Race and religion seem to be very prevalent in Shakespeare’s Othello. From the beginning of the play the reader gets the impression that the protagonist, Othello the Moor, is considered an “other” in the Venetian society. Othello’s high military ranking gives him the respect of the characters in the play, but his race and religion are brought up a lot throughout the play in the speech of the characters in the play. Despite the characters in the text constant dehumanization of Othello because of his racial and religious differences and the imposition of assimilation, Shakespeare challenged the stereotypes of the Moors and created a hero that was more human than the rest of the characters in the play.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a Moor is a “member of a Northwestern African Muslim of mixed Berber and Arab descent,” (OD). At this point in time, the Moors were viewed as savage-like and monstrous because of their skin color and stature. In Europe, Moors were seen as the “other” because of their skin color and religion. An early recount of Spain’s view on the Moors was that “their faces were black as pitch, the handsomest among them was black as a cooking pot, and their eyes blazed like fire,” (Brann).
The most interesting aspect of the play Othello is how the other characters act around him. They never seem to address him by his name and when they are speaking of him, they refer to him as the Moor. It seems as though they placed a huge importance on his race and religion since the two are so closely connected. According to Emily C. Bartels in her article Making more of the Moor:Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race, “the term ‘Moor’ was used interchangeably with such similarly ambiguous terms as ‘African,’ ‘Ethiopian,’ ‘Negro,’ and even ‘Indian’ to designate a figure from parts or the whole of Africa (or beyond) who was either black, Moslem, neither or both,” (Bartels 434).
Even though Othello is characterized as a Moor, the reader doesn’t know anything about his religious background. All that we know as readers is that he was baptized at the beginning of the play and was now Christian. There was never any reference to what religion he practiced prior to arriving to Venice.
When Brabantio first confronts Othello after hearing that his daughter Desdemona had run off with him, he says, “Ay, to me. She is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks;” (I.III.61-63). According to The Webster’s New World Dictionary, a mountebank is “ a person who mounted a bench or platform, in a public place and sold quack medicines, usually attracting an audience by tricks, stories, etc.” Othello told Desdemona many stories of his life and that was the main reason why she fell in love with him. So comparing Othello to a mountebank seems only fitting.
Brabantio then continues on to say, “For nature so preposterously to err, being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, sans witchcraft could not,” (I.III.64-66). Here Brabantio is saying that Desdemona’s love for Othello is completely unnatural. He claims that the only way that this could be natural is if nature was blind or senseless which could only be caused by witchcraft. By accusing Othello of witchcraft Brabantio is only making him seem like more of an “other” to the rest of the characters in the play. Witchcraft is considered a sin in Christianity which was the universal religion of Europe at this time.
Throughout the play the characters make comments about Othello regarding his race and religion. There seems to be more text on how others view him than how he views himself. In the beginning of the play, Roderigo and Iago are conversing about Othello’s being chosen as the new general for the Venetian army. Iago goes on to say that he had witnessed Othello’s Christening or baptism and that “his Moorship’s ancient,” (I.I.34). By reading this, one can infer that Othello’s Moorish background was a...