William Shakespeare wrote the play Othello in 1603, where there was a lot of racial pressure as there were more and more coming in to the country, even though there was a lot of trade activity at that time. The queen herself expressed her views publicly in 1601 at her dislike of the African people coming into England. Queen Elizabeth the 1st decreed a law that would see the transportation of the ‘negars and blackamoors which are crept into the realm’ out of England to another place.
The views of 17th century England on other races were of inferior and bestial creatures. Many travellers portrayed the African people as ‘a people of beastly lyvinge’ and an extract of Eldred Jones’ book ‘Othello’s Countrymen’ quoted,
‘whomsoever they finde but talking with their wives they presently go about to murther them … by reason of jalousie you may see them daily one to be the death and destruction of another.’
Shakespeare’s England was different from today. There was a different view on racism. Shakespeare could have written his play because he views on stereotyping and racism was different from his surrounding environment, hence the noble character at the beginning and the heroic lift of dignity and honour at the end of the play. This is different compared to Macbeth, where there was no rise in dignity at the end of the play. He might have had a humane view on the rest of the world, and treated everyone like equals. He might have written it because even he was caught up in the racism during that time. Shakespeare could also have written it because this was what the audience wanted, and he was just a playwright. If he showed racism in the play, he would get a larger audience.
We see racism in the play as early as the opening scene of Othello when Roderigo and Iago are going to tell Brabantio of Desdemona’s elopement with Othello.
‘What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe’
This immediately tells us that Iago is obsessed with Othello’s colour and appearance. We can tell that Iago is jealous of Othello and his status of General of the Army of Venice, and he is also jealous that he didn’t get promoted but Othello promoted an inexperienced man, Cassio, in his place.
‘For ‘Certes,’ says he,
‘I have already chosen my office.’
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor; this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient.’
This is unusual, as Shakespeare has shown a coloured person with a high status. During the time that Othello was written, there was a lot of racism and it was thought of black people to be low in status and bestial in character, but Othello is shown as someone noble and very high in status that he has people working under him.
For example, the first black actor to play Othello was Ira Aldridge in 1833, which is 230 years after the play was written. In October 1825, before Aldridge had even performed in Othello, The Times criticised him saying,
‘Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in such a manner as to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery’.
Many viewers of the play at that time may have been disappointed that a coloured person was so high, but Shakespeare fulfils their thirst for racial prejudice by making Othello fall in status from a respected general to a lowlife beast of a man who kills his wife because of false rumours, and then killing himself when he finds out the truth.
Iago continues to show the audience his thoughts towards Othello and other black people when he is telling Brabantio that his daughter has run away with Othello.
‘… An old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.’
This quote shows us what is going on in Iago’s mind. It tells us that he is very crude in thought as well as very racist. This is elaborated in his dialogue with Brabantio in the same scene. Iago tells Brabantio that he had better hurry and find his daughter,
‘Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.’
The devil in this quote is symbolised by Othello, as many people during the time the play was written thought the devil to be black. This is seen again in Act 5 Scene 2, where Emilia finds out that Desdemona has been killed and tells Othello the truth.
‘O, the more angel she,
And you the blacker devil!’
For the audience, being black meant being sinful, or the villain. The hero was always the knight in shining white armour. However, in Act One Scene Two, Shakespeare uses his language to show the audience a totally different view of Othello compared to Scene One where he is shown as a beast who has no control over his desires. Here Othello is shown as noble, fair and righteous. When he finds out that Brabantio is after him and is asked to take shelter in a safe place, he responds by saying,
‘Not I; I must be found.
My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.’
This quote shows us something highly unexpected of a coloured person during those times when the play was written. It shows us that Othello is clear in conscience and is noble in the face of danger. He believes that because he is in the right, nothing bad can happen to him as truth always wins. However, we see later on in the play how the character of Othello deteriorates from a well-known general to a lowlife murderer of his wife. All this is done by the word play of Iago. Iago manipulates Roderigo and Cassio and twists Othello’s mind into thinking that Desdemona is cheating on him and we see the transformation of Othello into a black beast. This is what the audience at that time liked to see. They liked to see a black person fall in dignity and honour. The audience knows the whole truth, so it makes it even worse that Othello is being made a fool.
In Act Four Scene One, Othello hears Iago’s rumours of Desdemona’s affair with Cassio and falls into an epileptic fit. In this part of the play Shakespeare’s racism is showing through. By merely showing the audience what the whole country collectively felt about black people, he was also showing his own racism. To the audience, black people had no control over their bodies or desire, so it was no surprise to them that Othello was seen on the floor convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Many people considered the black people of England below the standards even to be in social hierarchy, forgetting the fact that they were also humans. Despite the fact that there was so much trade activity going on between England and the Asian-African continents, they still hung on to the belief that black people inferior to the English. Because of this, black people were alienated from the English folk.
In the same scene, Othello has deteriorated so much that after hearing the lies from Iago, he orders Iago to kill Cassio, who he thinks is having an affair with his wife.
‘Within these three days let me hear thee say
That Cassio’s not alive.’
Iago has made Othello a fool. This was welcomed when the play was shown as this was what the audience wanted to see, Othello being used and being low in status. This madness of Othello carries on until he kills his wife because of the rumours he thought to be true. This was expected of black people during the times that the play was written, as we can see from Eldred Jones’s extract above. Black people were thought to be cannibals and constantly fighting amongst each other like barbarians.
As with most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Othello rises in status briefly before falling again and committing suicide. When he finds out that Desdemona was innocent, he regains his fallen honour and then commits suicide. This is what the audience deemed a good ending; the black person is made into a fool so gives up and commits suicide. The racism is captured in the play to appease the audience of those times, but in these times, it is frowned upon. When Shakespeare was writing the play, it was alright for racism to be evident in the script, but is not suitable for today.
The play and how it was written was very strongly influenced by the environment in which it was written. Had it been written today, there would not be so much racism in the play. Today there are pressure groups who can protest and show their views publicly, but in 17th century England, there was no such thing. If a black person expressed his views, he would almost immediately be punished, harder than was necessary. Therefore, no one complained about the amount of racism in the play, but was almost welcomed by the audience. This play was a product of the racism of its times.