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Race Identities in Shakespeare's Othello

By vinitha-v. Oct 13, 2014 1055 Words
Race identities in Shakespeare’s Othello
William Shakespeare (26th April 1564 – 23rd April 1616) was an English poet, playwright and an actor. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the Bard of Avon. His extant works, including some collaboration, consist of 37 plays, 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems and few other verses. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. Race is the classification system used to categorize humans into large and distinct population or groups by culture, ethnic, genetic, geographical, historical, linguistic, religious and social affiliation. First, this term was used to refer to speakers of a common language and then and then to dente national affiliations. In later century, people began to use them to relate to observable physical traits. In the 16th century, i.e. the people of the Elizabethan age strongly gave importance to race. William Shakespeare usually applied the issues of race and racism in his plays in order to arouse the interest and satisfy the Elizabethan audience. Many examples can be quoted from the play Othello to show that William Shakespeare did give importance to race. ‘Black’ has always been denoted to be evil and ugly since the Elizabethans believed that outward appearances reflected the inner reality. Because of this misconception they viewed black as sinful, evil and associated it with devil. At the beginning, black people were taken by force and brought to England as slaves and servants against their will. But later they became members of English society who were called as Moors. The Shakespearean tragedy of Othello was written in a time of great racial tension in England. Three years before Othello was written, Queen Elizabeth proclaimed an edict for the transportation of all Nigers and blackmoores out of the country. It is in this atmosphere, Shakespeare began to write the masterpiece of Othello, a drama about a black Arab General, Othello, who falls in love with and marries, Desdemona, a young white daughter of a senator. Shakespeare did write a major role of a black actor in Othello. Othello is a tragedy in which the main hero Othello is a moor, he the beginning of the play is shown as a perfect man and he is in a very high position. In a drama, characters are made to express the thoughts and views of the dramatist. A dramatist can only speak through the characters of the play. And here, in this play most of the characters describe Othello by his appearance and not by his real inner character or by name. Iago calls him ‘an old black Ram’ (I, i, 86), Brobantio refer to him as ‘Sooty bosom’ (I, ii, 69) and Roderigo calls him ‘the thick lips’ (I, i, 63). Almost all the characters in this play are shown to dislike Othello. Iago, the villain of the play, plays a major role. He from the beginning onwards doesn’t like the moor. The reasons for which were: 1. that he had a doubt of an illicit relationship of the moor with his wife. 2. Desdemona, a fair lady has married a black moor. 3. And also because he was not chosen by Othello, as his lieutenant. Iago, throughout the play, plans for the fall of Othello. Othello was not jealous by nature. Jealousy has been aroused in him slowly by Iago. Othello himself confess as “one not easily jealous, but being wrought perplexed in extreme” (V, ii, 352). And also Desdemona says that Othello was not a jealous man. Reference: “my noble moor is true of mind and made of no such baseness as jealous creatures are...” (III, iv, 22). Reference: “Her name, that was as fresh as Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face” (III, iii, 388), this line clearly indicates that Othello, was not ready to think ill of his wife without a proper proof and asks for it. And also it is very clear that the doubt in his mind is aroused by Iago only. But Othello, a black moor, having a fair and a beautiful wife has a feeling of inferiority complex. This inferiority complex in Othello is misused by Iago. And he infuses into him the poison of suspicion. He makes him suspect his wife, Desdemona, of having an illicit relationship with Cassio, his lieutenant. Reference: “haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation that chambers have, or for I am declin’d into the value of years, (yet that’s not much). She’s gone” (III, iii, 265) Iago recalls the lines said by Brobantio to Othello in order to prove his point. Reference: “look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see, she has deceived her father and may thee”. (I, ii, 290) Finally Othello kills his wife Desdemona because of his misunderstanding and regrets for this. And we come to know that even Emilia does not like the Moor. Even Emilia calls Othello as blacker devil. Reference: “o! the more angel she, and you the blacker devil” (V, ii, 137). And she compares the color of Othello to her mistress Desdemona’s color which shows a mere racist approach. Even many modern critics have said that Shakespeare gives importance to race. John Gillies, for instance, argues that Shakespeare was upholding the racist views of the Renaissance, and the play advocates racism. Shakespeare has given importance to a black moor in this play but has also given equal importance to Iago, a white man. This play completely surrounds with white men and women except the hero, Othello, the back moor. In the beginning of the play, Othello is shown as a great man in order to show his great fall in the ending. Othello stabs himself and dies. He not suffers in his body alone but also in his soul and mind. Hence, it can be concluded that Shakespeare also supports the Elizabethan audience by giving importance to race by making Othello stupor at the end.

Works cited: 1. Shakespeare, William. Othello. Edt. Thomas Woodman, Hyderabad, Orient Longman Private Limited, 2002. 2. http://www.enotes.com/topics/othello/critical-essays/othello-vol-53#critical-essays-othello-vol-53-criticism-race 3. www.wikipedia.com

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