Aaron and Shylock: The 'Other' in Shakesperean Drama
Shakespeare's tragedy Titus Andronicus and his comedy The Merchant of Venice share a similar instigator. Both antagonists are marked as the 'other' throughout the plays, and their difference from the rest of the community is emphasized during the course of the drama. The ways in which Shylock and Aaron construct their difference in ways that are comparable but divergent. Though both look scornfully at the world around them, taking a tone of superiority, their views on their outsider status also differ. Their justifications for causing problems both have to do with these differences and the way they construct them; however, Aaron and Shylock act for very different reasons. Aaron's action is based on an assertion of his otherness, whereas Shylock's actions can be understood as an act of revenge based on his shared humanity and sense of justice. The final resolutions of these characters' differences are also of significance; Aaron's decision to risk everything to preserve his 'blackness' as presented in his son contrasts with Shylock's eventual conversion to Christianity. This distinct treatment of parallel figures underscores the different moral universes of the two plays. The treatment of the outsider and his perspective is a significant issue in both Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice.
Both Shylock and Aaron are shown to be outside of the society from the time they first appear on stage, and their difference continues to be stressed over the course of both plays. Aaron, entering the play at the end of Titus' triumphant procession, would draw the attention of a Renaissance audience by virtue of his placement at the extreme end of the procession as well as for his dark skin. His differences from the Romans and Goths are not only introduced visually, but are expanded upon verbally by other characters. Tamora addresses him as "my sweet Moor, sweeter to me than life!" (TA II.iii.51), using his racial difference to distinguish Aaron. Upon discovering Tamora and Aaron together, Lavinia and Bassianus refer to Aaron similarly, not referring to him by name or simply as a man, but as a "barbarous Moor" (TA II.iii.78). In these and other exchanges, Aaron's blackness and his lack of Roman civilization and religion are stressed, strongly setting him apart from the other characters in Titus Andronicus.
As Aaron's 'otherness' is stressed in Titus Andronicus, Shylock is contrasted with the Christians in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is visually differentiated, as his plain attire would provide a sharp contrast with the lavish dress of the other Venetians. As is the case with Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Shylock's difference is used as a form of address, and he is frequently referred to as 'the Jew' rather than by name. Shylock's use of language also serves to further differentiate him from the other characters. Throughout the play he alludes to Old Testament figures and stories, demonstrating his Jewish beliefs. His lack of generosity is underscored in his transaction with Bassiano; his use of language, and therefore his moral understanding, is shown to be vastly different from that of Bassiano and the other Venetians. Shylock's definition of 'good' is shown to be in practical rather than Bassiano's moral terms. According to Shylock, "my meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient" (MV I.iii.15-17). This different understanding is repeated and ridiculed when Jessica elopes and takes some of his money: "I never heard a passion so confus'd/So strange, outrageous, and so variable/ As that dog Jew did utter in the streets./ 'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!/ Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!/ Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!'" (MV II.viii.12-17). In this way, Shylock is shown to have a 'backward' moral order that conflicts with that of the Christians in Venice. Like Aaron, he is strongly differentiated from the society in which he lives.
Aaron and Shylock both exhibit an attitude of contempt and superiority towards the society around them. Aaron's contempt is very clear throughout Titus Andronicus; he does not care at all for Roman society, scorning Roman 'morality' as idiotic. He will "let fools do good, and fair men call for grace/ Aaron will have his soul black like his face" (TA III.i.204-205). When his lack of religion is brought up by Lucius, he criticizes the religious beliefs held by Lucius and the other Romans: "I know thou art religious,/ And hast a thing within thee called conscience,/ With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies,/ Which I have seen thee careful to observe... An idiot holds a bauble for his god,/ And keeps the oath which by that god he swears" (TA V.i.74-80). Aaron holds the values of the mainstream society in very low esteem, seeing the morality of the Romans as ridiculous.
Likewise, Shylock exhibits disdain for the Christians in Venice, being critical of the extravagance, munificence, and prejudice of Antonio and the other Venitians. He denounces how, "in low simplicity/ [Antonio] lends out money gratis, and brings down/ the rate of usuance here in Venice... He hates our sacred nation, and he rails/ Even there where merchants most do congregate/ On me, my bargains, and my well-worn thrift,/ Which he calls interest" (MV I.iii.43-51). Shylock maintains a sense of detachment from the Venetians and is reluctant to share a meal with them; "I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you" (MV III.ii.35-38). This unwillingness to participate in the community ritual of a shared meal denotes Shylock's psychological separation. In demanding that Jessica "lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum/ And the vile squealing of the wry-neck'd fife,/ Clamber not you up to the casements then,/ Nor thrust your head into the public street/ To gaze on Christian fools with varnish'd faces;/ But stop my house's ears, I mean my casements;/ Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter/ My sober house" (MV II.v.29-36), Shylock further separates himself from the majority and demonstrates his disdain for them. Thus Shylock also shows contemptuousness towards the mainstream society in which he lives.
However, while Aaron and Shylock's acts of atrocity are both predicated on their difference, they take vastly different forms. Aaron's evil is seemingly motiveless, and can be seen as an expression of his moral and physical 'blackness', and this explanation for Aaron's crimes also seems to point to the conclusion of his personal narrative. Shakespeare paints Aaron as a creature of pure evil that admires the destruction that he causes. When asked if he is sorry to have done so many wrongs, he responds by saying, "[I am sorry] that I had not done a thousand more./ Even now I curse the day - and yet I think/ Few come within the compass of my curse/ Wherein I did not some notorious ill... But I have done a thousand dreadful things,/ As willingly as one would kill a fly,/ And nothing grieves me heartily, indeed,/ But that I cannot do a thousand more" (TA V.i.124-144). Aaron's embrace of his evil is demonstrated with his wholehearted acceptance of his son, who he views as a mirror image, "the vigor and the picture of my youth:/ This before all the world I do prefer" (TA IV.ii.108-109). He is dedicated to preserving this self-image, and, because of this, is willing to reveal everything in order to assure its continuance. His depravity is the motivation behind his crimes, and thus he is completely dedicated to its preservation.
Shylock's case presents several differences from Aaron's. Though his actions are also due to his status as an outsider, they are differently motivated. Rather than reveling in his differentness, Shylock is taking revenge upon Antonio's persecution of his differences, and, in the process, stating his common humanity. Shylock feels that he must take revenge upon Antonio because:
"He hath disgrac'd me, and hind'red me half a million, laugh'd at my losses, mock'd at my gains, scorn'd my nation, thwarted my bargains, cool'd my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions... as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" (MV III.i.54-67)
Shylock appeals on the basis of a shared humanity and despite his difference. This stance points to his final conflicted reconciliation, as his commitment to justice ultimately forces him to convert. In court, Shylock submits to Portia in the guise of a judge, as she seems to honor his bond equally and justly. He praises her extravagantly as "A Daniel come to judgement! Yea, a Daniel! O wise young judge, how I do honor thee!" (MV IV.i.223-224) Shylock is compelled to follow her judgement until it reaches its uneasy but inevitable conclusion. Having embraced the ideal of justice he must abide by the decision of the court; he must convert or be executed. Unlike Aaron, who dies so that his difference will be perpetuated, Shylock unwillingly converts, thereby surrendering his 'otherness'.
Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice present two models of the 'other'. While both express contempt for mainstream society and act on the basis of that contempt, Aaron justifies his action through his outsider status whereas Shylock uses claims to common humanity to justify his cause. These characters' fates fit in with these patterns of justification. Aaron is able to preserve his 'otherness' at the cost of his life, whereas Shylock must assimilate in order to follow through his aspirations to justice. These models, created in the different moral universes of the plays, point to different ideals as to how the 'other' may be treated. The question of whether the outsider can actually be assimilated is a major theme in both plays.
Go back to my main page.