An Insight Into William Shakespeare’s Portrayal Of Outsiders

DISCLAIMER: This was written as an assignment for my Shakespeare & His Contemporaries class and was originally posted on


Within this analysis, the discussion will be focused on the way in which William Shakespeare portrays outsiders in his plays—five to be specific. These characters’ importance to these plays are underestimated because they define the play’s plots and conflicts. Because they are either anti-heroes or villains, their positions in the plays give the audience a much more thoroughly detailed exposition of their motivations and their complex personalities and emotions. Although states of being an outsider vary, this essay will focus on characters who were outsiders in the first place; in other words, characters who are defined as outsiders based on their race, ethnicity, disability, or other nonnegotiable forms of isolation.

In Hamlet, the outsider of the story is the titular character partly because he studied in Wittenburg before returning to Elsinore (and he is later exiled after killing Polonius), but mainly because he may have a mental disorder, such as depression, as Juliet Mitchell would argue. He especially becomes an outsider for this very reason since he is the only one who is deeply affected by the death of his father (Mitchell 33). Shylock in the Merchant of Venice is an outsider because he is a Jew in Venetian society. Although Richard III is an aristocrat, he is an outsider among the other aristocrats because of his physical disability, which would be his hunchback. In King Lear, Edmund is introduced in the play as the illegitimate child of the Earl of Gloucester. Because of his status, his legitimate half-brother is more favored by Gloucester than Edmund is. While almost all of the characters in Titus Andronicus are Romans and Goths, Aaron is the only African character in the play (excluding the illegitimate child he has with Queen Tamora).

Those disadvantages are what lead them to be treated condescendingly at least and abusively at worst. In Hamlet’s case, no one takes him seriously and he is treated like a child by being told little lies while his father’s ghost will actually tell him the truth (Mitchell 45-6). While the struggle within royalty also exists in Elsinore, Hamlet is not despised but he is mistrusted, primarily by Polonius and Laertes who inform Ophelia to not develop strong feelings for Hamlet (Hamlet 1.3.1-136). While Hamlet is talked down to in his own court, Richard III is despised by even his own mother (Richard III 4.1.52-5). When Edmund is introduced, he is snubbed by his own father in favor of Edgar (History of King Lear 1.7-30).

Although Aaron is trusted by Martius and Quintius in hunting for panthers and taking Titus’ hand (Titus Andronicus 2.3.192-3, 3.1.157-61), these acts of trust are only as a result of his status as a slave. When he is not well-received is when he violates decorum, which is why Bassianus and Lavinia are willing to report Tamora’s affair with Aaron. Then they proceed to insult Aaron with Lavinia comparing him to a stag to be hunted by Jove’s hounds and Bassianus calls Aaron “barbarous” (Titus Andronicus 2.3.66-87). Titus, when he is met by Tamora and her sons in disguise, calls Aaron a devil (Titus Andronicus 5.2.85-6).

Although insults are directed at Aaron, the child he has with Tamora is even less respected by the other characters. The nurse who helped Tamora give birth to the child calls it a disgrace since it was birthed by a high-ranking authority figure like the Empress (Titus Andronicus 4.2.66-70). The nurse, Demetrius, Chiron, and Lucius wish to kill the child, which Aaron the Moor strongly forbids (Titus Andronicus 4.1.70, 79, 84-5, 5.1.51).

Shylock is the victim of anti-Semitism specifically from Antonio who insults, kicks, and spits on him (Merchant of Venice 1.3.102-124). Though, later in the play, the bias that the Venetian court has is demonstrated by Portia’s “Quality of Mercy” speech, even though Shylock is a Jew (Merchant of Venice 4.1.179-200). Although the concept of mercy is found in Micah of the Old Testament, the overall message of Portia’s speech talks about mercy from the Christian interpretation (Weinstein 188). Her speech implies that Shylock would have no other choice but to convert to Christianity in order to become a participant of Venetian society, which he eventually does in the end (Merchant of Venice 4.1.389).

A way in which outsiders are actively being despised beyond assigning their labels is by comparing them to animals. This is a theme that connects these plays in providing an insight into how these natural outsiders are treated. In Shylock’s case, he is called a “dog” by Antonio (Merchant of Venice 1.3.107) and Solanio (Merchant of Venice 2.8.14). Richard III and Edmund are referred to as “toads” which is an animal that has negative connotations associated with disgrace (Richard III 4.4.145, History of King Lear 24.134). Aaron the Moor is described as a raven (Titus Andronicus 3.1.158), because of how the creature represents ominous death (Deroux 97), as well as raven-colored (Titus Andronicus 2.3.83), due to his skin color. He is also compared to a fly that Titus’ brother Marcus kills, saying how it was black and ugly (Titus Andronicus 4.1.66). Although Hamlet is not referred to as an animal by any of the characters, he does refer to himself as “pigeon-livered” because he cannot build up enough courage to immediately kill Claudius (Hamlet 2.2.554).

Since they are compared to animals, the insults are meant to dehumanize the characters and to place them below the other characters. Although those insults are directed in part to their statuses, the reasons behind them are due to the characters’ actions. The way in which Titus insults Aaron happens after he is deceived by him. Richard III and Edmund commit atrocities, or played a part in them at least, that would cause them to feel disgraceful.

Because of the marginalities that they have, these outsiders would not have been accepted among the majority group if they did not have any sense of importance, or at least if the characters belonging to the majority demographic will not do (Heller 150). Throughout the duration of the plays, they have to demonstrate why they matter to the rest of the characters in spite of their statuses. Although Peter Berek discusses the concept of “self-transformation” as it historically applied to Jews who would change their identities and names in order to assimilate into the various European societies, this concept also applied to their practice of usury which could make any commoner rise in wealth and power (Berek 148). As such, this concept can easily relate to any outsiders in the plays, whether they are Jews or not.

Self-transformation most definitely fits all of the outsiders, though it is only Shylock who is considered important because of a trade—which in his case is usury. No Venetian would want to associate with Shylock if he does not lend out credit through usury, especially since Jews could only work with usury in that time period (Weinstein 191). Richard III acknowledges that he has no purpose in the new British society that was birthed after their civil war, so he seeks to make his new purpose as the man who is able to be persuasive, charismatic, wooing, and able to make witty comebacks, with the example of Richard III causing the other characters to turn against Margaret of Anjou after she curses him (Richard III 1.3.235-301). In his “Winter of our discontent” soliloquy, the way in which he frames it is spoken as though it is a victory speech addressed to an audience that has recently seen peace (Van Elk 5).

A way in which Hamlet is self-transformed is that he is well-versed in the arts. While Polonius hints to Ophelia that Hamlet plays music, he is enthralled in the art of stagecraft and is constantly directing his actors and having long conversations with Polonius about plays in the past. Since art is a field that typically would be associated with interpreting the world around the author of its creation (Mitchell 30), Hamlet especially manages to evoke guilt within Claudius by revealing the poisoning scene that he himself had done, which causes him to retreat to the arras to attempt to pray (Hamlet 3.2.233-48).

With Aaron the Moor’s importance, he would not have become Tamora’s servant if he did not become her openly secret lover or be able to tame Demetrius and Chiron; such as when the latter circumstance introduces Aaron as he stops the two brothers from dueling for whoever can woo Lavinia by convincing them they can both rape her (Titus Andronicus 2.1.104-32). In this way, he uses his brutishness as a form of babysitting, going so far as to tell Lucius that he was their tutor in orchestrating the plot to rape Lavinia, murder Bassianus, and frame Quintius and Martius—two of Titus’ sons (Titus Andronicus 5.1.98). Since Aaron is instrumental in Tamora’s war against the Andronicus family, she expects him to do his deeds, especially since she brags, in her aside speech, how she can orchestrate Titus’ destruction via Aaron (Titus Andronicus 4.4.34-8).

Because these outsiders are self-cultivated, they are extremely intelligence, since they spend the duration of the plays devising plots and fooling people into doing what they want. Edmund especially represents this characteristic of an outsider when he blatantly stated “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit” (History of King Lear 2.157). He exercises that wit by framing Edgar in a feigned plot to kill Gloucester, which leads to Gloucester replacing Edgar with Edmund as the heir (History of King Lear 6.1-63).

Because of the outsiders’ uses in their societies, they are both useful but also despised. Shylock is the most notable example since although he is able to produce wealth of merchants through their use of his loans, he is still despised by the Venetian society (Heller 151). His business is also undermined by Antonio who loans his money without interest, which thus reduces the rate of Shylock’s usury (Merchant of Venice 1.3.39-42). Aaron the Moor would not have been useful to Queen Tamora if he could not tame her sons or carry out her deeds. Although those characters are instrumental to the fabric of their societies and how they appease the majority, in Hamlet’s, Edmund’s (though later in the First Act), and Richard III’s case, their roles in their own societies are based on their lineages, since they are in line for succession for the royal crowns. In either case, whether as servants or as nobility, the outsiders’ function within their plays is to feed into the majority’s system.

Michael D. Friedman coined the term “accommodationist” in order to refer to Ian McKellen’s supposed pandering to the heterosexual majority audience when portraying Richard III as the bloodthirsty tyrant he was meant to be portrayed as (Friedman 577). However, that term is more applied to figures like the Shakespearean Richard III himself, as well as the rest of the outsiders. Since they have no power—at least not one that was never attained in the first place—they have no other choice but to accept the rules of the societies they live in in order to fulfill their nefarious agendas (Heller 156).

This reason is why Richard III cannot just simply marry himself to Queen Elizabeth’s daughter, rather he would need to follow the rules of courtship. When Shylock loses the case, he is willing to convert to Christianity and let his wealth be passed down to his grandson who would be produced by Lorenzo and Jessica (Merchant of Venice 4.1.389). Edmund is the only one who seeks to subvert the British law that labeled him a bastard in favor of worshipping Nature as a goddess that permits him to do whatever he can to remove this stigma. Though even he does not seek to change the law, rather he simply works within it by replacing Edgar as the legitimate heir to Gloucester’s title (History of King Lear 2.1-21). However much they are insulted, these outsiders provide importance to the societal and social functions within the plays. Although these outsiders attempt to become accommodationist (Friedman 577), they develop a deeper, more familiar connection with either the majority or their opposites. They often do this in order to obtain a much higher position that the one they are in at the moment.


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Berek, Peter. “The Jew as Renaissance Man.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1, 1998, pp. 128–162. JSTOR.

Deroux, Margaux. “The Blackness Within: Early Modern Color-Concept, Physiology and Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus.’” Mediterranean Studies, vol. 19, 2010, pp. 86–101. JSTOR.

Edited by Greenblatt, Cohen, Howard, Maus. “The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition.” 2nd Edition. Norton (2008).

Friedman, Michael D. “Horror, Homosexuality, and Homiciphilia in McKellen’s ‘Richard III’ and Jarman’s ‘Edward II.’” Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 4, 2009, pp. 567–588. JSTOR.

Heller, Agnes. “The Absolute Stranger: Shakespeare and the Drama of Failed Assimilation.” Critical Horizons, vol. 1, no. 1, Feb. 2000, pp. 147–167. EBSCOhost.

Mitchell, Juliet. “Hamlet – The Lonely Only and His Siblings.” Psycho-Analytic Psychotherapy in South Africa, vol. 21, no. 1, May 2013, pp. 28–60. EBSCOhost.

Van Elk, Martine. “‘Determined to Prove a Villain’: Criticism, Pedagogy, and ‘Richard III.’” College Literature, vol. 34, no. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 1–21. EBSCOhost.

Weinstein, Brian. “Shakespeare’s Forgivable Portrayal of Shylock.” Jewish Bible Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, July 2007, pp. 187–191. EBSCOhost.

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