Play Analysis: Othello

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Setting and Context Act 1, Scene 1 homework
1) How are Jacobean attitudes to race reflected in the treatment of Othello by other characters in the play? Shakespeare conveys the attitudes towards race in the Jacobean period through the use of Iago continually referring to Othello as ‘The Moor’. This is not a particularly derogatory term as it means ‘A member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent, now living chiefly in northwest Africa’, however Shakespeare often described brunette or darker than regular Europeans as black, showing the ideology of ignorance towards people of different races in this period of time. The fact that ‘the moor’ replaces Othello’s actual name in the play, suggests that any sense of individuality is lost, and he is immediately susceptible to being categorised by his ethnic origins and any type of stereotype that goes with it. Also, the extremely graphic metaphor to describe Othello and Desdemona having sex of ‘an old black ram is tupping your white ewe’ that Iago says to Desdemona’s father, portrays the colour of Othello’s skin being seen as destructive as it is contrasted with a ‘white ewe’, ‘white’ giving connotations of innocence. Catherine Belsey in ‘Shakespeare: interpretative contexts’ said- ‘imperial values developed a mythology of white civilisation and black barbarity’ supports this.Also, the homonym ‘ram’ can also be used as a verb- ‘to pound something into someone or something’ giving the explicit image of sexual intercourse, and having ‘old’ and ‘black’ in the same sentence as this, implies being ‘black’ has a link with paedophilia. Also when Iago is telling Desdemona’s dad about her daughter and Othello, he says ‘You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary Horse’. Being ‘covered with a… horse’ illustrates the image of Othello being physically violent towards Desdemona like a horse would be towards a human if on top of them. Also a ‘barbary’ horse is a horse that ethnically originates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa, which would create the effect of the black origins being the link between the violent nature of the horse and Othello. This suggests that in the 17th century, the general public would think of the black race as a vicious race. Also the fact that Othello is referred to as an animal relates to how in the time the play was written, like animals, black people were seen as objects to entertain the public, as Julia Briggs said that in England, black Africans ‘were still unusual enough to be treated as wonders’ and that the Scots had a ‘long tradition of employing black entertainers whom they treated as little more than performing animals’. Furthermore, when Brebantio hears that his daughter has married a black man, he says ‘Are there not charms by which the property of youth and maidhood may be abused?’ Brebantio instantly assumes that Othello must have used some sort of ‘charm’ –which in the 17th century meant spells or love potions- on Desdemona for her to marry him, as she couldn’t possibly have fallen in love with a black man of her own accord. This portrays the naivety of Jacobean attitudes towards love and marriage between people of opposing races in that there must be some sort of sabotage or manipulation for it to occur as it couldn’t possibly happen willingly and naturally. 2) Individualism, Machiavelli and Venice: How do these shape the characterisation of Iago? Setting the play in Venice was an interesting choice for Shakespeare as at the time, as Philip Brockbank said, it was ‘famed for its mercantile prosperity, its proud resources of gold and treasure’. However he also says ‘but it is a city where money can be made by ruthless exploitation’. This conveys a theme of hidden deceit in the city of Venice, which is exactly how Iago is executed in Othello. This is supported when Iago says when talking about working for Othello whom he is seen to dislike ‘I follow him to serve my turn upon him’. The matter-of-fact statement...
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