How did William Shakespeare view the value of a human being

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hello! That was a great answer you received above. Shakespeare was a very clever playwright. He often drew on Elizabethan prejudices and societal expectations as fodder for his plays.

His description of Othello, the Black Moor, is typical of what Elizabethans thought of people of color at the time. Othello is described by Roderigo and Iago as having 'thick-lips;' he is also 'an old, black ram,' and a 'Barbary horse.' At the beginning of the play, Iago tells Roderigo that he has been passed over for a promotion. He can't believe that Othello has chosen a 'great arithmetician' that has 'That never set a squadron in the field,/ Nor the division of a battle knows/More than a spinster,' as his lieutenant. Othello is portrayed as a leader that cannot be trusted to make good decisions. Not only that, Iago tells Brabantio that Othello is an 'old, black ram' who has been 'tupping' his 'white ewe,' his daughter, Desdemona. Iago and Roderigo are supposedly warning Brabantio about his daughter being in the 'gross clasps of a lascivious Moor.' Here, the Elizabethan belief emerges of dark-skinned men as forces of brutality, extreme sensuality, and explosive temper. Brabantio hints that Desdemona may have been bewitched when he finds that she is not home. The likely culprit is, of course, Othello.

Is there not charms

By which the property of youth and maidhood

May be abused?

However, Shakespeare cleverly challenges his audience to view Othello, not as a highly stylized one dimensional racial stereotype, but as a very human individual with the same propensities, fears, challenges, and trials as the next person. Othello is portrayed as a man who loves his wife; he is well spoken as well as a respected military leader. He tells the crafty and wily Iago that if he didn't love Desdemona, he would never have resigned himself to the shackles of marriage.

But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhousèd free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea’s worth.
He sounds like a man who is careful to support his decisions with wisdom and conviction. Here is a man who loves possessively, intimately, and intensely. This Black Moor's overpowering love for his white wife challenges conventional Elizabethan prejudices about the ability of people of color to love. Being a man of loyalty, he is physically sickened at the thought of any hint of disloyalty in a wife. When he thinks of Desdemona being unfaithful with Cassio, he is driven to madness. He decides he has to kill her.
Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men    
In the end, Othello commits suicide. He is distraught beyond the comfort of others, when he discovers that he has been a fool to ever doubt Desdemona.
He asks Lodovico to write of him
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.
So, Shakespeare draws in his audience with a strong-willed, stereotypical Moor as the protagonist. His curious audience would have been spellbound at this unusual circumstance from the very beginning: after all, Queen Elizabeth herself had deported Moors because she didn't trust what she deemed their troubling propensity to procreate with undisciplined fervor. Ironically, she had awarded full recognition to the Moors for their help in conquering the Spanish.
So, Shakespeare goes ahead and presents a very human and tortured Othello; by the time, Othello kisses Desdemona for the last time and dies, his audience is left questioning its own prejudices, presuppositions, and presumptions about people of color. What is the value of a human being worth? In more ways than one, Shakespeare's Othello tells us not to be so hasty in deciding that some are worth more than others.
Thanks for the question.
mrsc1964 | Student

To help you answer this question, you will need to draw upon a range of texts written by the bard.

When studying Shakespeare you find that he was quite forward thinking for his time. Elizabethans did not value all humans the same. Women were lesser beings, which is ironic when you consider the fact that there was a queen on the throne! Shakespeare, through his writings, challenged the opinions of his peers.

In "Sonnet 130", Shakespeare suggests that women should be who they want to be. This is a rebel poem which challenges the stereotypical view of what a beautiful Elizabethan woman should look like. Shakespeare is suggesting that all women are beautiful and should be viewed as such.

In "Twelfth Night", Viola is not allowed to work because she is a woman of high standing, so Shakespeare has her conceal her gender and identity and become a man so that she can work for the duke. The duke does not notice that she is clearly a woman, even though Shakespeare leaves hints within the text. He is suggesting that the males of the era did not understand women and did not value them. Remember, Capulet agrees to let Paris marry Juliet to further his status, even though he had previously suggested she was too young.

In "The Merchant of Venice" Shylock is seen to be a lesser human, because he is a Jew. It was ok to borrow money from him, but when you can't pay it back, the Jew became the criminal for wanting his "pound of flesh"

Hope this helps you.