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Racism in Othello, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1774

Essay

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.

Works Cited

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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