Racism in Othello
Racism seems to be a big concern in Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello. Because the hero of the play is an outsider, a Moor, we have an idea how blacks were regarded in England, in Elizabethan times. There are many references that bring about the issue of racism from the very beginning to the end. In the tragedy, where Othello is coming from is not mentioned, yet through the descriptions the reader is informed that he belongs to one of the Eastern nationalities such as African, Ottoman Turk or Arab. In this paper I am going to analyze some episodes involving a prejudicial, racist attitude and try to discuss whether Shakespeare was a racist or not. Even though the play is full of offensive definitions of black Othello, we cannot define it as a racist work since Shakespeare’s black hero is inwardly pure and innocent. He becomes the victim of a seemingly honest white character, Iago in the play. In the play Othello is always under attack due to his ethnic origins. On the night he runs away Desdemona, Iago and Roderigo alert Desdemona’s father Brabantio yelling: “Zounds, sir you are robbed/For shame put on your gown/Your heart is burst; you have lost half of your soul.” (I.i.83-5) Martin Orkin states in his article “Othello and the ‘plain face’ of racism” that:
As such scholars as Eldred Jones and Winthrop Jordan have taught us, there is ample evidence of the existence of color prejudice in the England of Shakespeare’s day. This prejudice may be accounted for in a number of ways, including xenophobia-as one proverb first recorded in the early seventeenth century has it, "Three Moors to a Portuguese; three Portuguese to an Englishman"(167)
We see that in the play the colors “black” and “white” are widely used in order to reveal the differences of the two races more. Iago portrays the sexual relationship between Othello and Desdemona by likening Othello to and old ram and Desdemona to a white ewe as if a wild, big animal is attacking to a pure white ewe. The lines below are a good example of the prejudices based on color. Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you: Arise, I say. (I.i. 86-9)
Shakespeare manages to give the general perception of the black in England, at his times. “As long as Brabantio looks at Othello as a professional soldier, he has nothing but admiration and affection for him. But forced to consider him in a more intimate relationship, he is trapped in the cultural stereotype of the black man as ugly, cruel, lustful and dangerous, near cousin to the devil himself.”( Salgado 87) The way that Brabantio accused Othello for stealing his daughter’s heart reveals the attitudes of English men towards the Moor. Othello who just runs away with his beloved is accused of robbery. The phrase “old black ram” and the word “devil” make reference in an offensive manner to dark skin color. Barbara Everett states in her article “‘Spanish’ Othello: the making of Shakespeare’s Moor” that: As Roderigo and Iago talk, it is not simply a ‘black man’ they are setting among ‘the whites’. ‘Moor’ means to Iago and Roderigo a civilized barbarian of fierce if repressed lusts- but to dramatist himself it surely means something very different, a meaning entailed by his choice of names. The moor is a member of a more interesting and more
permanent people: the race of displaced and dispossesed, of Time’s always vulnerable wanderers. (71)
Iago’s hatred for Othello and Brabantio’s disapproval of Othello as a son-in-law seems to be caused by his skin color. According to Iago an outsider, a Moor does not deserve to hold a position on the top of the military while there are civilized whites like him....
Cited: Berry, Edward. “Othello’s Alienation.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 30.2
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Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare Afterall. NY: Pantheon Books, 2004.
McLeish, Kenneth and Stephen Unwin. A Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1998.
Neill, Michael. “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello” Shakespeare Quarterly, 40.4 (1989): 383-412.
Orkin, Martin. “Othello and the ‘plain face’ Of Racism”. Shakespeare Quarterly. 38.2 (1987): 166-188.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1979.
Salgado, Fenella and Gamini, Shakespeare:Othello. London: Penguin, 1989.
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