as it appears that Shakespeare might have been trying to communicate a greater sense of universal humanity to the largely anti-Semitic crowd which filled the theatre.

Ultimately however, it is impossible not to see Shylock as a villain in the play, as his maniacal and monstrous desire for a pound of Antonio’s flesh is incomprehensible to any sensible member of an audience. This perverseness of Shylock’s values and beliefs is further exemplified in the contrasting conceptions of justice harboured by Shylock and the Christians. For Shylock, justice equals revenge “I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond,” (Merchant, Act 4, Sc. 1; 06-7). For the Christians, justice is only virtuous when seasoned with mercy. Mercy thus becomes “an attribute to God himself,” and as Portia describes it in the court scene, mercy is closely related to the concepts of the Christian religion and indeed even of salvation “We do pray for mercy, / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/ The deeds of mercy,” (Merchant, Act 4, Sc. 1; 00-). Mercy for Shylock is not a sign of virtue but a sign of weakness; “I’ll not be made a soft and dull-ey’d fool/ To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield/ To Christian intercessors,” (Merchant, Act , Sc. ; 14-6); and when asked to show mercy to Antonio in the courtroom Shylock retorts by demanding that the law be evoked to the very letter crying “An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven! / Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?” (Merchant, Act 4, Sc. 1; 58-). In this sense, Shylock relates his impoverished sense of mercy, and his lust for vengeance with his own faith. Correspondingly, when Shylock is undone in the courtroom, the Christians strip him of his religion and force him into Christianity, as a show of their mercy, further linking the concept of mercy with a kind of spiritual salvation. Like Othello, Shylock is ultimately led to his downfall because of his role as an outsider, but for Shylock this is entirely his own doing. He seeks the very letter of the law, the kind of narrow, impersonal, interpretation of the words, which is his stereotypical characteristic, and Portia serves him just that. And as a final triumph, Portia evokes the law against “aliens” who seek the life of Venetian citizens. Thus is Shylock condemned, to the happiness of the Christians, because he is a Jew and therefore a permanent alien within the society of Venice.

Over time however, the role of Shylock has been interpreted by a number of actors in a variety of different ways. Some have turned Shylock’s plight into an entirely sympathetic one, where it is the Christians who are ultimately in the wrong; while in Nazi Germany, the play was used as a device to rally anti-Semitic sentiments, and Shylock was thus portrayed as overtly evil and malignant. Shakespeare’s own interpretation seems to lie somewhere in between these two extremes, but the overall anti-Semitic sentiments prevalent in the text would seem to suggest that Shakespeare, being only human after all, leaned closer towards the latter. However it is to his credit that the text of the play is open enough to these various interpretations, and in that respect alone, Shakespeare does indeed continue to communicate a kind of supreme shared humanity between all things mysterious and strange.

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