Three Remarkable

Shakespearean Characters

"Othello, the Moor of Venice" & "The Merchant of Venice"


·   Disciplina    :  Shakespeare: Obra e Crítica


·   Docente    :  Prof. Dr. John Milton




Title page of the first quarto (1600) 



The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between the years of 1596 and 1598. Despite of being classified as a comedy by the own author, the play is well known for its dramatic scenes, and especially remembered by its remarkable character Shylock.



S h y l o c k


Although Antonio is the central character mentioned in the title, the Jewish moneylender Shylock is the play’s most prominent figure, being one the most famous villains ever created. Audiences have both sympathy and disdain to him and, because of his usury, the play has wrongly been considered as anti-Semitic.



Shylock is, at the same time, a tormented character and a tormentor, who cries for a pound of flesh. It is a fact that Shakespeare explored Jewish stereotypes in his search for comic effects but, notwithstanding this, Shylock is presented as a complex character with a human side, being his hatred originated by all the mistreatment that he has suffered, within that Christian society.


Also, it is important to have in mind that, in order to have a better reading of the play – and especially after the events of World War II in Germany –, we must always consider that time when Shakespeare wrote his Merchant whenever analyzing it – and never our modern days, despite of the universality of themes treated in the tragedy.


Shakespeare draws Shylock as a miserly, cruel, and prosaic figure, being the link with a very first capitalism – still at those mercantile times of Venetian predominance in the 16th Century – one of the possible readings for the character, in particular, and the play, as a whole.



Title page of the first quarto edition of Othello, published in 1622 


          Othello, The Moor of Venice is a famous Shakespearean tragedy written in 1603, approximately. The play is developed around four main characters: Othello, his wife Desdemona, his lieutenant Cassio, and his trusted adviser Iago. And because of its universal themes of love, jealousy and betrayal — as well as racism —, it is still relevant in our days.



O t h e l l o


The protagonist is a Christian Moor, the general of all Venetian armies and a powerful figure respected by everyone. However, he feels insecure about his Desdemona, perhaps due to his age or race. During the play, many racial epithets are used to refer to Othello, including: “the Moor” (I.i.57), “the thick-lips” (I.i.66), “an old black ram” (I.i.88), and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113).

                   However, the eloquent Othello, a virtuous ‘outsider’ who became general, was completely manipulated by Iago, who awakened in him a powerful and destructive feeling of jealousy, arisen by his unjustified doubts concerning the honesty of his beloved wife, Desdemona.


His discursive virtues may be certified in episodes like Act I, scene iii, when he says: “Rude am I in my speech, / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (I.iii.81–82). Also, the speech preceding his suicide is considered another memorable passage of great eloquence.



I a g o


The main villain is also Othello’s own adviser, who suggests his deepest hate to the hero, throughout all the play. Although Iago’s motivations are never clear, his most ostensible reason is due to the fact that he has been passed over, in a promotion to the position of lieutenant (I.i. 7–32).


But Iago seems to have, anyway, an innate, obsessive desire for manipulation and destruction, what paradoxically converts him in a fascinating character. Other possibilities for his tremendous hatred include his suspicions that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia, as suggested at the end of Act I, scene iii: “It is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He has done my office”. Such suspicions are mentioned again at the end of Act II, scene i, when he explains his lusts after Desdemona: “wife for wife” (II.i.286).


However, none of such claims are sufficient to adequately explain Iago’s deepest hatred of Othello: according to some critics, his lack of motivation suggests even a homosexual attraction, mixed with a willing to take revenge on anyone.




Shakespeare in the Analyst’s Couch:






Iago versus Othello



According to Freudian psychoanalysis, an archetypal of the sons usurping their father’s hierarchical position is not only the basis of the Oedipus complex but, also, something intimately connected to the violent ‘killing of the primitive horde chief’, transforming the paternal horde into a community of brothers.


The original horde, despotically ruled over by a powerful male, has left indestructible traces upon the history of human descents, especially in what concerns to the development of totemism, which comprises in it the beginnings of religion, morality, and social organization.


This primitive “fable” inaugurated the Culture and may be widely noticed in all human relations throughout the times. So, similarly to the Freudian founding myth, human groups still exhibit the familiar picture of an individual with superior strength among a troop of similar companions.


The psychology of such groups correspond to a state of regression to a primitive mental activity, which hides deeper concepts like “the dwindling of the conscious individual personality; the focusing of thoughts and feelings into a common direction; the predominance of the emotions and of the unconscious mental life; and, finally, the tendency to the immediate carrying out of intentions, as they emerge” [6].


Iago’s hatred may be explained by all the already mentioned causes together, including an eventual desire for Desdemona, something similar to a banned “incest”. And, due to the moral prohibitions involved, the focus of his attractions moves from Desdemona to the figure of the strong male warrior who, just like the primitive father, also represents the Law and owns all women.


In this way, Othello personifies not only the social repressive authority but, also, Iago’s ‘superego’ (which is the responsible for censoring individual pulses) in direct conflict with his own ‘id’ (where passions and desires are originated). As a result, all of Iago’s feelings are in a whirl and, consequently, hate and desire of winning and surpassing the figure represented by Othello became the most primordial thing to be done.



The Shylock Case


The recreation of human passions in Shakespeare prematurely arose issues involving the identity and the perception of the “other”, as well as the existence of perversion in human relations. Specifically concerning Shylock, we find in him aggression, love and revenge, mixed with good and bad tensions, of selfish nature or not. He is a true bearer of the pulses of death, which are, according to Freud, the main reason that leads men to sadistic impulses.


In its conceptualizations of sadism and masochism, Freud said that there were two drives in human beings: the death pulses, represented by the Greek God Thánatos and the life pulses, represented by Eros. Love – or the living pulse – is the responsible for all civilization’s energy in favor of mutual building, conserving the institutions and thinking the “other” in a more gregarious way.


Destructiveness, on the other hand, has the function of claiming the “other” rival, while causing extreme pleasure to the aggressor. This notion of aggressiveness – modernly expressed through the selfishness – is also something very similar to causes of war and dispute.


Many years later, Karl Marx would identify the engine that puts the social machine into operation, by revealing the core of capitalism structure, much beyond the wishes and desires of individuals. It was the “Added Value” (‘Mais Valia’), which Lacan renamed, in psychoanalysis, as the “Added Joy” (‘Mais Gozar’).


According to Lacan, a similar process to that one observed in the capitalistic society could also be identified in individual psychoanalysis: a so-called “symptom” was, then, produced whenever there was a lack of a joy (‘gozo’), caused by the loss of a certain object of satisfaction, making the looser to become apathetic. In this way, the weakened individual would be, according to both psychological and capitalistic logic, someone always vulnerable to other people’s enjoyment (‘gozo’), and, consequently, remaining in ‘debt’, simply because the entitled to enjoy (‘gozar’) would be the stronger one.


Shylock’s delightful enjoyment brought, thus, the destructive force against the other rival, which malignity was evidenced through a game” (the trial), where the villain was finally able to show his power, feeling exultant with Antonio’s agony. Therefore, he did all his best to have his promised pound of flesh, irrespectively of the opponent’s despair or the (in)utility of the demanded good (flesh).


In Shylock’s case, the more pathological feature was the great value – or fetish – attributed to money, which power allowed him to recover his joy (‘gozo’), through the purchase of his own dignity. However, he was beaten by the force of Venice’s laws and, especially, because of Portia’s wise intervention.



B i b l i o g r a p h y:




[1]     COLERIDGE, Samuel Taylor. Lectures on Shakespeare. In Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Routledge, 1990.


[2]     SHAKESPEARE, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. London: Thomson Learning, 2006.


[3]     SHAKESPEARE, William. The Merchant of Venice. London: Signet/Penguin, 1963.


[4]     HEILBRONER, Robert L. The Nature and Logics of Capitalism. New York: Norton Place Publishers, 1985.


[5]     FREUD, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo (1918) In Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 2005.


[6]     FREUD, Sigmund. A Psicologia das Massas e a Análise do Ego (1923). In. Obras Completas, vol. XVIII. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1969.


[7]     FREUD, Sigmund. O Ego e o Id (1923) In Obras Completas, vol. XIX. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1969.


[8]     LACAN, Jacques. O Seminário – Livro 22, RSI. Rio de Janeiro: Campo Matêmico, 2006.