By Sheridan Bascombe
Sheridan wrote this essay for the 4140 Shakespeare course in Fall 2019. It is an exemplary work of literary analysis with far-reaching implications beyond its immediate subject matter.
—Dr. Laura Kolb, Assistant Professor of English
In modern feminist theory, the concept of a “glass ceiling” refers to the invisible social barrier that keeps women from progressing, especially in areas that are dominated by men. The glass ceiling is commonly invoked when discussing women in the workplace. However, as Shakespeare demonstrates in both The Merchant of Venice and Othello, a glass ceiling is in play anytime individuals from a certain group are discreetly and silently barred from moving further into a society while being told, overtly or covertly, otherwise. Reputable characters like Othello, the prince of Morocco, and Jessica are welcomed with seemingly open arms and treated politely, until they threaten the white and Christian homogeneity of Venice, a setting chosen for its geography. As a coastal city in Italy, Venice makes for an ideal trading port. However, with trade comes cultural influence from other societies and increased diversity in a given population. Suddenly, people like Othello, who is of African descent, can dwell in a white city in Europe. Additionally, many of Shakespeare’s plays, including the two in question, focus on the importance of reputation, which is the image that the public may hold of an individual, and how a person’s reputation can decide where they stand in society. However, although it is rarely acknowledged, reputation is not the only thing that impacts social standing and respect. Othello has a perfect reputation on paper, but his skin and ancestry keep him from experiencing Venice the same way that a white Christian can. This is the working of the glass ceiling, which is so translucent, that those who bar outsiders from coming in can pretend that it does not exist, while also keeping it in place. This paper will therefore argue that a good reputation is not the only thing that secures status and respect. Characters who are not white or Christian are not only judged based on their reputation, but also the characteristics that make them outsiders. The deep-seated anxiety associated with changing demographics allows white Christians to treat minorities politely while barring them from social advancement and keeping them separate.
One example of a minority character being treated well to his face but spoken of as a distinct other when he is not around is the prince of Morocco, simply referred to as “Morocco.” Portia, a white woman whose father has set up a contest to decide who her husband will be, and who will inherit his fortune, learns that one of her suitors is Moroccan and states, “if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me” (1.2.129). Portia is asserting that if the Prince of Morocco is faultless in every aspect except for his color, she will not want him. She says that he could be a “saint,” meaning that he can be an exceptionally good Christian, but he will never be an acceptable husband. In fact, she would trust him with her mortal soul, but she would not wish to marry him. Morocco’s character does not matter, when it comes to joining her family, if he is Black. This is easily an example of racism, as Portia has no other reason to be opposed to Morocco. She also describes his skin color as that “of a devil.” Comparing dark skin to the devil suggests an innate evil or bad-ness in the Prince of Morocco. Portia believes that even if he has the temperament of the godliest person, he will still never be as good as someone with white skin. This association between dark skin and the devil also reveals how Morocco is being pushed into the “other” category. He is not like Portia, who, in great contrast, is light in every way, from her skin to her hair, as Bassanio describes her, “she is fair, and, fairer than that word… her sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece” (1.1.171). Portia’s beauty is tied in with her pale whiteness. Portia lives in a world of people with light skin, and Morocco, no matter what he is like, will always be an outsider.
Despite her unkind sentiments, Portia treats Morocco as though he is a white Christian man when they meet face-to-face. Essentially, she pretends to be “colorblind.” After Morocco suggests that Portia should not count him out for the color of his skin, she responds, “if my father had not scanted me / And hedged me by his wit to yield myself / His wife who wins me by that means I told you, / Yourself, renownèd prince, then stood as fair / As any comer I have looked on yet / For my affection” (2.1.17). Despite Portia’s prejudices, she acts as though she is not prejudiced at all. Portia is claiming that even if her father had not created the contest, and she was in control instead, Morocco would have a fair shot at being chosen. However, the audience knows that if Portia had her choice, she would never marry him; in fact, she says as much when she states that she would rather he “shrive” her than “wive” her. This show of equality, while thinking otherwise, demonstrates the unwillingness to allow outsiders in. Portia is outwardly polite to Morocco, but she sees him as nothing more than other. She acts as though there is no difference between him and the other suitors, but there is a large difference that she is unable to acknowledge to him, even after he points it out. Morocco is not a suitable husband to Portia, not because of a bad reputation, but because he is not white.
Morocco and Othello share a degree of social acceptance that dissolves when it comes to marriage. Othello is treated with kindness before his marriage to Desdemona is revealed. Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, attempts to have Othello punished for marrying his daughter. However, when explaining how he came to woo Desdemona, Othello states, “her father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life” (1.3.149). This statement reveals that Othello and Brabantio shared a friendship, and that Othello was a frequent guest in Brabantio’s home before the marriage. Brabantio’s past acceptance of Othello is heavily based on Othello’s great reputation, as their relationship centered on Brabantio’s interest in Othello’s stories. Therefore, Brabantio respected Othello and enjoyed his company when there was no threat that Othello would marry Desdemona. Still, even this friendship is tricky, as it reveals a white Christian interest in people who are other for entertainment purposes, while still keeping them separate and seeing them as less human. This is evident in Brabantio’s reaction after the marriage is revealed and all niceties are put away. Brabantio claims, “ay, to me. / She is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks; / For nature so prepost’rously to err— / Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense— / Sans witchcraft could not” (1.3.72). Like the Prince of Morocco, Othello is being linked not only to otherness, but also to the opposite of a Christian. Brabantio is claiming that Othello used witchcraft to woo Desdemona because he cannot see any other reason for Desdemona to choose Othello of all men. Specifically, Brabantio gives the reason that Desdemona is not “deficient, blind, or lame of sense” as to why she could not have chosen Othello of her own free will. This idea suggests that Desdemona should not have married Othello for reasons that would be clear to her senses. Instead of loving him for his reputation and his stories, she should have seen that he was Black and not fit to join her family. Brabantio’s flip from being Othello’s friend to hating him demonstrates how powerful the fear of a changing Venice and a less white family is. Brabantio does not want Othello as a son-in-law because he knows that this means that Othello, an other, will be in his family and a part of him. Therefore, when Othello was simply visiting Brabantio and telling him stories, he was unknowingly sitting right beneath the glass ceiling, in a place that was comfortable for Brabantio to respect Othello and his reputation as a heroic Moor while keeping his distance. By marrying Desdemona, Othello has innocently fractured the ceiling, and disrupted Brabantio’s sense of comfort. Othello’s good reputation can do very little to protect him from Brabantio’s rising discomfort with having a Moor join his family. The polite nature of relationships between white Christians and Black characters is only there to mask a tension of growing changes in the Venetian population. A Moor can be as reputable as a prince or a warrior, but they will still be a source of anxiety to the white majority who would like to keep them separate.
However, aside from race, characters are also barred from society for following a non-Christian religion. Despite her marriage to Lorenzo, a Christian, Jessica, who is Jewish, is unable to escape antisemitism, even after she converts to Christianity. However, like Othello, Jessica has a pristine reputation, and, unlike him, aside from her Jewish ancestry, she can blend perfectly into the white Christian society. In fact, in describing Jessica to her father, a hated Jewish man, Salarino declares, “there is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory” (3.1.38). Salarino states that Jessica is nothing like her Jewish father. He compares Shylock’s flesh to Black, while Jessica’s is compared to white. Shylock’s flesh being Black places him in the realm of far other-ness. It is as though Salarino is suggesting that Shylock may as well have black skin like Othello or Morocco, or even the devil, as Portia says. However, Jessica, who was raised Jewish, has her blood compared to “ivory.” Salarino is commenting that Jessica has the blood and manner of a white person. She is like himself and all the other white characters in every obvious way. She is treated like a Christian, but she is not always regarded positively.
After her marriage to Lorenzo and official entry into white Christian society, Jessica is met with push-back. Lancelet, who is not just the Fool, but also a friend to Jessica, says, “truly, then, I fear you are damned both by father and mother; thus when I shun Scylla your father, I fall into Charybdis your mother. Well, you are gone both ways” (3.5.14). Although Jessica has done everything in her power to be an insider, Lancelet still tells her that she is damned because she is Jewish. Jessica has converted to Christianity and completely disowned her father, and yet, white Christian characters refuse to see her the way they see themselves and each other. She will forever have her Jewish past etched to her and she will always be kept outside of society. Interestingly, after her marriage to Lorenzo, with the exception of the top of the fifth Act, which begins with banter between Lorenzo and his wife, Jessica speaks very little. In fact, in Act three, Scene four, she only speaks one line, “I wish your Ladyship all heart’s content” (3.4.43) in response to Portia’s graciousness. Jessica becomes a background observer who does not speak often. She goes from a reputation of being the lovely Jewish woman, to the woman who tries to enter into Christian white society but is still regarded as other. The Christians are possibly fonder of Jessica before her conversion because there is no threat of her trying to shatter the ceiling. Like Othello, she sits right under it until she marries Lorenzo and attempts to become an insider. Other characters respond by trying to remind her that she is not the same as a Christian, that she is Jewish and will never fully assimilate.
All in all, Othello and The Merchant of Venice highlight the slippery boundaries of bigotry in Shakespearian Venice. Shakespeare does so by creating characters who have all of the proper reputational attributes that society mandates except one, whether skin color or religion. He shows the lack of fairness in barring people from society due to something that they cannot control, instead of through reputation, which can be shaped by the individual in many cases. This distinction creates an inequality that is rarely acknowledged, but still real, and still active. This ambivalence to minorities, whether racial or religious, exposes the deep-seated anxiety that white Christians feel when confronted with the idea of a demographical shift. A change in population can change the way individuals within a society see themselves. Brabantio would rather disown his daughter than welcome a Moor into his family because he believes that Othello will mar the whiteness of everyone. Brabantio will be less white, and so will Desdemona. Moreover, Othello and Desdemona’s offspring will be less white as well, and Brabantio’s bloodline will forever be intertwined with blackness. However, the fear cannot reveal itself until there is a threat, which is why Brabantio is friendly towards Othello before the marriage. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s display of color-blind and tone-deaf responses from those in power when they are confronted with people who wish to integrate can be expanded to today. Perhaps this is why the glass ceiling argument lends itself so well to Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice from The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/the-merchant-of-venice/
—. Othello from The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/othello/
Published May 27, 2021