Self-Fashioning during the Renaissance: Overcoming Stereotypes with Bloodshed and Betrayal

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London

Many of Shakespeare’s main characters were domineering individuals that overrode societal constructs to create their own reality, engaging in self-fashioning on stage if they could not in the realm of 17th century London, Venice, or any other major city of trade.

Shakespeare was ahead of his time with many of his ideas, and through his work he firmly establishes himself as a liberal writer and thinker. However, Shakespeare was still crucially aware in all of his plays of the concept of destiny.

In The Merchant of Venice (a comedy), and Othello (a tragedy), both Shylock and Desdemona strive to overcome the seemingly arbitrary hands of fate to act of their own autonomous will and to rise above the caste system in the times in which they lived.

Shakespeare used these two characters to create a sustained metaphor to comment on the renaissance concept of self-fashioning by giving the victory, in the end, to The Wheel of Fortune.

Queen Elizabeth could not have been unaware of the self-governing females in Shakespeare’s work, and perhaps was even inspired by some of them or on the other hand, warned.

The character Desdemona, in Othello, was one woman who stood up for herself against her father and the whole of Venetian society to marry the moor, Othello. It was more than just her choice of a husband, but the fact that she was an eloquent speaker on her own behalf, and convinced the Duke to allow her to go with Othello to war that made Desdemona so dynamic (Act I, Scene iii, 244-254). In the end though it was not Desdemona’s independent nature that saved her, instead in an ironic twist of fate, it was her beauty that undid her, something she had no control over.

On the same token, Shylock was also quite capable of speaking on his own behalf and was one of the most articulate and expressive characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays. “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? […] warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?” (Act III, scene I, 48-53) is one of the most moving monologues in or outside of Shakespearian drama.

The 2004 film The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, began with illuminating text on the screen that puts the play in historical context. The commentary clarified that during the Elizabethan era Jews were forced into ghettoes and that many became moneylenders charging usury because they were not allowed to own property.

This immediately set this production up to be sympathetic to the Jews. Moreover, the interpretation of Shylock by Al Pacino was played in such a way that created empathy for the character who was seen as both victim and victimizer. Several phrases being left out such as, “I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool […] to Christian intercessors,” (Act III, scene iii, 14-16) created a production that was definitely taking a more liberal view of the situation by painting Shylock as someone who portrayed a stereotypical Jew because that was the role society forced him into.

Shakespeare, with Desdemona, was working with the sustained metaphor of a strong female being caught between self-fashioning and the stereotypical, more far reaching and predominant thought pattern of the civilized world during the sixteen hundreds as women being beneath men, or of a baser nature. Shakespeare’s comment on women being the lowest on the totem pole of life was so strong and undeniable in the fact that the moor, already seen as a lower being during that time was the one to have smothered her.

The erotically charged murder scene between husband and wife does more to romanticize violence against women than modern day pornography, so it becomes difficult to argue that Shakespeare was a liberal writer without explaining the context of the scene. During the whole of the play, the character Iago moved the other characters around like so many pawns in a game of chess.

He played upon their insecurities (the things about them that they cannot control) and he was the gate keeper for The Wheel of Fortune in that whenever a character attempted to define themselves he craftily moved them back to the role in life that society demanded they play. However, it was not just that Iago was especially good at manipulation and control, but that his power came from the fact that he represented the social order as a whole.

Shakespeare commented on the destructive nature of the populace’s collective thinking by disrupting and violently ending an otherwise perfectly loving marriage. Besides, the Elizabethan audiences reveled in shocking drama and would pack the theaters for the newest play about treachery and murder, so Shakespeare was clever to give them what they wanted, which in a way could mask his criticism of the times.

To look at the script for The Merchant of Venice as it is, the outcomes for the characters, and the dialogue, there is much reason to believe that Shakespeare specifically set out to create a play that used a common Jewish stereotype, but one that people would be sympathetic to.

Shylock lost his daughter, Jessica: “How now, Tubal, what news from Genoa? Hast thou found my daughter?” (Act III, scene i, 67-68) Then Tubal replied that he “often came where [he] did hear of her, but [could not] find her.” (Act III, scene i, 69)

Shakespeare then did something interesting in the script; he seemed to play on Jewish stereotypes, something that perhaps people of the day would have understood, something that would thicken the plot so to speak, and certainly something to think about for any actor who plays Shylock when his reply to Tubal is, “Would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them?” (Act III, scene I, 75) And then when Tubal tried to cheer him up by telling him that Antonio had lost an argosy, Shylock replied, “I thank God.” (Act III, scene I, 85)

This scene was remarkable because it started out with Shylock inquiring whether Tubal had found Jessica. When Tubal replied in the negative, Shylock started lamenting his monetary losses. Would it have been lost on the English theatre-goers that he did not start off by asking where his money was and then lamenting the loss of his daughter? I doubt it. In fact I would suggest that the theatre goers would have been expecting Shylock to inquire first to his money and when he did not it was Shakespeare’s way of sustaining the metaphor that this character, this Jew, was actively engaged in attempting to overcome cultural expectations of his race or engaging in what is referred to now as self-fashioning.

Othello played right into the hands of Iago, or of society itself since I noted earlier that Iago can be seen as a representative speaking on behalf of the society, when he chooses to smother his beautiful, young bride. The reason he gave for strangling her was so as “not scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,” (Act V, Scene ii, 4).

Othello’s first inclination had been to poison Desdemona. It can be debated that poisoning is a womanly way to murder which thusly can be interpreted as a sort of emasculation of Othello in a symbolic way prior to the murder even happening.

There is also a good chance that the marriage between the two lovers had never been consummated, further eroticizing the scene with intonations of forced sex, no doubt playing on racist stereotypes of the era, and also continuing with the metaphor that one cannot, no matter what (unless it is in regards to Utopia) overcome his or her position in life.

It was unnatural for the moor to marry this woman, it was unnatural for this woman to go against her father and society and out of the ordinary for her to go to war and in the end they are punished brutally for their attempts at self fashioning.

Othello-Desdemona by Eugène Delacroix, French Romanticist, 1800s

Othello-Desdemona by Eugène Delacroix, French Romanticist, 1800s

When Iago said to Othello, “Do it not with poison. Strangle her in the bed, even the bed she hath contaminated,” (Act IV, scene i, 209-210) Othello replied, “The justice of it pleases,” (Act IV, scene i, 211). For Othello it was pretty basic and literal and this way he would not have to mar her physical perfection that so captivated him.

Ironically though it was her very beauty that convinced him of her guilt. Othello also believed what society held true about his own physicality being unattractive alongside the racist standards of Venice, and therefore, for social reasons, Desdemona would not have been able to remain faithful to him. When Othello smothered Desdemona in their marriage bed he was essentially repressing their mutually contrived plan to overcome societal constructs.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s end comes when he shamefully gets blindsided and outsmarted by the Protestant (cross-dressing) female Portia, in court:

Tarry a little, there is something else. This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood. The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.” Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh; But and in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate unto the state of Venice. (Act IV, scene i, 300-307).

Michael Radford 2004 Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock and Jeremy Irons (the one tied up) as Antonio.

Michael Radford's 2004 Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock and Jeremy Irons (the one tied up) as Antonio.

This turn of events effectively humiliates Shylock. Throughout the play he had been certain that justice would prevail, and again, ironically, it does, just not the way our misunderstood antagonist would have wanted it to. The audience of course was in on the joke, making it that much more poignant to them.

Now depending on how an actor played this scene it could come across as something Shylock deserved and perhaps then when the final judgment is declared there would be comedy at his dilemma. Certainly though the tension created with the dialogue in that scene suggests that it was really a dark type of humor that Shakespeare was aiming to come across.

To make Shylock even more piteous, his daughter has left him for the very people who had wronged him, the Christians. “Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew?” (Act 5, scene i, 15). At the time of speaking this Lorenzo and Jessica of course had no idea what has happened in court and that her father is ruined.

They do not know until the very end that Shylock has left the couple money, and they never find out that he was forced into it and ultimately forced into accepting the marriage when Antonio renders his judgment, “I am content, so he will let me have the other half in use to render it upon his death unto the gentleman that lately stole his daughter.” (Act IV, scene 1, 376-379). 

With Shylock, Shakespeare created a dynamic character that was at once piteous and cruel and he did this specifically to point out to his audience that while Shylock is unlikable at turns, he is also human and experiences such a bitter outcome that many of his faults are forgiven because one simply gets the feeling at the end of it all that Shylock has suffered enough.

Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, c.1592

Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, c.1592 Queen Elizabeth supported the arts and practiced self-fashioning during the Renaissance.

For historical perspective, remember that Queen Elizabeth was a contemporary audience member of these plays.

The story of the Jew would not have been lost on her any more than the tragedy of the oppressed and autonomy seeking Desdemona would have been.

I imagine her paying close attention to these plays and making firm decisions about what not to do (life imitating art) in her own, some would say usurped station in life.

Shakespeare was a master at manipulating emotion. He knew the right words that would have the most effect. He wrote very deliberately.

With Shylock, Shakespeare created a character that adhered to many of the common ideas of Semitic stereotypes while simultaneously becoming a dynamic individual who was both predator and prey and who was actively engaged in self-fashioning.

With Desdemona, Shakespeare created a woman who attempted to have some input to the direction of her life and is perversely cut down in the prime of it due to the stereotypical notion (that persists even today) that a beautiful woman is a whore. Ultimately, neither Shylock nor Desdemona can triumph over the general public’s model of society despite how intelligent and determined they both are.

That does not mean to downplay either of what these two characters achieved, because certainly despite the rather bleak outcomes in both of the plays, the two individuals did determine from the beginning that they would not lay down and passively accept the pervasive agenda of Venice that marginalized groups of people based on inherent qualities like gender, religion and race.

They at least attempted to supersede societal constructs to create their own reality, and that was key to the whole notion of the renaissance movement. Both Shylock and Desdemona are betrayed, one murdered by her husband, the other, left by his daughter and forced to convert to Christianity endures a type of death or if nothing else, a living hell.

In a sense, these two characters became martyrs to self-fashioning; their struggles became the struggles of men everywhere as they strove to define and transform themselves in a world designed against that success. Furthermore, by creating two dynamic and empathetic under-dog type characters and pitting them against society, Shakespeare proved himself to be a freethinking writer, much ahead of his time, and provided a framework for conscious social change for the audiences of his day.


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