Works of literature can be universally understood in relation to one another. One work may be a member of an entirely different genre than another, and may encapsulate an entirely different cast of characters, locations, or even background than another. However, it is entirely possible that both works, despite their differences, can tackle the same theme.
The play The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, which falls into the drama genre, and The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano, which falls into the autobiography genre, are completely different literary works, yet they both deal with the same similar theme: the representation of social ranks, castes, and classes in society, specifically in relation to minority groups.
The work of drama which deals with the theme of the representation of social classes is the play The Merchant of Venice, written by William Shakespeare written between 1596 and 1599, and first performed in 1605. The play stars a Venetian merchant named Antonio, who takes on a Jewish moneylender named Shylock.
Shylock serves as the antagonist of the play, and sadly, the fact that a Jew is the antagonist is not surprising for a work from this time period. Shylock’s portrayal as the enemy is characteristic of him being a Jew; he is treated poorly in the story because he is a Jew, even by the Christian “hero” protagonist Antonio. Shylock reveals the awful actions Antonio committed upon him, stating:
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, / And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine, / And all for use of that which is mine own.
Here, Shylock reveals that Antonio had insulted and spit upon Shylock in the Rialto, in Venice, and as a result, is demanding his money back. From this it becomes increasingly clear that Antonio committed these heinous actions upon Shylock simply because he was a Jew, simply because he was a member of the Jewish religion and social class.
For most of the 2nd millennium, including the time The Merchant of Venice was written, Jews were viewed as the inferior social rank, and were often abused and executed. Shylock’s very presence in this play is indicative of this, as he is abused and treated unfairly simply because of his religion, and is made out to be the antagonist and “fool” of the play.
The mistreatment of Shylock due to his Jewish nature does not end there; in fact, it occurs throughout the play by various characters. Shylock’s former servant, Launcelot Gobbo, who betrays Shylock to work for the Christian Bassanio, speaks extremely negatively of Shylock and the Jews, comparing them to devils. In lines 23–27 of Act 2, Scene 2, he states of this:
…the Jew my master, who…is a kind of devil; and to run away from the Jew…[who] is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.
This is the basis of his page-long monologue, where he decides to flee Shylock’s rule and escape to Bassanio. Gobbo compares the Jews to devils and states that they are the incarnation of the devil, which is an absolutely evil viewpoint. Another example of the negative portrayal of the Jews in the play is when Solanio calls the Jews dogs, stating in lines 13–14 of Act 2, Scene 8:
So strange, outrageous, and so variable / As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.
Being called a dog is one of the lowest insults, and both Solanio and Gobbo’s antisemitic viewpoints were common viewpoints for the time, which will be later discussed. The negative portrayal of Jews in The Merchant of Venice is indicative of the theme of social ranks and classes of the day.
The autobiographical work which deals with the theme of the representation of social classes is The Life of Olaudah Equiano. Written by the slave Olaudah Equiano in 1789, the work encapsulates his life story, slavehood, and eventual freedom, and deals with the issue of the negative representation of social classes and ranks in society.
Unlike The Merchant of Venice, however, the class being unfairly represented are the Black citizens, which at the time encompassed both free African-Americans and slaves. Also unlike The Merchant of Venice, Equiano’s work is non-fiction, being not simply a fictional representation of reality like the play was, but rather a realistic recapturing of his life.
The book details the life of Equiano, who was enslaved as a child and spent the majority of his life in slavehood. The oppression of certain social ranks and classes is arguably the primary theme of the book, and unlike The Merchant of Venice, in which the main character who represented the oppressed group was the antagonist, Equiano, who represents the oppressed group in this work, is the protagonist.
The Life of Olaudah Equiano makes clear just through its very nature that it will tackle the theme of class and race oppression: it is the autobiographical work of a slave, and slaves were the very epitome of oppressed classes. As such, the entire book deals with this issue at great length from the very beginning, as Equiano was forced into slavery simply because of his ethnicity and race, since he fell into the so-called “lower” social class of being Black, as it was viewed at the time.
This theme lasts even through the documentation of Equiano’s freedom in Chapter VII of his book, where he pays his owner 40 pounds in exchange for freedom. However, the oppression of his class does not simply vanish when he is granted his freedom, making it clear that at the time, even free Black people lacked true liberty. Even when free, Black people were still looked down upon in society and denied rights that others were given.
Equiano gives an example of this in Chapter VI, when he is in St. Kitt’s. He brings to the reader’s attention a free black woman he encountered there, who was desired to be wed by a white man. However, the law prevented them from marrying in a church, so they were forced to navigate around this by marrying on a boat. Of this, Equiano states:
The reader cannot but judge of the irksomeness of this situation…as it were, in a state of freedom and plenty.
Here, Equiano expresses his frustration regarding the lack of freedom of this Black woman. Even though she was allowed to get married, the law still prevented her from doing so in a church, and so they had to improvise. This further emphasizes the fact that even when free, there were still a multitude of actions Blacks couldn’t do, that the law prevented them from achieving, as they were part of the “lower” social class, according to the white society of the time.
This was not the worst example in Equiano’s book of the lack of freedom Blacks had, as former slaves were often forced back into slavery even after earning their freedom. Equiano expresses his doubt of Black freedom, stating:
…the state of a free Negro appeared to me now equally so at least, and in some respects even worse; for they live in constant alarm for their liberty…and they are universally insulted and plundered without the possibility of redress.
Since Blacks and slaves were members of the oppressed caste, they were denied rights that other members of the “higher” caste or class of society — often white men — were granted. The reader directly experiences Equiano’s fear of his own freedom following the granting of his freedom, when Equiano feared he would be tried for beating another Black man in self defense:
I was a free man. I was astonished and frightened at this, and thought I had better keep where I was, than go ashore and be flogged round the town, without judge or jury.
Equiano is expressing fear as Blacks were almost always unfairly tried and found guilty of crimes, even if they did not commit them, since they were heavily oppressed. Equiano’s fear of being tried as a Black man ties into his fear of his own freedom, as he makes clear that his freedom, the freedom of Blacks, was different from ordinary freedom — it was merely an oppressed, toned-down version of whites’ freedom, as Blacks were still unfairly treated and represented, whether they were free or not.
Equiano makes it clear that he and the rest of the Black people during this time suffered from a lack of true freedom, a version of freedom which may have freed them from slavery (although, as mentioned, they were often thrown back into it) but did not free them from the oppression of their class, of which there was no freedom from.
Both The Merchant of Venice and The Life of Olaudah Equiano are representative of their respective literary periods and genres. The Merchant of Venice is a play which was written in the pinnacle of The Renaissance, and is representative of its genre, drama, which is essentially a play containing dramatic events, which The Merchant of Venice clearly is and does.
The Renaissance is commonly defined as the period of European history following the Middle Ages…In this period the European arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature reached an eminence not exceeded in any age.
The Merchant of Venice is clearly characteristic of this literary period as it was written and takes place in Europe following the Middle Ages, and deals with man in relation to religions, as works during The Renaissance often did, reigniting an old duel between Judaism and Christianity. The view that Christianity was superior to Judaism was common throughout most of the 1st and 2nd millennia, and this is no different during the time The Merchant of Venice was written.
The play’s clear antisemitism and dishonest portrayals of the Jews and the Jewish religion were, sadly, common for the time, and the play’s antisemitic portrayal of Shylock is indicative of the time period which it is a member of, and takes influence from. Likewise, The Life of Olaudah Equiano is characteristic of its own time period and genre as it is an autobiography.
An autobiography is a biography written by the subject about himself or herself.
Equiano’s work clearly is this, as it is the story of his life as written by himself. It is representative of the literary period it was written in as it encapsulates the primary themes of both the time it was written — that is, the oppression of Blacks and social classes viewed as “lower” than the top, and the faulty freedom which they possessed, or lacked — and the situations of the author, a Black slave and eventual free Black man in the United States during the late eighteenth century.
It is undeniable that both The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare and The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano are incredibly similar. On the surface, they appear as completely different works, being written in completely different places and time periods, and being representative of completely different genres (The Merchant of Venice being a drama work, and The Life of Olaudah Equiano being a nonfiction autobiography).
However, they both portray the primary theme of social ranks, castes and classes in society, specifically the representation of the classes viewed as lower (the Jews in Europe for The Merchant of Venice, and the Blacks and slaves in The Life of Olaudah Equiano).
Through these works, the reader is offered a glimpse into the views of the higher classes of the time, what they thought of and how they treated the classes viewed as lower, and the thoughts and feelings of the members of the classes viewed as lower at the time.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.