Racism in Shakespeare’s OthelloRacism and discrimination against Africans has existed long before the times of anti- miscegenation laws and lynching in the Deep South. In William Shakespeare’s Othello, we can see that racism against those of color existed even in the 17th century.
“Shakespeare’s play is the text that will at once unsettle and fill in, substantiate and resolve what the audience suspects it already knows about the essence of blackness as the savage and libidinous Other” (Little 305). Shakespeare wields the prejudice that he knows the audience has come with, by making Othello the victim of Iago’s malicious plan. “The weight of critical tradition… presents a Shakespeare who finds racial and cultural difference insignificant and who assimilates his Moor into the ‘human’ condition” (Berry 316). Shakespeare uses the preconceived notions about “Moors” and turns them into a grand twist in the play.
Though it is never explicitly said, the evidence that the protagonist Othello is, in fact, black, is overwhelming. For example, Iago says “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (Shakespeare 2921), referring to Othello and Desdemona’s elopement in both a racist and vulgar way, as well as referring to Othello as a Barbary horse (Shakespeare 2921) which is lowering him to an inhumane level. Another example is when the Duke of Venice tells Brabanzio “And, noble signor, If virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (Shakespeare 2933). Even Othello himself regards his own blackness “My name, that was as fresh as Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face” (Shakespeare 2961).
Some might consider these as vague examples, and would much rather interpret Othello’s “blackness” metaphorically or allegorically as the savageness of his character. Shakespeare tends to name his plays after its main character(s), for instance, Hamlet, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and Othello. In both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, the most thoroughly developed characters are namely, Hamlet, Juliet, and Romeo. They are the most round characters and the audience hears their thoughts and connects with them the most throughout the plays.
On the other hand, in Othello, Othello is a comparatively weak, flat character that the audience has little interaction with. Othello has a limited vocabulary and very shallow thought process.Why then does Shakespeare choose to make Othello the main character of the play? Why does Shakespeare glorify a black character by making him a courageous and honorable General, when in most Elizabethan literature, black is viewed in a negative light? “Shakespeare invokes the negative Elizabethan stereotypes of Africans only to discredit them” (Berry 316). Shakespeare uses Othello as a sort of statement in which he points out the inconsistencies in society.
“It depends, finally, upon the ability to accuse Othello the man rather than the culture that damns him from the start, thereby making personal the definition of Othello as savage” (Little 310). The thought of committing miscegenation is so repulsive to the Venetians that they even consider it as going against nature. For instance when Brabanzio heard of his daughter’s marriage to the “moor”, he says “And she in spite of nature, of years of country, credit, everything, to fall in love with what she feared look on!” (Shakespeare 2928) Othello is respected and prized as a skilled warrior by the Venetians, but when he decides he wants to marry the fair Desdemona, a can of worms is opened and all of a sudden his race becomes an issue. Racial prejudice is a crucial issue in the play, because it isolates Othello, making him feel like some sort of an outcast.
In the play, he is very rarely referred to as “Othello”, but rather as the “moor”. Some examples of others referring to Othello as the moor include “Look to her, Moor if thou hast eyes to see” said by Brabanzio (Shakespeare 2933), “Adieu brave Moor. Use Desdemona well” said by the Senator (Shakespeare 2933), and “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago” said by Iago (Shakespeare 2920). Some argue that it is this feeling of isolation that is the root of all Othello’s troubles.
“The tragedy of Othello is that finally he fails to love his own body, to love himself, and it is this despairing self-hatred that spawns the enormous savagery, degradation, and destructiveness of his jealousy” (Little 309). It is because of this psychological complex that has formed that leads him to wonder if he is even worthy of Desdemona.Othello is understood to have at his core an essential absence, to have as his essence a lost and unlovable blackamoor self’- savage, degraded, and destructive-that always already exists as a subject within quotation marks. He has no literal self that is not already metaphorically lost or missing.
(Little 309) Othello’s incredibly low self-esteem and loss of “self” makes him more susceptible to Iago’smalevolent suggestions. Othello’s tragedy is his susceptibility to Iago, his fury at Desdemona, and his final attempts at self-justification. This is his anxiety about his blackness (Little 305). Iago takes advantage of Othello’s weakness in character in order to make him believe that Desdemona has turned her attentions toward a younger, white man, Cassio.
The true tragedy of the story is the death of Desdemona. Desdemona loved Othello regardless of his race or age. Even when her father disapproved of their marriage, she stayed by his side, disowning her duties as a daughter. The play reaches its climax after the death of Desdemona.
The question of why Othello takes his own life after her death is puzzling though. It can be argued that while Othello possessed all that he did, he realized that his life was not worth living without Desdemona. In the end, Othello realizes that his actions have destroyed the one being that did not limit him or judge him by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character (Martin Luther King Jr. 1963).
This realization leads Othello to take his own life. Othello’s very lack of a cultural identity becomes a powerful ingredient in his tragedy (Orkin 323). At the end of the play, he is left with literally nothing. The respect he once had is tarnished by the murder he has committed, the wife that loved him regardless to his race is dead by his own doing, and he has even lost his life to his misery.
It is at this point that Shakespeare alters any ideas the audience might have had going into to see the play. It is impossible to not sympathize with Othello, the black “moor”, after seeing such evil be committed by the white Iago.By stripping Othello of everything, Shakespeare brings him back to the forefront of the play and the audience’s attention. Racism has existed for centuries.
Its effects can not only be read about in history books, but in famous literary works as well. In Shakespeare’s Othello, a major theme of the play is the effect that racial prejudice and discrimination have on the main character, Othello. By victimizing Othello, and showing that true “blackness” is more than skin deep, Shakespeare turns the audience’s negativity towards a white character, Iago. This jump in philosophies represents the distinction that one should make between shallow surface judgments and a deeper evaluation of an individual’s character.
The fact that racism was prevailing in the 17th century led Shakespeare to write a play that would remove preconceived notions and replace them with the ideathat judging by the quality of one’s actions is the way to judge an individual. Work CitedBerry, Edward, Othello’s Alienation, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol. 30, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1990), pp.
315-333 Published by: Rice University King, Martin Luther “I Have a Dream” August 28, 1963.Little, Arthur L, An Essence that’s Not Seen: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 44, No. 3 (Autumn, 1993), pp.
304-324 Published by: Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University. Orkin, Martin, Othello and the “plain face” Of Racism, Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 38, No. 2 (Summer, 1987), pp.
166-188 Published by: Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.Shakespeare, William, The Norton Anthology of World Literature 1500-1650 Vol. C Published by: W.W.
Norton and Company New York