Race and Racism in Othello

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In What Way Would A Modern Audience React To The Way Race And Racism Is Portrayed In 'Othello'?

In the Sixteenth century, as we see clearly from Othello and other works of both Shakespeare and Cinthio's original version of Othello, race was a topic of great debate and discussion. Today, in the twenty-first century the debate retains its controversy and passion. However, attitudes towards race have taken a dramatic turn during the last century. In the developed world people are now living in an increasingly cosmopolitan society would undoubtedly be more tolerant and would reject or even be offended by racial discrimination to any person or sections of the community. Openly 'racist' people today are seen as outcasts. Taking this into account, the way a modern audience would react to race and racism in Othello is dependent upon the way in which that modern audience would interpret 'Othello'. This prompts the questions of what sort of message Shakespeare wanted to send to his audience and was Othello the moor portrayed as a tragic hero or did his character eventually come to resemble the prejudices of which he was a victim. Shakespeare also discusses the issue of race with other characters such as the hateful Iago and the prejudices hidden deep in Barbantio.

The actions of Barbantio initiate the interest in the race issue in Act 1 Scene 1 more so than Iago's foul abuses because the type of hidden racism is actually present in modern society. Barbantio disapproves of his daughter ever marrying Roderigo who has not got a good reputation with him but after listening to Iago tell him that his daughter is seeing a moor he wishes Roderigo,

"...O, Would you had had her!"

Thus Barbantio suggests that a disrespected white man is superior to a respected noble and gentleman in the army whose only 'problem' as Barbantio sees it is that he is black. These words are enough to show Barbantio's true feelings even though he has been rudely awaken from sleep on hearing what for him is awful news in a most crude manner. The hypocrisy of Barbantio, though striking to a modern audience is still prevalent today. In a recent survey by students at Nottingham University, from a sample of 3000 people, 54% said that they would not consider inter-racial marriage. Shakespeare immediately can grasp an audience's attention through an issue as relevant now as it was almost half a century ago and by portraying Barbantio as misguided in his words, Shakespeare is criticising people who may be outwardly gentlemen but covertly hold racist views.

There is some evidence that Shakespeare was using the play to promote racially prejudiced views as some critics suggest. They suggest that Othello finally becomes the violent animal, which he is personified to be by those who dislike him. Cinthio's original version of the play had Othello being a Muslim and was made to be a beastly character but Shakespeare has altered him to be a noble and a Christian. Instead, Iago is portrayed as the most evil villain and also the hateful racist. Iago seems to have few motives for his devious actions. Although he does suffer from paranoia about whom his wife might be having an affair with and he resents Othello being promoted before himself, it seems that from his speech that the thing he hates most about Othello is the colour of his skin. Because of this he uses unintelligent and colloquial racism to insult Othello. He refers to Othello as, "Thick lips," and calls out to Barbantio,

"Even now, now, very now an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe..."

By presenting the villain of the play to have such deep-rooted racism, Shakespeare is denouncing those who attack people purely on the basis of the colour of their skin or their nationality. A modern audience would hence see that in their view, rightly, Shakespeare is sending an anti-racist message.

The portrayal of Othello is the most important in deciding how a modern audience would react to the play...
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