O T H E L L O
HOW CAN THE TEXT (OTHELLO) BE READ AND INTERPRETED DIFFERENTLY BY TWO DIFFERENT READERS / AN ELIZABETHEAN READER AND A MODERN READER?
Paragraph 1 – gender.
Paragraph 2 – race.
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, however, his status as a black-skinned foreigner in Venice marks him as an outside 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 fears of miscegenation (the intermixing of races via marriage and/or sex), it's nearly impossible to talk about race in Othello without also discussing gender and sexuality.
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.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise I say! (s1.a1.l9)
Iago uses racist slurs when he wakens Brabantio with the news that his daughter, Desdemona (a white Venetian), has eloped with Othello (an older, black man). When Iago says an "old black ram" (Othello) is "tupping" (sleeping with) Brabantio's "white ewe" (Desdemona), he plays on Elizabethan notions that black men have an animal-like, hyper-sexuality. This seems geared at manipulating Brabantio's fears of miscegenation (when a couple "mixes races" through marriage and/or sex). It's also important to note that, although Othello is a Christian, Iago calls him "the devil," playing on a sixteenth century idea that black men were evil and that the devil often took the shape and form of a black man DUKE OF VENICE
And, noble signior,
If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.' (1.3.22)
Not everyone in Venice shares Brabantio's views of Othello. The Senators and the Duke obviously admire Othello, who is a celebrated and honorable military leader. Here, the Duke defends Othello against Brabantio's accusations that Othello used "magic" on Desdemona. On the one hand, we can read the Duke's assertion that Othello is virtuous and "fair" as a compliment. On the other hand, the Duke's words are also troubling because the compliment to Othello hinges on the idea that blackness has negative connotations. Ultimately, the Duke implies that Othello is "fair" despite the fact that he is black. This suggests that Othello is the exception to the rule. We also want to point out how the tragedy of Othello is that, by play's end, Othello ends up fulfilling a racist stereotype (that black men are savage murderers) when he kills his white wife in her bed. In other words, Othello ends up becoming not unlike the murdering exotics he talks about in his adventure stories. So, what's going on here? Does this mean the play is racist? Or, was Shakespeare trying to provoke his sixteenth-century audiences into (re)thinking their ideas about racial identity?
She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell:
'Twas I that kill'd her.
O, the more angel she,
And you the blacker devil! (5.2.36)
When Othello kills Desdemona, he enacts a racist stereotype – that black men are violent, savage, and to be feared. Does this make the play and/or Shakespeare racist? Or, is there a more complex idea at work in the play?
Awake! what, ho, Brabantio! thieves! thieves! thieves!
Look to your house, your daughter and your bags!
Thieves! thieves! (1.1.7)
Iago's looking to stir up trouble for Othello when he...
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