Sexism. Racism. Anti-Semitism. Power. Despite being written over 400 years ago the vast works of William Shakespeare still see praise among scholars and worldwide reproduction, and it’s because we still encounter many of the themes in his plays today.
Shakespeare’s themes have not vanished as the world progressed past his time, and while the characters depicted provide a reflection of the people, prejudices and struggles that we deal with in our lives or witness others dealing with. This relatability is partly why Shakespeare’s plays are so special. They transport us into unique worlds unlike our own and yet, we view these plays through the lens of characters and emotions that are familiar to us.
English professor Nina Floro explained the appeal of Shakespeare to students.
“The beauty of literature is that you can look at it from so many different angles,” Floro said. “If someone’s a history major, they can look at the historical aspects of a play, and how it represents the times then, and how it parallels the times now.”
Racism is the most prominent theme in “Othello,” and
Floro said she likes going back to “Othello” because of the issues presented that are still relevant today: interracial marriage, gender issues, and gender dynamics.
For those who are not at all familiar with “Othello” here is a description of the relationships that drive the play:
“Othello” is about the relationship between a powerful Venetian general of African ethnicity the title character, and his dedicated and loyal Venetian wife Desdemona. The villain is Iago, a man who Othello believes to be his best friend but who actually seeks to destroy him.
As the play progresses, Othello is tricked by Iago into believing that Desdemona is unfaithful to him and must be killed. In the finale of the play, Othello brutally kills his wife and then kills himself after learning the truth of the situation.
“I think we could relate to Othello as a black man in a white society, who is operating in a world in which he is misperceived,” Floro said.
This struggle isn’t unique to “Othello”. the struggle of having to function in a world that is so unlike what we know is something we may have dealt with. Moving to a new country or a new state or even as simple as getting a new job, that feeling of isolation is relatable to us as we read the play or watch an adaptation.
“Othello also knows that he is a minority in a white world,” Floro said. “He knows he has all these characteristics, but yet he knows he’s different, and Iago uses that to destroy Othello as well; it causes him to doubt his strengths.”
Professor Katharine Harer, an English professor at Skyline also said this on the topic:
“I think the reason why Iago is so successful in convincing Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful and deserves to be killed, is because on some level Othello is not secure about himself. And I think it has to do with the fact that he is in this culture, that’s not his culture,” Harer said.
This self-doubt present in “Othello” is likely also present among some minorities today who may feel reservations about their strengths because of the way society or the people they know treat them.
‘The Merchant of Venice’
“The Merchant of Venice” is another glaring example of blatant prejudice as a theme. However, it is unclear with this play how much of the racism presented was a commentary by Shakespeare, and how much of it was a reflection of his own beliefs.
In the play, Shylock is a money lender and the villain, who seeks to claim a pound of flesh from Antonio, a wealthy nobleman and noted Christian who is in debt to Shylock. Shylock is also Jewish, and this is where a lot of the resentment toward him is derived from. Jewish hatred still exists today as well, just last month a synagogue was attacked in Poway, California. The attacker shot and killed one person, and injured three more. The mayor of Poway labeled the attack as a hate crime.
English professor Lucia Lachmayr had this to say about the disrespect that is given to one’s identity:
“Look at our last presidential election,” Lachmayr said. “They wouldn’t call her ‘candidate Clinton’, it was Hillary.” Lachmayr claims that calling her by her first name was less respectful than the titles given to other candidates.
This unaddressed disrespect towards former Presidential Candidate and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be due to her being a woman, as the other candidates in that election were not conventionally addressed by their first name.
“It was that, and then this connection to George Soros, where he is like this boogeyman to the far right,” Lachmayr said. “When you look at how the right depicts him, it’s Shylock, and by dint of him being Jewish, every trope comes up.”
George Soros is a Hungarian-born philanthropist and investor who has donated vast sums of money to various causes, and has supported democratic politicians. His Jewish heritage has caused him to be the target of many kinds of attacks in the right-wing media, from racist remarks to an attempt on his life.
“George Soros is supposed to be Jewish, but you wouldn’t know it from the damage he’s inflicted on Israel and the fact that he turned on fellow Jews and helped take the property that they owned,” said U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert, in an anti-semitic criticism of George Soros during an interview.
Attacks like this are not uncommon for Soros. On the more violent side of attacks, an explosive device was sent to his house in 2018; this also happened to other democratic politicians.
A lot of this repeated resentment comes down to how easy it is to attach negative stigma or stereotypes to a simple part of one’s identity and how often people buy into these stereotypes.
While Shylock may not have been the target of mail bombs in “The Merchant of Venice”, verbal attacks like the ones George Soros receives are scattered throughout the play, and an example of this is in Act 1, Scene 3 where Antonio calls Shylock a “misbeliever,” and Shylock recalls how Antonio spat on his “Jewish gaberdine”. Antonio then responds by saying he would do it again, which accurately demonstrates the disrespect that Antonio feels towards Shylock throughout the play.
Additionally, Shylock’s own daughter Jessica says this about her heritage in Act 2, Scene 3:
“Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father’s child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife.”
In this quote, Jessica clearly states her resentment of her Jewish heritage. In the first part, she essentially says, “I may be Jewish, but I am not like my father” to imply that there is something innately undesirable about Jewish people. In the second line, she states that converting to Christianity would end the strife of being Jewish, implying that being a Christian is superior or more desirable than being a Jew.
An example of this attitude of Christian superiority was in 2017, where Vice President Mike Pence made the claim that Christians are the most persecuted religious people in the world despite the evidence against that claim.
“Throughout the world, no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred, than followers of Christ,” Pence said.
In his speech, Pence attempted to victimize Christianity, portraying it as though we should be sympathetic to its followers and their struggles. He claimed that the Christian faith is under siege, and while Pence is correct that anti-Christian morale is present in certain parts of the world and we should acknowledge that fact, he placed the struggle of modern Christians on a pedestal, thus indirectly leeching attention from other modern religious groups that are under attack.
Reading Shakespeare may seem like a daunting task, with an unfamiliar language and characters that seem so distant, but in reality, those characters’ experiences are often not too far from our own. For those who like reading, it is definitely worth picking up a copy of one of his plays.