Shakespeare's Venetian Paradigm: Stereotyping and Sadism in the Merchant of Venice and Othello

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English Renaissance literary commonplaces about Venice find scant confirmation in Shakespeare's Venetian plays: The Merchant of Venice and Othello. For the Earls of Southampton and Essex and for many literate English Protestants, Venice was the model of republican government, the alternative to monarchy for disaffected subjects of Elizabeth. Additionally, it became in English minds a center of international trade and commerce, which made possible the flowering of Italian Renaissance painting, architecture, and culture (Berry 252; McPherson 28-29, 32-36). Set against these positive images of the city was the corrupt Italianate Venice, the festering sister of Rome and Amalfi, the setting of Ben Jonson's Volpone, the generic Italian locus of charlatans, lechers, courtesans, and poisons. (1) Yet Shakespeare's Venice in the above-mentioned comedy and tragedy is none of these cities. Shakespeare shows little or no interest in depicting the workings of the famous enfranchising republican government of Venice, (2) nor does he describe the details of the paintings or opulent buildings that Venetian commerce had made possible. He never mentions the most famous piazza of Europe--that of St. Mark's--or the Arsenal or the Grand Canal or the Jewish ghetto (Salingar 174). The Venice of Shakespeare's plays is not the city of Ben Jonson, composed in Volpone of no fewer than seventeen topographies such as the Pescaria and the Incurabili (Parker 194); nor is it the Italianate metropolitan stereotype of John Webster, replete with toxic Bibles and paintings, the vehicles of diabolical Catholic bishops and Machiavellian counts (Praz 95, 96; Oz 191). Instead, Shakespeare's Venice in both The Merchant of Venice and Othello activates a disturbing paradigm dependent upon the city's multicultural reputation.

Shakespeare's Venice encapsulates certain dynamic relationships between a persecutory Christian culture and a potentially savage alien--a Turk, a Moor, or a Jew--who exists both without and within the city. For this playwright, the name "Venice" denotes the place where these dynamics can be described and explored. Venice's commerce depends upon the usurious finance made possible only by the Jew, and the city's unwarlike senators look elsewhere for the rugged general required to protect them from the Turk. Unfortunately, individual Venetians stereotype and persecute the necessary "foreign" alien. They do so because a counterpart to the "foreign" alien has surfaced figuratively within their hearts and minds, where it has slept dormant. This alien within, once precipitated, seeks relief by the exercise of destructive power. This malign power manifests itself mainly through the affected Venetian's intensified stereotyping of others and the sadistic persecution that stereotyping makes possible--not only of the "foreign" Venetian alien but of other, non-aliens as well. Othello's hatred of Desdemona derives from Iago's accelerated persecution of him with the image of his wife as the stereotypic subtle whore of Venice, an identity whose mystery in the Moor's mind matches the enigma of a European people who have never completely accepted the warrior who yearns to be one of them.

By imagining Desdemona in the arms of Cassio, Othello pictures his wife in the arms of a man who has implicitly likened Desdemona to the goddess Venus by praising her "divine" beauty arisen from the sea that threatened her. Shakespeare may have thought that Venice took its name from Venus, the goddess of love. Paradoxically, in both The Merchant of Venice and Othello, the city of love becomes the city of hate, when its inhabitants--both native and alien alike--create the ruinous dynamics of stereotyping and persecution just described. Put simply, Venice is the Shakespearean place name for compulsive stereotyping, the conversion of love into hatred that this stereotyping occasions, and the place where the rectification of this conversion proves unsatisfying as a long-term solution. …