"If Othello didn't begin as a play about race, history has made it one."
The Venetian society that Othello is set in is representative of the writers context.
The attitudes and values that Shakespeare reveals through the text are those same attitudes and values of Elizabethan society in England in the sixteenth-century.
Although Othello is set in Venice and Cyprus, the attitudes and values shared in the text are probably reflective of the attitudes and values of Shakespeare's own society. It is difficult to assess the attitudes and values of people in sixteenth-century Britain to the relatively few blacks living amongst them. We are given an insight into those attitudes and values through the representation of race and gender in the text of Othello.These attitudes and values are indicative of what a culture believes in and supports.
By the time Othello was written the English were becoming more and more aware of the existence of other races in the world besides themselves.
There had been a lot of travelling and blacks were beginning to be used in Europe for the slave trade. During the time the play was written, the Queen of England had banned all blacks from entering the city. She spoke of them as "Negars and Moors which are crept into the realm, of which kind of people there are already here too many". It seems that Shakespeare is almost mocking the Queen by characterising Othello as a black man who has a high ranking position in the Army and who marries a white aristocratic women, against her fathers will.
Ruth Cowlig suggests that the presentation of Othello as the hero must have been startling for Elizabethan audiences. This may have been the case, but through the representation of Othello we are able to see that some members of society such as the Duke, looked over his colour to assign him his position whereas, others such as Iago, look on his colour as a way to mock him.
Hostility is shown to Othello by characters such as Iago and Roderigo. This attitude may have been encouraged by the widespread belief in the legend that blacks were descendants of Ham in the Genesis story, punished for sexual excess by their blackness.
The Elizabethan's discussed at length whether this skin colour was due to life in a hot climate or whether it was a punishment for sin.
To the Elizabethan's, who thought hierarchically, fair skin was the epitome of beauty and therefore dark skin ranked below it. The term "black" was used in a variety of texts to stand for sin, filth, ugliness, evil, and the Devil. This value is ascribed to Iago when he describes Othello as the "black moor" hinting at something other than just colour.
Attitudes to race aren't the only attitudes revealed in the text though. Attitudes and values about gender are also revealed in the portrayal of women and their actions in the text. A prime example of this is when Desdemona elopes with Othello without her father's permission, which during that time would have been socially unacceptable. This is revealed to us through Brabantio's reaction as Shakespeare uses Brabantio as a vehicle for the representation of higher society's views on matters.
Another value revealed in the text is that of marriage. In the Elizabethan era marriage was not just a spiritual union but also a property transaction; the bride brought a dowry from her father and the groom's father (or the groom if he had already inherited his estate) had to settle lands on her in return, as a "jointure."
Therefore, to marry without the bride's father's permission could be seen as an act of theft. This may explain why Brabantio reacted so strongly to the union of Othello and Desdemona.These attitudes and values contrast quite drastically to those ascribed to society today. Nowadays coloured skin is a common occurrence and a character such as Othello would be quite socially accepted. Race is both more accepted and more abused than in...
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