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Othering in Shakespeare

Othering in Shakespeare

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It is not easy to like Malvolio, the steward in ‘Twelfth Night’.  This may be because he is a killjoy and a spoilsport – as Maria says, a ‘puritan’.  It may be because he has ideas above his station, not to mention a certain self-regard that is not perhaps wholly justified.  It may be because it is simpler to side with his enemies, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, who seem a lot more fun. Or it may be something to do with his name, which translates as ‘ill-intentioned’.  Whichever the explanation, disliking Malvolio is an essential precondition to enjoying the play, in which the othering of Malvolio is structural.  That is, the play describes a spot of minor bullying, and our role is to enjoy it.

This can be seen in the way the play ends – with an avalanche of marriages: Olivia to Sebastian, and (shortly) Orsino to Viola and Sir Toby to Maria.  Malvolio, meanwhile, who had hoped for nuptials of his own, is exposed as a victim and a fool, left with nothing but empty threats: ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ – an optimistic boast at best.  Isolated and humiliated, his loneliness at the end contrasts with the cheerful companionship of the others.  Few in the audience will feel much sympathy for him.

A similar effect emerges at the end of ‘The Merchant of Venice’.  Shylock has made a number of eloquent appeals for sympathy from the audience – ‘Doth not a Jew bleed?’ and so forth – but in the courtroom conflict with Portia, he is second-favourite, and the audience is expected to overlook the plain injustice imposed on him when he is penalised with attacks on his wealth and his identity.  But before there is time to question whether all this is fair enough – to ask whether Portia has indeed twinned justice with mercy – events have moved on, Shylock, like Malvolio, is abandoned to his fate and he no longer engages our sympathy, if he ever did.

Instead we are manipulated by the playwright (as was the case with Malvolio) to share the perspective of his torturers: to take him on, defeat him, then forget him and move on.  On the face of it, Caliban in ‘The Tempest’, serves as an illuminating point of comparison. First, there is clearly some room for ambiguity in our feelings about him. True, we recoil from his attempts on Miranda’s virtue.  But equally we warm to the Caliban who helped Prospero when he first arrived on the island: ‘then I loved thee’, he remembers, ‘And show’d thee all the qualities o’the isle / The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile’.  Kindness is not Caliban’s only quality: he is insightful too, so when Stephano and Trinculo are fooled by the enticing ‘wardrobe’ left out by Ariel to deceive them, he is clear in his advice: ‘Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash’.  At the play’s end, moreover, having been reprimanded by events, he is dignified and apologetic: ‘I’ll be wise hereafter’, he pledges, ‘And seek for grace’.

In short, for all his shortcomings, Caliban has many virtues.  Yet at the end of the play, he is largely forgotten as Prospero looks to the future and his own return to Milan: Caliban’s fate is not something the audience need concern themselves with. Like Malvolio and Shylock, he is marginalised, abandoned beyond the pale of our sympathies and concern.  His fate has never been a priority for the audience, who, if they think about it at all, may very well feel his looming isolation well-deserved.

The common ground shared by Shylock and Caliban does not need much elaboration, but othering in Shakespeare is not an experience confined to characters with the wrong ethnic or religious background.  Something similar – though in a more light-hearted spirit perhaps – happens to characters throughout the canon: what happens to Parolles in ‘All’s Well’, for example, amuses us but does not engage our sympathy, because he is something of a clown and seems to deserve his come-uppance.  Similarly, Don Armado in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ is a braggart whose fate is to learn the hard way.  Both characters, incidentally, share Malvolio’s fate of a public shaming, and both share Caliban’s desire to ‘seek for grace’. 



It bears repeating that characters like these – Malvolio, Shylock, Caliban, Parolles, Don Armado – have done little or nothing to deserve the punishments inflicted on them.  They may not be especially admirable, but still, they are essentially innocents abroad, out of their depth in the company they keep, but not to be blamed for their fate.  In this respect they are quite different from villains like Don John in “Much Ado”, Iago in “Othello”, Cloten in “Cymbeline”, Angelo in “Measure for Measure” or Richard III.  Characters like these engage our interest with a kind of compulsive fascination – very different from our feelings about Shylock, whom we simply forget about once the court case is over.

The punishment then is to be alone, to be excluded.  In Malvolio’s case and in Shylock’s there may be a way back once everyone except the victim has forgotten all about it, but in Caliban’s case, loneliness – or anyway isolation – are the future.  Here it is worth observing a second distinction: between those on whom isolation is forced on one side and on the other, those who choose to be alone.

A resonant case of the former type appears in the opening act of “Richard II”.  Thomas Mowbray is to be exiled from England, and in the process deprived of the chance to speak English, his only language.  ‘I am’, he observes, ‘too far in years to be a pupil now’, and he adds:

                What is thy sentence then but speechless death,

Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

This of course is Caliban’s fate: he too will have no conversation, no sharing of experiences or ideas, no sympathy or disputation.  But it so happens that other characters in Shakespeare would welcome such an outcome.  One such is Timon of Athens, who expresses his disgust at the society to which he belongs by exiling himself in the forest away from the city – only to be visited by a range of old friends and acquaintances.  Was Timon othered?  No, he othered himself, and deliberately puts himself outside the groups of reasonable and civilised human beings to which he once belonged.

A second example is Coriolanus.  The eponymous hero is a military icon in Rome but finds himself out of sympathy with the presiding values of his city: he is after all a military leader in a civilian state, and his response to the frustration and anger he feels is to other himself and defect to the enemy, the Corioli.  Is this a Roman thing?  Enobarbus in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ takes the same route: when he abandons his former loyalties and throws in his lot with Rome, he is overcome with guilt and wills his own end, denouncing himself as a ‘master-leaver and a fugitive’ as he commits suicide. 




The single most plangent instance of othering comes in the closing act of “Henry IV Part Two”.  Falstaff has been the friend and mentor of the young Prince Hal – indeed, most of these two plays are devoted to their friendship.  When the old king dies, Falstaff may be forgiven for his excitement as he waits to meet his old friend in his new role.  But the relationship is not approved of in high places, and Prince Hal has already resolved to put this friendship behind him.  So when they meet, he rebukes the fat knight in the plainest terms: ‘I know thee not, old man’, he tells him, implying unambiguously that their friendship is at an end.  Falstaff is perhaps the last character in Shakespeare we might anticipate being othered – he seems to be simply too entertaining and engaging to suffer such a fate.  But for characters like Malvolio, Shylock and Caliban, exclusion and isolation are fundamental to the plays in which they appear.

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