Hatred is one of the most powerful emotions, and a great driver of action in drama. Unlike some of the other emotional forces, like love, hate isn’t something that suffuses Shakespeare’s dramas, although some themes, like jealousy, envy and ambition, which are allied to hatred, and often go hand in hand with it in the plays, are prominent in the play texts – present in every aspect. When the theme of hatred is at the centre of a Shakespeare play we see some very powerful drama, as hatred is a strong driving force in drama and serves to generate some strong action.

Let us take Othello as a play in which hatred is at the centre of the drama. The conflict of the plot is driven by hatred: hatred is fuelled by racism and jealousy and by the end of the drama we are left with the impression of just how destructive it is.

Iago’s hatred for Othello is irrational. No matter how many times we may see the play we can never get to the bottom of why he hates Othello. Certainly, in his comments to others, he refers to Othello’s ethnicity. Some of the images in his language are designed to provoke the maximum racist response in the listener. When Othello retires to his lodgings with his white bride, Desdemona, Othello wakes her father with the cry, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.”

But it is not Othello’s race that is causing this hatred. Iago does not himself know why he hates Othello. Confiding in the audience he at one point, early on in the play, tells us:

‘I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if ’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.’

The idea that Othello has slept with Iago’s wife, Emilia, is absurd. There is no suggestion of that anywhere and as one gets to know Emelia through the text, it’s clear that that isn’t a possibility. Iago dreams that suspicion up and then says he’s going to take it as a fact and act on it as such. It’s pure prejudice, based on nothing more than his irrational hatred.

At other junctures in the play there are more possible reasons for Iago’s hatred, such as the fact that he has been passed over for promotion. But the real reason never becomes clear. Clearly, he has no reason to hate Othello but he designs a plot to destroy him, a plot so vicious and heartless that its execution not only destroys Othello but causes maximum collateral damage – the death of Desdemona and the destruction of Cassio’s career.

Some critics have suggested that Iago is a sociopath, an unknown condition in Shakespeare’s time, although such personality defects must have existed and, of course, Shakespeare would have encountered people who had them. Certainly, Iago is merciless, without empathy, although he can put on a show of empathy. He uses people ruthlessly and manipulates everyone, without any feelings for those his machinations affect, including his wife. It seems that he does those things simply for the fun of it, driven by an irrational hatred for Othello. And, as this play shows, that hatred can destroy love.

Romeo and Juliet’s  setting is the environment of hatred. Shakespeare’s exploration of the theme is different from that he employs in Othello. In Romeo and Juliet the hatred between the two Verona families that causes death and suffering – and affects the lives of so many young people – is often mentioned, but it doesn’t actually exist. It is an ancient hatred, a feud where not even the oldest family members can remember, or have even been told, the origins of the feud: it’s just a fact of Verona’s life that the Capulets and the Montagues ‘hate’ each other and it’s never questioned, even though the emotions of hatred are largely absent.

In the actual life of the families, the members of one do not hold anything personal against any members of the other family. When Tybald, a fiery champion of the feud, tells Capulet that young Romeo is gatecrashing Capulet’s party, Capulet threatens to beat him if he tries to do anything about it: in reality he welcomes the attendance of the young Montague. He knows how hollow the hatred is and knows, too, that any action based on it will lead to the disruption of the harmony of his party.

As the play works its way through the theme we see the pity of the feud and we weep at its consequence, the tragic death of two of the families’ young people, and we are left pondering about the futility of hatred.

There is probably nothing about the human condition that Shakespeare didn’t write about. In the four centuries since Shakespeare the world has gone through enormous change, from the agricultural age of Shakespeare’s time, through the industrial revolution, into technology and now, a new digital technology. Even in a single lifetime one can see unbelievable change. And yet, human nature has not changed, it has merely adapted to the technological and social changes as they have occurred. And so, in a play like The Merchant of Venice we see the same kind of anti-Semitism that we recognise in our lives today. Elizabethan Londoners were not very familiar with Jews and knew only what the prejudices of the time told them. Shakespeare creates a real, living, breathing Jew and makes him centre-stage in the play.

In this play Shakespeare illustrates the theme of hate most prominently through the prejudices of both Christians and Jews, and their behaviour towards one another. The play is centred around racial prejudice and the mistrust between Christians and Jews. Shylock is characterised as the scapegoat, just as the Jews have been throughout history. And in turn, Shylock’s prejudice and dislike for the Christians is largely based on their mistreatment of him.

It’s an interesting play in that the audience is seduced into identifying with the Christians and we have a triple love story that locks us in to that story. But a seeming sub-plot shows a nasty anti-Semitic attitude from the lovers we are busy identifying with. Shakespeare is challenging us, asking, as Shylock does, is not a Jew the same in his humanity as everyone else? It is through this depiction of hatred that Shakespeare makes us reflect on ourselves and our responses.

Read more of Shakespeare’s themes >>