Racism in Othello by William Shakespeare
Jessica Scott is a graduate of the University of Louisville, where she majored in English and Humanities and minored in Literature, Linguistics, and Classical and Modern Languages. She has over 14 years of experience writing, editing, and tutoring students on literary and educational topics, and is a certified TEFL instructor.
Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
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Racism in othello, racism theme in othello, analysis of racism, lesson summary.
Racism is prejudice toward or discrimination against a person of another race solely because they are of that race. It is a belief that people with another skin color or of another ethnic group have distinct qualities or characteristics that make them inherently "less than," even if this is not the truth.
In William Shakespeare's tragic play, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (usually referred to simply as Othello ), racism takes center stage. In fact, one of the most common connections drawn by literary critics is between Othello and race. Most of the racism in Othello is directed at the titular character, who is described as a Moor in Europe. "Moor" is an antiquated word for people who hail from North Africa. It describes someone whose skin was black or very dark as opposed to the white skin of everyone else in this play.
Despite being from another country, Othello is serving as a general in the European military; his heart is in Venice with the woman he married there, Desdemona. Trouble brews, however, when Iago, an ensign in Othello's unit, fools Othello into believing that his wife and Othello's lieutenant, Cassio, are having an affair. Already self-conscious about his skin color and the fact that he is older than his young, lovely wife, Othello does not question it when he finds his wife's handkerchief in Cassio's possession. He does not realize that the wicked Iago planted that handkerchief just to enrage him, and this pushes him over the edge. In the end, he kills Desdemona in a fit of jealousy, all because of Iago's manipulation.
Iago and Racism
The manipulation carried out by Iago is, at times, racially charged. When he speaks to Desdemona's father, attempting to get him riled up about Othello marrying his daughter, he speaks in a vulgar manner about the two of them, likening Othello to a brutish, dirty farm animal. "An old black ram is tupping your white ewe," he tells him, knowing that the man is already prejudiced toward those who are not white like him. He wants him to visualize something crude violating his pristine, pure daughter, and his language has the desired effect. He takes this even further by telling him that Desdemona and Othello "are making the beast / with two backs." This is a very derogatory way of saying they are having sex by implying that the Black man is more comparable to an inhuman "beast" than to an upstanding man like Othello. This, too, is racist, as it was a stereotype at the time that those from Africa were more likely to give in to their sexual urges, which was seen as disgusting and uncouth by the European elites. In addition to referring to Othello as a "black ram," he also uses other terms like "a Barbary horse" (a type of horse from Africa) and even "the devil" throughout the play, which both have racist connotations.
There is something else hiding behind Iago's racism, however. While it is clear from the beginning of the play that he is already a hateful man at heart, his wickedness is kicked into high gear when Othello promotes Cassio to the position of lieutenant instead of Iago. He also seems to believe that Othello may have slept with his wife ("I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leap'd into my seat," he says at one point) but there is no proof of this in the rest of the play. It is unclear if this affair is something that really happened or if Iago is just being paranoid, but his hatred toward Othello as a person melds with his racism toward people of his skin color to produce a character that is even more despicable.
Brabantio and Racism
Brabantio, Desdemona's father, shares Iago's disdain for people of color. He, too, has another reason to hate Othello — he eloped with his daughter without his permission — but much of his attitude toward Othello is based on racial stereotypes and mistaken beliefs about other cultures. He asserts, for example, that the only reason that Desdemona married Othello was that Othello used potions and magic to steal her away. "She is abused," he says, "stol'n from me, and corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks." Mountebanks, in this case, are sketchy swindlers, who he thinks are the type of shady characters someone like Othello would be associating with. He is certain that "sans witchcraft," there is no possible way his daughter could ever naturally love a man like Othello because he can't see past his skin color.
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- 0:05 The Tragedy of…
- 3:19 Acts I and II: Iago's…
- 8:20 Acts III and IV:…
- 13:44 Act V: Tragic Action
- 15:44 Themes: The…
- 19:10 Lesson Summary
Some literary critics have theorized that Shakespeare wrote Othello in an attempt to point out the racism that was prevalent in society at the time of its writing. Although the word "Renaissance" sounds like a very enlightened time period, there was, in actuality, a lot of prejudice and discrimination taking place. Much of that prejudice and discrimination was against people like Othello, who were from Africa and/or had darker skin. Many Europeans felt superior to them, which is something that Shakespeare was arguably trying to correct by presenting a hero who was of color. In the end, though, the bad things that Othello did were not due to a flaw of his own or to his own disposition, but to the terrible things that Iago, a white person, had convinced him to do. As such, one of the major themes of the play is racism and its effect on innocent people.
In the text, this racism is presented, not necessarily as a result of some inherent trait of evil within the characters, but as ignorance. Since the Venetians in the play may not have been exposed to many people of other races and cultural backgrounds during the time the play took place, they were quick to assume that there was something "wrong" with them. They feared these "others" and so they assumed they were wicked in some way. But if they had truly gotten to know the Moors like Desdemona got to know Othello instead of acting upon their presuppositions about other races, perhaps the story would have had a different ending.
Race seems to be the main theme of the play, but there are many different critical analyses of it. Some critics assert that perhaps Othello was not actually African at all, but Middle Eastern or just an Englishman with very dark skin. Elizabethans at the time were quick to call any darker-skinned person a "Moor" regardless of whether they actually were from North Africa, and Othello's birthplace is never explicitly stated in the play. So, while some of these critics may agree that the theme of the play is still racism, they say that it is unclear which race (if any) is being discriminated against.
There are also some critics who attempt to set aside the issue of race in Othello altogether or at least diminish its importance to the plot. Others like Laura Reitz-Wilson note that nearly every character in the play shows signs of racism toward Othello. She quotes Edward Berry, writer of "Othello's Alienation", as saying that his race "is not only a mark of his physical alienation but a symbol, to which every character in the play, himself included, must respond." This makes it impossible to view Othello without taking into account the stark differences between the races of the characters. Would Brabantio have been so quick to assume Othello bewitched his daughter had he been a white European like him? And would everyone be so easily convinced that Othello was a bad man if his skin were not dark?
This dichotomy of white versus Black makes the play problematic to perform at times because, according to some scholars, there is still a lingering, unconscious bias in society that makes it too easy for some to see Othello solely as "other" or "less than" because of his race. This same problem is noted in another of Shakespeare's plays, The Merchant of Venice , in which characters also use racial stereotypes (this time against a character from a Jewish background). In that play, however, the character against whom everyone is biased is actually the antagonist, so it is unclear what, if anything, Shakespeare was trying to say about race in that piece.
In Othello , however, it is clear that Shakespeare is attempting to make the audience think twice about how they view darker-skinned people at a time when racism was at a high point.
In Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice , racism is a central theme. This racism is displayed through acts of discrimination and bias toward the main character, Othello, based on his skin color and ethnicity. Unlike nearly everyone else in Shakespeare's works, who are all of European descent, Othello is a Moor , or a man from North Africa. Iago, the play's antagonist, uses this "otherness" to color peoples' opinions about Othello. Iago himself is full of hatred toward Othello because he promoted Cassio to lieutenant instead of him and because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife. He uses his own racist ideology to stir up racism in others, turning people like Brabantio, the father of Othello's wife Desdemona, against Othello. He then puts Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's possession to make Othello think that the two of them are having an affair, which ultimately leads to Othello killing his wife in a jealous rage.
One of the main themes of Othello is racism, but some scholars downplay this aspect by wondering if Othello is actually from North Africa at all. He is described as a Moor, but this term was often used during the Elizabethan era in England as a reference to anyone from Africa, the Middle East, or possibly even England itself who had a darker skin color than the average Englishman. Since no birthplace is given for Othello, they posit, it is possible that he is not actually African, but simply a person of color. Either way, his race is a focal point of the play and drives much of its action.
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Is race a theme in Othello?
Race is one of the main themes in Othello . Much of what happens in the plot is based on the other characters' perceptions of Othello, who is of a different race. Racism can be seen in the dialogue of several characters, most notably Iago, Brabantio, and Roderigo, who speak of Othello with disparaging tems.
How is Othello insecure about his race?
Othello experiences a lot of racism in the play, but he himself also focuses on his race when Iago tries to convince him that his wife is cheating on him with Cassio. He finds it easy to doubt that his wife loves him because he sees himself as an older Black man while she is a young, pretty, white woman. This insecurity leads him to fall for Iago's tricks and believe the worst of Desdemona.
What role does racism play in Othello?
Many literary critics argue that racism is a central theme in Othello . It drives many of the decisions made by its characters, because Othello is a Black man in a city of white Venetians and is often seen as an outsider. Iago, the play's main antagonist, uses racism to turn people against Othello, such as Brabantio, the father of Othello's wife Desdemona.
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by William Shakespeare
What would be a good thesis statement about the character of Othello based on the issue of racism in Othello ?
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"What would be a good thesis statement about the character of Othello based on the issue of racism in Othello ?" eNotes Editorial , 8 Feb. 2011, https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-would-good-these-statment-othello-based-issue-242607. Accessed 27 Feb. 2023.
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Your thesis statement is going to depend on what claim you want to make about the theme of racism in Othello . What stance are you taking? Are you going to claim that the play is racist? Are you going to look at the idea that race affects the relationships of the main characters? Are you going to claim that things would have been different for Othello had he not been black? All of these would be defensible ideas. However, before you can formulate a thesis statement, you have to know what you want to say about the play and why you want to say it. Remember, a thesis is a defensible opinion. What's the main point you want to get across? Your thesis should emerge from there.
Latest answer posted December 03, 2020 at 4:29:02 PM
What is Iago's plan and purpose in act 1, scene 3 of Othello?
Latest answer posted April 07, 2021 at 11:18:50 AM
Why does Iago think that Emilia has slept with both Othello and Cassio, and where in the play does he voice these suspicions?
Latest answer posted June 04, 2021 at 12:33:31 AM
Why might Shakespeare choose to begin Othello in the middle of a conversation between Iago and Roderigo?
Latest answer posted December 08, 2016 at 2:37:48 PM
What is the relationship between Iago and Roderigo in Othello?
Latest answer posted May 07, 2021 at 8:11:46 AM
What is the meaning of the following quote from Shakespeare's play Othello? "Tis not a year or two shows us a man. / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food. / They eat us hungrily, and...
Writing help, paraphrasing tool, racism and racial prejudice in othello.
- Iago , Othello , Prejudice , Racism
How it works
In the book, Othello, by William Shakespeare, we see a big impact of racism and racial prejudice. Othello shows a lot of this and how it gets in the way by restraining love in society. He is a black man who is also a great and successful war soldier. He dedicates himself to serve society’s goals by fighting for his country. Even though, Othello is a Moor, he is the most hardworking and the most respected. When it comes to his love life with Desdemona, he is very different. This truly affects Othello’s life and the structure of the course throughout the plot.
- 1 Prejudice in Othello
- 2 Racism in Othello
Prejudice in Othello
Racism in othello.
Throughout the book, racism just keeps getting worse for Othello. Iago doesn’t seem to stand him at all because of the fact that he’s a Moor and that he’s black. Iago believes that an African American person person cannot be successful or good in any way. He also believed that Othello couldn’t marry a beautiful woman who was white. Iago is angered when he finds out that they get married. He bugs out and uses racist language. Iago uses a term to abuse Othello as a “black ram. This shows his true hatred for Othello and black people in general.
As Othello’s awareness of others in society and what the people actually think of him gets to him, he isn’t surprised at all. He begins to realize that everyone in his society actually does think less of him because of who is as a Moor. He sees that Iago was a bad and racist person. The insecurity about his race and the realization that he is different than every person in his society leads to his hatred and anger to really come out. This anger really gets to Othello in which he kills Desdemona. He felt less upon himself and started to lose his self-confidence as a person. He comes to conclusion that Cassio would’ve been a better husband towards Desdemona because he was white and that he was considered a “ladies man. Othello thinks that he was never meant to marry Desdemona.
Throughout Othello’s life, he was greatly affected by race and racial prejudice. He changed as a person because of this and many bad actions took place while realizing it. Othello shows a great role of a strong and loyal soldier until he realizes what society really thinks about him. His non acceptance in society leads to the killing of his wife.
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Othello is one of the first black heroes in English literature. A military general, he has risen to a position of power and influence. At the same time, his status as a black-skinned foreigner in Venice marks him as an outsider and exposes him to some pretty overt racism, especially by his wife's father, who believes his daughter's interracial marriage can only be the result of Othello's trickery.
Because the play portrays the uber-racist fear of miscegenation (the mixing of races via marriage and/or sex), it's nearly impossible to talk about race in Othello without also discussing gender and sexuality.
Questions About Race
- Which characters in the play make an issue of Othello's race? What kinds of stereotypes are at work in this play?
- How does Othello's race affect his relationships with his wife and other characters?
- How does Othello's race play a role in the hero's self-identity?
Chew on This
In Othello , Shakespeare creates a hero who is not a racist stereotype. Despite this, Shakespeare ultimately allows Othello to succumb to the subtle racism that surrounds him. Othello views his own racial identity as undesirable, and it is this lack of confidence in himself that allows Iago to persuade him that Desdemona is cheating on him.
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Othello Racism Essay
Racism In Othello
Othello Shakespeare has written many classic play writes that in time people fall in love with is literature repeatedly. Othello, is one of the many classics that he wrote and perhaps may be one of the most controversial play writes that involve racism, betrayal, and love. The story goes in depth about interracial relationships and the status of a black man in a white privileged societies’ uprising. Othello’s first man in command, Iago and other citizens in the Venice spout racial slurs throughout
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Racism And Racism In Othello
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Examples Of Racism In Othello
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Racism In Othello Essay
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Racism In Othello Analysis
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Theme Of Racism In Othello
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Racism And Desire In Othello
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Victim Of Racism In Othello
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Othello Racism Analysis
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Othello: Racism Essay
Othello: Racism Just how serious is the problem of racial prejudice in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello? Is it pervasive or incidental? This essay intends to answer questions on this subject. Blanche Coles in Shakespeare’s Four Giants maintains that the racial discrimination in the play may be overstated by critics: In the first scene, Roderigo has referred to Othello as “thick lips.” No other character in the play attributes any such negroid features to Othello, and it
Racism In Othello Race is a critical component in Othello . It is one of the numerous variables that Othello feels makes him a pariah, somebody who is on the outside of social and political force. There are numerous issues that he needed to encounter. One of them is that he is Black. Iago takes a shot at this by recommending that his being of shading will affect his cooperations with others, including Desdemona. The way that Othello is dark is critical in a few ways since he feels this is a piece
1600s, England went through a time called “Elizabethan Era.” During this time, racism was common. People of color were called “savage.” However, in Othello by William Shakespeare, had issues about race. Throughout the play, we see a difficult relation between Othello, a black man, Desdemona, a white woman and the everyone. They weren’t happy that Desdemona and Othello were together. The crime that was committed by Othello was called a pressure group because he was pressured by Iago words. However,
English II Honors 21 May 2018 Racism Yesterday and Today People discriminate for many different reasons; fear, envy, power, or the need to segregate themselves from others. Racial prejudice is a poisonous fruit of racism, and it turns lives into hell. In Othello, examples of racism are common throughout the dialog. Racism is directed toward Othello, a brave soldier from Africa and supreme commander of the Venetian army. Othello and Desdemona find racism unleashed upon them, in the form of
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Racism in Othello, Essay Example
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Given the age and the setting in which Shakespeare’s Othello was written and first performed, racism as a component in the drama is surprisingly less evident than a modern audience would likely expect, at least not in the way racism is thought of today. It is ordinary to think of racist views as far more a product of older and less enlightened days, and Othello’s approximate date of creation as the year 1603 would certainly make an audience of today anticipate powerful racism within it as a matter of course. Moreover, England as a nation was adamantly insular and xenophobic, particularly as the defeat of the Spanish Armada of 1588 was still resounding in living memory. Shakespeare was himself notorious for writing to suit the public taste of his day, as he also tailored plays to please the power bases at court.
The basic reason, however, that racism as such is not a predominant factor in Othello is easily explained by the man who wrote it. Shakespeare’s genius would never have been content to present a mere racial motivation as a pivotal plot device, or even as a defining character trait; his art was too expansive and he knew the complexity of human beings too well to allow that. There is racism in Othello , to be sure. So, too, is racism revealed as an element in Iago’s intense hatred of the Moor. Shakespeare’s vision and presentation, however, is too enormous to rely upon so primitive and ultimately uninteresting a foundation. In exploring Othello’s tragedy and Iago’s evil, Shakespeare goes further to explore how racism itself is never a single, blind trait. In Othello , as in life, various factors collide within men, and “racism” is merely one manifestation of the wider, darker path these may take. “Only a very intelligent and highly imaginative writer could articulate the fusion of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny… in such psychically plausible terms” (Dollimore 132).
The England of Shakespeare’s day was, as stated, fiercely insular. Insularity typically breeds xenophobia, which may be seen as the structure in which racism resides. The ancient feud with France, for example, fueled within the British character a proud disdain of all French people, which led to a widespread and violently racist view of the French as a weak and immoral people. Then, antisemitism was not a hypothetical issue. Rodrigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician for years, was a Portuguese Jew. When the Earl of Essex, desperate to gain the Queen’s favor in the 1590’s, had Lopez brought to trial on scant evidence of treason, the interrogation centered on the doctor’s Jewishness. As is universally acknowledged, this fueled The Merchant of Venice , simply because “…Lopez was the best-known of the few Jews in England when the play was written” (Afran, Garber 3).
This is essential to note in regarding Othello as a victim of racism, because Shylock and Othello are the greatest representations of racism victims in Shakespeare, if not in all of Western literature, and how Shakespeare dealt with Shylock goes far in explaining why he presents the racism in Othello as he does. Shylock is not rendered as an especially likeable character; Shakespeare knew his audiences would never accept a fully dimensional Jew, and Shylock is presented in a very stereotypical manner. He is relentlessly grasping and he lives to make deals, which is how Jews were generally perceived at the time. Shakespeare, however, is incapable of drawing characters in single dimensions of any kind, and the humanity and pain of Shylock as a man is known to all the world.
With Othello , which is a later, and more subtle, play, Shakespeare does not focus on racism as such. It should be understood, in light of the comparison with Shylock, that the English had a different view of Moors, or people of African descent: “…The Elizabethan social situation was not indisolvably ( sic ) categorical, black versus white. Some Elizabethans knew about and appreciated Moorish culture, which of course relates to Othello’s character” (Kolin 15). To the greater and more cosmopolitan Elizabethan audience, Moors were nearly mythically powerful warriors, and aristocratic in their own traditions. This admiration itself has within it elements of racism, of course, yet it was by no means a simple dismissal of a Black man as a lower order of human. Consequently, Shakespeare was free to more carefully explore the many elements that go into what is often simply assessed as “racism”.
Many critics of Othello disagree, and they have the relentless hatred of Iago on their side. “There’s no denying that racism was the motivation, the means, and the end in Iago’s systematic destruction of Othello” (Robinson 94). This viewpoint overlooks the play’s greatness, as well as the brilliance of Iago’s mystery. To begin with, Iago only occasionally hints at a dislike of Othello because of his race, as he even admits that his hatred is too large to be attributed to one cause. It is simply there, within him, and the intrinsic evil of Iago is a far more fascinating character presentation than that of an angered and envious racist. To say that Iago’s racist disgust at Othello is the driving force of the play is to remove the heart of the play, and to insultingly over-simplify Shakespeare’s art.
Other critics come closer to the mark when they investigate the sexual component in the mixed race relations of Othello and Desdemona, if only because a dread of a supposed greater African potency underlies a good deal of white racism, then and now. To the racist, few things are as horrific as the notion of a Black man taking a white woman, and Shakespeare brings this up again and again, in Othello. If there is racism here, it is sexually-based.
It is not simple, either, for this sort of deep look inside racism reveals the even greater fear: the race will be polluted, and forever. In a discussion of the animalistic references to sex in the play, many of which involve different species having sex, Daileader comments: “These copulative images highlight the idea that inter-racial sex creates a new creature – and not only in the future progeny, but at the very moment of sexual union” (23). This is the overpowering fear at the heart of racism, that something unnatural will result when races combine. It is never directly referred to in Othello , but Shakespeare effectively makes the audience confront the irrational terror possibly in their own hearts.
Another aspect of racism itself, often overlooked and employed within Othello as further evidence of the author’s genius in capturing fully-dimensional characters, is how Othello is himself an active participant in the very racism he must deal with. This is true of any culture; as racist ideas are infused within it, the object of them must in some way share in the bias. Othello makes it very clear, and early in the play, that he is indeed the great hero everyone in Venice sees him as. He is very certain of his accomplishments, as he is of what the city owes him in respect. Any other hero would, then, assume Desdemona’s devotion to be a natural thing. He is a great man and he completely deserves the love of a fair maiden.
Othello, however, knows he is of a different race. “A tawny Moor, a black African, Othello is also the ‘turbanned Turk’ of his own description” (Bloom 126). Consequently, he always marvels at Desdemona’s love, and this is his own racism at play. No hero in Shakespeare is ever this amazed at being loved: “I cannot speak enough of this content/ It stops me here/ It is too much joy” (Shakespeare 22). This wonder is a form of disbelief, and it is this disbelief, born from Othello’s awareness that a Moor warrior does not as a rule have an adoring, white bride, that subtly conveys the sense that Othello views himself as different, if not inferior.
This ties into the sexual component of the drama, for Othello’s uniqueness would not place him in jeopardy if he were not married to a white woman. He has, in a sense, gone too far, and he is aware of it. Iago is as well, because Iago knows he can exploit Othello’s racial insecurities through exactly this avenue. When all is said and done, this mighty warrior is a Black man wed to a woman of a different race, and everyone in the drama, Othello included, knows that this makes him vulnerable.
The most comprehensive criticisms of Othello concede that it is a mistake to view the racism within the play as racism is understood today. In fact, the study of Othello offers vast opportunities for a better understanding of what is a truly complex issue, and it is in any culture’s best interests to seek to explore all the shades of motive within it, from the xenophobic to the sexual. Studying racism is very much a matter of studying humanity, because racism, for good or ill, has always been a reflection of human interaction.
Finally, it must be conceded that Shakespeare’s genius in presenting racism in Othello was to reveal how subtle and universal a force it can be. In a very real sense, everyone is a victim of racism because both object and racist alike live within the same world that allows the racism. This is one of the massive undercurrents in Othello, and it greatly overshadows any concept of a biased Iago as the critical instrument of the drama: “…To say that Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio seek only love and honor in the play is to gloss over the ways in which they are themselves ‘flawed’ by the racial structures: we need to guard against viewing any of them as simple oppositions to a racist Iago” (McDonald 814). Because of the scope and genius of Shakespeare, a brilliant drama revealing the many shades of motive and feeling within racism is always available to be more deeply explored.
Afran, B., and Garber, R. A. Jews on Trial . Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2005. Print.
Bloom, H. William Shakespeare’s Othello . New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Print.
Daileader, C. R. Racism, Misogyny, and the Othello Myth: Inter-Racial Couples from Shakespeare to Spike Lee. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.
Dollimore, J. Sex, Literature, and Censorship . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2001. Print.
Kolin, P.C. Othello: New Critical Essays. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002. Print.
McDonald, R. Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1945 – 2000 . Malden, MA: Blackwood Publishing Ltd., 2004. Print.
Robinson, E. L. Shakespeare Attacks Bigotry: A Close Reading of Six Plays . Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.
Shakespeare, W. Othello: A Tragedy in Five Acts . New York, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1954. Print.
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The Theme of Race and Racism in Othello, a Play by William Shakespeare
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Throughout the sixteenth century, racial prejudice was prevalent in European Society beginning with slave trade. This issue is reflected in William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello, which deals with race and racism during this timeframe. It portrays the attitude of European society towards those that were different in color and race. Shakespeare’s play took place in Venice, Italy, and at the time, Venice was a predominantly white city. Given so, Othello was judged more severely than others due to his identity and was looked upon as an outsider.
Shakespeare’s play encompasses around three main characters in which all play a role in racial prejudice. Othello, the protagonist, is portrayed as a black Moor man in the Venetian army who constantly faces racial insults due to the color of his skin. Othello is married to a white woman, Desdemona, daughter of senator Brabantio, who rejects the idea of his daughter being married to a black man. The villain, lago, tries desperately to separate her and Othello in spite of his jealousy by accusing Desdemona of being unfaithful throughout the play.
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Through the actions of the characters, we can see how Venetian society frowned upon people of color just like they did with Othello, the Moor”. In this analytical paper, I will be analyzing how the play, Othello reflects the racial prejudices that were occurring in Venetian society during the sixteenth century through the use of textual evidence and the correlation it has with the city’s’ perspectives.
People of color around the world have suffered for years due to discriminatory factors and further began to grow during the sixteenth century in Venice.
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Shakespeare was aware of these racial issues and took on the character of Othello to further show the way they were treated and looked upon. Othello was a part of the Venetian army and was perceived to be a jealous individual, which mirrors the aspects of a perceived Moor during Elizabethan times. Moors took on the courage to fight in wars but were known to be extremely jealous by Elizabethans. Given so, Iago uses Othello’s racial insecurities and utters racial commentary to disprove Othello. From the very first act of the play, Iago begins to call Othello by racial insults degrading him as if he were not human. He also makes it clear to readers that he hates Othello by saying, “…I hate the Moor”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.3.313-314).
Iago at first pretends to be on his side by telling him to not have jealousy as it is the green-eyed monster”(Shakespeare, 1986, 3.3.171) because it will lead to heartbreak but then later convinces him into thinking his wife is cheating on him. Othello initially states that he would not “make a life of jealousy”(Shakespeare, 1986, 3.3.182) but ends up starting to feel jealous which causes him to ask for proof. It is with all intention that Iago is trying to ruin Othello. Furthermore, Moors during Elizabethan times were considered as animals given their reputation as savages. This is seen numerous times throughout the play as Iago and Brabantio hardly call Othello by his name. They degrade him with racial commentaries such as “Barbary horse”, (Shakespeare, 1986, 1.1.116) “old black ram”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.1.91) and “thick lips” (Shakespeare, 1986, 1.1.68).
These racist slurs ostracize Othello from society and the depiction of “thick lips” further describes his different physical appearance imposing that he is an outsider of the community. Not only were they seen as animals, Elizabethans also correlated Moors with witchcraft, which can also be seen when Brabantio accuses Othello of using magic. Brabantio states, “Judge me the world, if ’tis not gross in sense/ That thou hast practiced on her with foul charms, Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals/ That weaken motion”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.2.75-78). He believes Othello has manipulated his daughter into marrying him, which further shows the theme of racism because Brabantio only believes that Desdemona has to be under a spell to get her to marry a black man.
Othello’s skin color leads to him being undermined and contributes to his lack of confidence. His race and his position of power cause Othello to destroy himself because of his fear and doubt with whites like Iago. Another racial issue of Venetian society that can be exemplified through Shakespeare’s Othello is the disproval of interracial marriage. England was under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I who declared that there were too many blacks in the country and ordered that they be deported. They were considered to be a danger to social hierarchy and the alliance between a black man and a white woman was not acceptable. This is reflected through Othello when he marries Desdemona.
Parents were the ones who arranged marriages during this era and individuals had little choice as to who they would marry. Before marriage, Othello was seen as an honorary white due to his military stature. Brabantio always felt kindhearted towards Othello and would even invite him over to talk about his life story. Othello recalls, “Her father loved me,/oft invited me/still questioned me the story of my life”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.3.130-131). However once married, Brabantio’s attitude began to change towards him and Othello was then considered a black man. He did not welcome the marriage despite Othello’s high stature in the military and adopts a discriminatory attitude.
Brabantio states, Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!/For I’ll refer me to all things of sense,/If she in chains of magic were not bound,/Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy/So opposite to marriage that she shunned/The wealthy curlèd darlings of our nation,/Would ever have, t’incur a general mock,/Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/Of such a thing as thou to fear, not to delight. (Shakespeare, 1986, 1.2.66-74) He believes his daughter was manipulated into marrying a black man because she was opposed to marriage initially. Conversely, later in the play Desdemona clarifies that she indeed married him for love and was not manipulated into doing so. The independence Desdemona showed from her father was unusual in Elizabethan times and would not be tolerable.
If Othello were white then Brabantio would never be against the union of Othello and Desdemona. This further shows us that blacks were discriminated and interracial marriage was frowned upon in Venetian society in the sixteenth century. As a final point, all of the racial commentaries and insecurities Othello faced led him into believing he was an outsider, which ultimately led him to his own death. There are countless times Iago mistreats Othello. As stated before, Othello is called names pertaining to animals such as “black ram” and is manipulated into believing his own wife is cheating on him. Othello mentions, “For since these arms of mine had seven years pith/ Till now some nine moons wasted/ …in the tented field/ … little of this great world can I speak”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.3.86-89). Through this we can see that Othello’s life mainly encompasses around battle and he has yet to have a fulfilled life. He also adds in that he was “sold to slavery, of [his] redemption thence/And portance in [his] traveler’s history”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.3.141-142).
These incongruities set Othello apart from the community thus making him an outsider compared to the higher social hierarchy at the time This realization destroys Othello causing him to kill himself. When he does kill himself he says he is killing the “turbaned Turk” who “beat a Venetian and traduced the state” (Shakespeare, 1986, 5.2.349-350). Here he finalizes his views on himself such that he calls himself a “Turk”. He has fundamentally become someone else because of Iago’s manipulative power. He is killing himself as the “Turk” or the “Moor” as an act of Venetian devotion. Due to racism, Othello becomes more vulnerable to manipulation and is easily tricked by Iago. Racism assures that Othello will remain isolated from his peers while Iago plays with his mind by separating him from his white peers and making him the outsider.
Shakespeare’s play could not have been a tragedy without the negative pressures from racism. To restate, Queen Elizabeth I had ordered blacks to be deported from the country during the sixteenth century, which caused them to feel unwanted and mistreated. Racism was key during this era and blacks never had the opportunity to fit into society just like Othello. They were deprived from many opportunities and had to face the realities of living in a black body. As has been mentioned, racism was a crucial issue occurring during Elizabethan times in the sixteenth century during the publication of William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello
. Shakespeare was mindful of such issues and personified them in his character of Othello. By doing so, readers are able to see how Venetian society in the sixteenth century discriminated against African Americans in such ways of perceiving blacks as animals and savages just like how Othello was perceived, disproving interracial marriage, and ultimately causing blacks to feel like outsiders. Also through the characters’ actions in Shakespeare’s play, we can further interpret how African Americans were mistreated and caused to feel like outsiders.
- Shakespeare, W. (1986). The Tragedy of Othello The Moore of Venice With New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography (A. B. Kernan & S. Barnet, Eds.). New York, NY: Signet Classics. (Originally published in 1963).
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How is Othello insecure about his race? Othello experiences a lot of racism in the play, but he himself also focuses on his race when Iago tries to convince him that his wife is cheating on...
Your thesis statement is going to depend on what claim you want to make about the theme of racism in Othello. What stance are you taking? Are you going to claim that the play is racist? Are...
Othello thinks that he was never meant to marry Desdemona. Throughout Othello’s life, he was greatly affected by race and racial prejudice. He changed as a person because of this and many bad actions took place while realizing it. Othello shows a great role of a strong and loyal soldier until he realizes what society really thinks about him.
Which characters in the play make an issue of Othello's race? What kinds of stereotypes are at work in this play? How does Othello's race affect his relationships with his wife and other characters? How does Othello's race play a role in the hero's self-identity? Chew on This. In Othello, Shakespeare creates a hero who is not a racist stereotype. Despite this, Shakespeare ultimately allows Othello to succumb to the subtle racism that surrounds him.
Racism In Othello. Othello Shakespeare has written many classic play writes that in time people fall in love with is literature repeatedly. Othello, is one of the many classics that he wrote and perhaps may be one of the most controversial play writes that involve racism, betrayal, and love. The story goes in depth about interracial relationships and the status of a black man in a white privileged societies’ uprising.
In Othello, as in life, various factors collide within men, and “racism” is merely one manifestation of the wider, darker path these may take. “Only a very intelligent and highly imaginative writer could articulate the fusion of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny… in such psychically plausible terms” (Dollimore 132).
Due to racism, Othello becomes more vulnerable to manipulation and is easily tricked by Iago. Racism assures that Othello will remain isolated from his peers while Iago plays with his mind by separating him from his white peers and making him the outsider. Shakespeare’s play could not have been a tragedy without the negative pressures from racism.