Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice”: An Embodiment of the Marxist Ideology of Reification

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Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice”: An Embodiment of the Marxist Ideology of Reification

Amal Bou Sleimane*

I am a writer of English poetry and a member in the Byron worldwide organization. I also participated in many conferences abroad in Paris, Georgia, Armenia. My latest paper was published in the proceedings called “Byron: Space and Time in Armenia”. I also published a book called Fallen Masks in June 2019 which has had a great success.

          Generally linked to the theoretical framework of capitalist society, Karl Marx’s theory of alienation has been appropriated by the field of sociology, narrowing its focus from an “[…] analysis of capitalist production relations to the study of individual attitudes” (Burris 1). Social alienation is the estrangement—or Entfremdungin Marxian terms—of people from phases of their human nature as a result of living in a socially stratified society; an estrangement that forms the “[…] opposition of in itself and for itself, of consciousness and self-consciousness, of object and subject” (Marx, Economic Philosophic Manuscripts 110). Such contradictions are manifested in most of Shakespeare’s influential characters who have gone through social alienation by means of reification; that is, the objectification of these characters and their social relations. Portia in The Merchant of Venice, as well as Othello’s Desdemona, are two of Shakespeare’s devotedly subordinate woman whose victimization is highlighted and dramatized, one by her submission to her father’s will and the other by her obedience to her husband, respectively. The diminution of these two subjects’ autonomy transforms them into characteristically reified products of the patriarchal society in which they live. In this paper, I will try to illustrate the embodiment of the above mentioned Marxist ideology in Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” and show the influence of the economic realm in social relations such as marriage, friendship, love, religious ideologies.

          While studying Marxism in their book entitled Comparing Economic Systems in the Twenty-First Century, Paul Gregory and Robert Stuart assert that  

          Marxism builds on a materialist understanding of societal development […] [t]he form of economic organization or mode of production is understood to be the basis from which the    majority of other social phenomena – including social relations, political and legal systems,           morality and ideology – arise. (62)

This is evident in the two plays through the interdependence between the economic modes of production and the social relations. In his texts, Shakespeare shows the way these human relations are considered as commodities, financial investments or mere economic exchanges between individuals whose humans’ relationships are subverted into relationships between objects. Living in a society where men dominate, two of Shakespeare’s female protagonists, Portia and Desdemona, are alienated from their human rights and nature as independent beings, and are therefore regarded as the mechanistic passive part of their society. However, living with such a fatal destiny was not a very satisfactory idea that they could simply yield to, and that resulted in their triumphant, rebellion for their own freedom. Even though the two characters are reified by their society, yet they metamorphose into active subjects. The question then is

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** Phd Scholar in English Literature at theLebanese universi y2nd year.

what are the tools Shakespeare uses in order to transmit the Marxist ideology to the audience? What is the role of Marx’s theory of reification and where does it appear in his plays? How can we relate this theory in the analysis of the characters and the different ideologies presented in the play?

          In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare contrasts social relations based on charity and love with social relations based on financial self-interest. Accordingly, he contrasts two religions (Christianity and Jewish) and opposite mentalities (the Jews’ and the Christians’) and presents the conventional perception of both by the community. The playwright then moves further to show that even though these relations seem to be contradictory in people’s perceptions yet, they are similar in the way they both represent mere economic transactions between individuals. For the purpose of illustrating his point of view, Shakespeare uses Marx’s theory of reification which, according to Marx, occurs “[…] where people appear to be no more than things” and social relations become “[…] material relations between persons and social relations between things… [resulting in] the conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things.”(Capital: 209).  Shakespeare pinpoints at the importance of the practice of usury in the Jewish community as a mean for living for the Jewish people and the basic principle in Jews’ relationships with others in society, Shylock proudly proclaims: “I hate him [Antonio] for he is Christian;/But more, for that in low simplicity/He lends out money gratis” (1.3. 37-38-39).

          Moreover, the practice of usury subverts the subjects involved in the process into objects of exchange Accordingly, Shylock equates the ducats to Antonio’s pound of flesh resulting in the conversion of the flesh or Antonio himself into ducats. Consequently, Antonio (represented by the flesh) as a subject becomes the object (the ducats). Hence, due to the charging of interest “[…] wealth loses its purely instrumental quality and acquires an uncanny capacity to ‘breed’, reproduce, like a live organism” (Greenblatt, Stephen et al 1115). Consequently, the practice of usury becomes a process of reproduction resulting in the birth of money or the profit the lender receives as interest. Therefore, usury resembles the human sexual act: it gives birth to money (the interest) which becomes as a living organism that is capable of reproducing more money in case it is activated through another usury/sexual activity. Shylock also equates his daughter with the ducats as he walks on the streets upon Jessica’s flight crying: “O, my ducats! O, my daughter! [… ]/ My ducats and my daughter” (2.8. 15-17). Shakespeare shows the contradictory perception of the Christian community for the charging of money with interest and their ultimate refusal and disdain for the individuals who practice it. However, he uncovers their similarities with the Jews mainly in their social relationships such as marriage and friendships, social relations which has become mere economic transactions.

          Moreover, the Renaissance Christians believe that “[t]he central virtues in this religious system are […] charity and mercy” (Greenblatt, Stephen et al: 1115); therefore, individuals should give money to others whenever they are in need without asking for interest. Antonio says to Shylock: “If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not/ As to thy friends; for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?” (1.3. 126-8) and when Bassanio asks Antonio for money, this latter responds: “And out of doubt you do me now more wrong/In making question of my uttermost’’ (1.1. 155- 6). Even though Antonio insists on helping his friends when they are in need without any interest yet Antonio’s friendship with Bassanio is a relationship based on self-interest. Antonio’s language expresses subtle feelings of homosexual love towards Bassanio, the former affirms: “My purse, my person, my extremist means/ Lie all unlocked to your occasions [Bassanio’s]” (1.1. 137-8) as if his body and soul are available for Bassanio’s pleasure. Antonio also declares: “Pray God Bassanio come/ To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (3.3. 35-36). Accordingly, the idea of being in love with Bassanio explains the reason behind Antonio’s risking his life and money to help his friend. Antonio offers the money to Bassanio as an endeavor to win his love, an attempt to attract this latter through lucrative means or buying his love; thus, subverting the abstract concept of love into a product bought with 3000 ducats.

          Antonio then is the Potlatch who offers the gift with no obvious intention of gaining interest. However, he indirectly compels the receiver to give him back a counter-gift. According to Mauss, the gift “[…] deals with economy, exchange, contract (do ut des), it speaks of raising the stakes, sacrifice, gift and counter-gift” (qtd. in Given Time: 24). The gift then is not exempt from the economic realm as it obliges the receiver to repay the donor with a gift more precious and more valuable than the one received. In order to “[…] satisfy the obligation that was contracted [to him] by accepting” (Bataille: 202). Bassanio then offers “The dearest ring of Venice” (4.1. 431), to the judge upon Antonio’s request as a counter-gift for this latter; a sign of gratitude and recognition for Antonio. Thus, Bassanio and Antonio’s friendship becomes the relationship between the ducats and the ring, a simple exchange of commodities.

          Moreover, in spite of his debts, Bassanio spends a huge amount of money on his trip to Belmont and presents “Gifts of rich value” (2.9. 90) to Portia. Hence, Bassanio becomes the Potlatch who creates the spectacle through his destruction of wealth, gambling with Antonio’s money and life hoping to be lucky enough to win Portia, the price. According to Bataille, “it [Potlatch] is the constitution of a positive property of loss- from which spring nobility, honour and rank in a hierarchy- that gives the institution its significant value” (173). The destruction of the gift moves the individual (in this case Bassanio) from being an object dominated by the rational economic system into a subject.

          The excess of expenditure creates a new identity for Bassanio, a simulacrum of the right social class, higher rank and superiority over the other suitors in the competitive game of the caskets. The messenger describes Bassanio to Portia as “A young Venetian/ From whom he bringeth sensible regret/Gifts of rich value” (2.9. 89-90). The rank, according to Bataille “[…] is reduced to a commodity of exploitation, a shameless source of profits” (207). Hence, the abstract concept of social classification is expressed through luxurious commodities (in this case Bassanio’s luxurious ship and the gifts offered to Portia). This process is one type of reification called the conspicuous consumption which, according to Thorstein Veblen “[…] is a mean of reputability to the gentlemen of leisure […] [a]s wealth accumulates, the leisure class develops further in function and structure, and there arises a differentiation within the class. There is a more or less elaborate system of rank and grades” (The Theory of the Leisure Class: 76-77). In this process, the subject then spends money on luxurious goods in order to display economic powers in the purpose of attaining a high social rank or class. As a result, the subject’s rank becomes the object he/she identifies with and “varies decisively according to an individual’s capacity for giving” (Bataille: 204). Therefore, Bassanio’s rank is acquired through the lavish products and his value is equalized with the gifts and the luxurious commodities that create his new self-identity and his social status.

          Marriage also becomes a property relation, the business Bassanio goes through in order to win Portia’s wealth. Bassanio spends 3000 ducats as an investment to marry the “lady richly left” (1.2. 161) as his “chief care/ Is to come fairly off from the great debts” (1.1. 127-8) and gains money which worth much more than the amount taken from Antonio. Bassanio’s two targets (money and marriage) become similar, resulting in subverting marriage as an abstract concept into money, a concrete thing. Portia then becomes the targeted object, the economic product in marriage or the business affair, whereas Antonio’s life is the investment which is worth 3000 ducats. Hence, the Christians seem to be hiding behind “varnished faces” (2.4. 32) and their social relations even the sacred ones such as marriage and friendships turn out to be similar to the Jews’, a mere economic transaction.

          Shakespeare also tackles the issue of marriage, love and filial relationships in “Othello” and shows the way these social relations are property relations in which women are perceived as products for their fathers, their lovers and their husbands’eyes. On one hand, women are the food men eat whenever they are hungry to satisfy their appetites and realize their sexual fantasies. Upon his arrival from the battle, Othello seems eager to make love to his wife, to taste the fruit he longs for, he says: “Let me have speech with you. [To DESDEMONA] Come, my dear love,/ The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue./That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you.” (2.2.9-10-11).The language Othello uses is the commercial language where Desdemona is described as the fruit” the product he purchased or bought through the formal contract of marriage as business whereas the orgasm is the profit that Othello is eager to receive as interest. Emilia reveals this reality while speaking with Desdemona, she says: “ They [men] are all but stomachs, and we are all but food./They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, they belch us” (3.4. 100-2).

          The female characters are also described as products, exclusive properties for their husbands and fathers. Upon his plan with Rodriguo, Iago awakens Barbansio while calling: “Awake, what ho, Barbansio, thieves, thieves, thieves, thieves!/ Look to your house, your daughter and your bags” (1.1. 79-90). Iago sees Desdemona as one of Barbansio’s properties, an object in the house, similar to the bags which must be hidden in the house in order not to be stolen. Iago’s reification of Desdemona is obvious while asking Barbansio “Are your doors locked?” (1.1. 84) since people usually lock their doors to prevent anyone from stealing their properties. Iago keeps on saying to Barbansio: “sir, you’re robbed” (1.1. 86) to highlight the objectification of Desdemona through the usage of the word “robbed” (a word usually used for things) instead of the word “kidnapped” (which is used for persons). Similarly, Barbansio sees his daughter as an object, his property, he says to Othello: “O thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter?” (1.2. 63). The word “stowed” is used to reserve or store objects. Therefore, Barbansio fights to bring back the stolen object (Desdemona) from the thief (Othello). Barbansio then, brings into play the same language as Othello and Iago while talking about his daughter Desdemona. Moreover, even though Emilia has denied Iago’s request “a hundred times” (3.3 296) yet, she ends up giving him the handkerchief, she says: “Give’t Iago. What he will do with it,/Heaven knows, not I/I nothing, but to please his fantasy” (3.3. 301-3). Emilia’s response to her husband shows the way marriage is a property relation where one uses the other for his/her self-interest. Therefore, marriage, love and filial relationships become property relations between subjects and objects serving the interest of the male subject who turns the woman into a property.

          The filial relationship between the father and his daughter is also displayed as an economic relation. Through these words, the audience perceives the loss of Jessica as a loss of ducats, resulting in the reification of Jessica into a thing, and in this case money. Nevertheless, the conditions Shylock asserts in the bond as “an equal pound [of flesh]” (1.3. 145) transforms Antonio into a slave, as Shylock proclaims: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him [Antonio]/ Is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine, and I will have it” (4.1. 98-99). In The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, David Brion Davis explains that it was generally “convenient to regard the slave as res” and the biographical dilemma suffered by any slave is that the “singular individual” could become a commodity again […] suffering the “social death” (33). The nature of the bond subverts Antonio into a slave, an object in Shylock’s hands who has the lawful right to humiliate him, Shylock says: “I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him/ I’m glad of it” (3.1. 96-97). The reason for Antonio’s suffering then is psychological, resulting in Shylock’s treatment of him as an object/slave.

          At the start of both plays—The Merchant of Venice and Othello—the audience and readers learn that both Portia and Desdemona suffer from their fathers’ infliction of power upon their own will. Portia’s will had been “curbed by the will of a dead father” (Merchant, 1.2.21–22) who denied her the right to choose the person she wants as well as refuse the person she dislikes. Instead of providing his daughter with the freedom of choice and a life of freewill, he preferred to deprive her of all forms of subjectivity and transfer them onto the three caskets. By so doing, he gave life to inanimate objects and took away a major part of hers. The caskets now had the power to speak by means of the letters in and on them, and consequently decide the fates of Portia and her suitors. By regarding Portia as impersonal, her father was able to reify her role in society and implement the concept of alienation from natural human love; a dehumanizing process in which Portia (or workers in Marxist rationalization) is treated as a commodity, which deprives her of the opportunity to live her life in conformity with her own species (Marx, Alienation and Social Classes 134).

          Furthermore, Portia is characterized as the obedient daughter of a dead father, while Desdemona is the daughter whose father, though alive, is unable to control her actions. However, these schemes were implemented by Shakespeare in such a way as not to stop the reversed reification from taking place, or the shift from alienation to “reciprocal alienation or estrangement of private property”(Marx, Comments). Adopting Marx’s notion of the product being the result of the labour of its owner, it would be analogous to regard both women as being the result of their fathers’ labour. Portia and Desdemona would represent their fathers’ “private property,” which “has moved away from the owner whose product it was and has acquired a personal significance for someone whose product it is not” (Marx, Comments). This someone is Portia’s Bassiano and Desdemona’s Othello.

          Not being “ignorant of her worth” (Merchant, 1.2.167), Bassanio chose to risk his best friend’s life, Antonio, thinking that he would win Portia’s admiration by bringing her “sensible regrets” (tangible greetings) and “[g]ifts of rich value” (Merchant, 2.9.88, 90). In fact, this is what Marx refers to as fetishism, which defines “the fantasy of the appetites [that] tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an inanimate object will yield its natural character to gratify the desires of the worshipper” (Marx and Engels 22). Bassanio, as well as the other suitors, represent the fetish worshipper who believes that Portia—the inanimate object—will unconditionally succumb to his desires. Surprisingly, Portia falls for Bassanio whom she describes as “Cupid’s post that comes so mannerly” (Merchant, 2.9.99), and desperate to sense freedom, she bluntly conveys her strong feelings, and in a moment of weakness and without any hesitation she expresses her wish to give up all of herself to a complete stranger. Realizing that she has been deprived of this right, she curses the “naughty times” that “put bars between the owners and their rights” (Merchant, 3.2.18–19), and therefore pleads Bassiano to choose the right casket for she is “locked in one of them” and wants him to “find [her] out” (Merchant, 3.2.40–41). Fortunately, Bassiano chooses the right casket.

Now that the key to her prison door has been found—with sexual innuendos intended—Portia commits herself to Bassiano “to be directed / As from her lord, her governor, her king” (Merchant, 3.2.164–165). She, thus, no longer lives under the mercy of her dead father’s oath, and therefore her only existence now is through her relation to someone else—another male character who again robs her of her subjective nature. Her new identity is formulated and is only sustained if she “satisf[ies] needs external to it” (Marx, Economic Philosophic Manuscripts 74). At the very end of the play when Portia confesses the truth about her camouflage and without having any second thoughts forgives Bassanio for losing the ring that was supposed to “presage the ruin of [his] love” if lost (Merchant, 3.2.173). Not only did she absolve him from his supposedly fatal mistake, but she was worried that he might not be “satisfied of these events at full” and for that reason invited him into their bedroom to “answer all things faithfully” (Merchant, 5.1.295–296, 298). This proves her incapability of surviving unattached to an entity more powerful than she could ever be regarded by her own society.

          Congruent to Bassiano, who is now the secondhand owner of Portia’s reified identity and alienated personality, Othello also loots Desdemona’s personal significance from her father—her firsthand owner—from whom he “won his daughter” (Othello, 1.3.93). After having flouted convention by defying her father’s will and marrying the Moore, Desdemona’s fall back into the taxonomic claws of society’s patriarchal ideology begins with Othello’s jealousy and rash judgments. This stage introduces the unmerciful reification (or thingification) of women. Iago clearly states his view of women in general and literally objectifies them when he explains to his wife Emilia how she and all women are nothing but “pictures out of door, / Bells in [their] parlours; wildcats in [their] kitchens, / Saints in [their] injuries; devils being offended, / Players in [their] housewifery, and hussies in [their] beds” (Othello, 2.1.113–115). Even though most of the metaphors he uses consist of inanimate objects, he ends his speech by defining women’s role using action verbs: “You rise to play and go to bed to work” (Othello, 2.1.118). Iago’s speech shows how passive he thinks of women and highlights their sexual objectification, which is ironic, knowing that his wife is the only strong and active woman in the play even though she tries to abide by the conventions at first by showing obedience to her husband: “I nothing, but to please his fantasy” (Othello, 3.3.303).

          Furthermore, the handkerchief in “Othello” highlights the commodity fetishism in the play which “is a specific form of reification” (A Dictionary of Marxist Thought: 413). Othello describes the handkerchief as a fetish object regarded with owe as being the embodiment of a potent spirit or as having magical potency. According to Arthur Ripstein in Commodity Fetishism , “the commodity fetish [occurs] when people are ruled by the product of their hand” (748). The handkerchief has some magical and sexual powers as it enables Othello’s mother to “subdue my father/ Entirely to her love” (3.5. 57-58) due to “the magic in the web of it” (3.4. 68). Its magical powers control the people and its power resides even in its absence as it punishes Othello’s mother and Desdemona when they lost it and killed them. It also has the power of destruction as it has incited Othello to destroy Cassio and it ruins the love and the marriage of Othello with Desdemona. It has life of its own, and the capability of breeding and reproducing an “endless slippage of signification” (Greenblatt, Stephen et al: 43) such as adultery, honor, death, etc., created by Othello’s imagination. It moves from the class of inanimate things into living beings in its power to generate multiple floating signifiers.

          Unlike Emilia who is not afraid to advocate equality between men and women in her proto-feminist manifesto and to think that “it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall” (Othello, 5.1.84–85), Desdemona continues to play her role as Othello’s loyal, loving wife even after he accuses her of adultery, calls her whore, and strikes her: “My love doth so approve him / That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns / … have grace and favor in them” (Othello, 4.3.18–20). Her reification has become so deeply implanted within her system that she is unable to stand up to her husband’s absurd accusations and therefore involuntarily lives in complete denial. Her mechanistic behavior alienates her so far away from her humanity that she does not fear her husband’s madness until the scene when he actually dictates to her his intentions and tells her, “Thou art on thy deathbed” (Othello, 5.2.55). Othello’s brutal murder of Desdemona is regarded by some critics “as a tragedy based not on racial or ethnic categories, but rather on those of ideology, discourses of male superiority, and habits of idealization containing a hidden dialectic of female demonization” (Hugh 118).

          As for Desdemona’s passivity during her rebellious phase—although not very evident until her face-to-face confrontation with her father after her elopement with Othello—it is implied by her father’s expressions of disappointment for he strongly believes that she must be “deficient, blind, or lame of sense” (Othello, 1.3.63) to be able to defy her father’s authority and get married without his consent. According to Brabanzio, it is against the rules of nature for Desdemona to challenge his power over her will, and for that he is “glad at soul [he has] no other child, / For [her] escape would teach [him] tyranny, / To hang clogs on ’em” (Othello, 1.3.195); he would rather set his daughter in chains rather than watch her “escape.”

          Displaying the binary oppositions is a typical feature inherent in most of Shakespeare’s plays as the case in “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” where Shakespeare unsettles the contradictions between social relationships based on economic interests and social relationships based on love, charity and mercy, between people and objects or between inanimate objects and living beings. However, Shakespeare’s strategy in merging these binaries is different this time as it reflects the Marxism ideologies. Hence, Shakespeare illustrates Marx’s perception of society through using this latter’s theory of reification within all its forms such as commodity fetishism and conspicuous consumption to transmit the other side of reality, displays the truth that underlies social phenomena and uncovers the economic reality as the basis of these social relations that subverts subjects into objects whose value is created through the commodities they exhibit. Viewed from a Marxian perspective, the reification of these two protagonists and the objectification of their relations with the other gender set a firm basis for Marx’s theory of alienation.

Works Cited

*I am a writer of English poetry and a member in the Byron worldwide organization. I also

participated in many conferences abroad in Paris, Georgia, Armenia. My latest paper was

published in the proceedings called “Byron: Space and Time in Armenia”. I also published a

book called Fallen Masks in June 2019 which has had a great success.

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