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Racism as Presented in Shakespeare's 'Othello'
The play Othello by William Shakespeare is the tragic story of a man who has moved from one culture to another. He looks differently than others because of Negroid features, which are mentioned in the play (thick lips compared to Europeans, and dark skin). Possibly because his not completely familiar with the culture within which he lives, he trusts the wrong people, with tragic results.
From the very opening of the play, Iago describes Othello physically but denies him a name (in fact we never hear Othello's name until the third scene). Iago describes how he must pretend to be loyal to Othello, saying, tis the curse of service,
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
Now, sir, be judge yourself
Whether I in any just term am affin'd
To love the Moor." (I.i)
Anyone familiar with the history of racism in the United States will immediately recognize the strategy of dehumanization by denying the individual a name. In the United States, before the end of segregation and a societal recognition that all were equal and to afforded equal dignity, Black men were often referred to as "boy." Since Othello is the only African in the play, he is called even by those who like or love him as "The Moor." If Shakespeare had written the play in 1940 he might have said "The Negro," but when Iago says it, a pejorative tone is felt because he constantly speaks lovingly and with false concern to his face only to plot behind his back for his downfall.
Othello is a great war hero, and respected some important people of Venice because of this. However, he has angered one of his officers, Iago, because Othello picked someone else to be his second-in-command - Cassio. Iago decides to get even with Othello for this public insult by whatever means available to him. He begins by working to undermine Othello's brand-new marriage to the beautiful and fair Desdemona.
Iago and Roderigo, who wanted to marry Desdemona, go to her father Brabantio, and speak in markedly racist terms about Othello sleeping with Desdemona, leaving out the detail of the marriage that has just occurred. Iago says to Brabantio,
I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.
At this odd-even and dull watch o' the night,
Transported with no worse nor better guard
But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier,
To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor..."(I.i)
This brings to mind certain racist beliefs that used to be common in the United States, namely that Negro men were unnaturally and sexually attracted to white women. This was viewed as unacceptable, and Black men had to be very careful about how they acted, including where their eyes lingered, when around white women. It is easy to be suspicious of those who look different than the majority of people, and easy to imagine that they are up to no good.
Brabantio reacts as Iago hopes he will: he is distressed and hurries off to see if he can find his daughter. When he finds Othello, he accuses him of charming his daughter by witchcraft, but Othello explains he won her over with his stories of travel and war. Desdemona comes in and speaks up for Othello. Brabantio calms down, so Iago's first plan to destroy Othello is thwarted. The Duke sends Othello and his troops to Cyprus to defend that island against attacking Turks, and Desdemona accompanies him. On Cyprus, Cassio greets Desdemona affectionately, and Iago plans a new attack on Othello.
By this time, Iago appears obsessed with Othello. His determination to use anyone to bring Othello down, combined with the constant referral of Othello as "The Moor" instead of by his name, suggest that his motivation may be at least partly racial. If Iago believed Blacks inferior to Europeans, then he would feel the humiliation of being passed over even more strongly. Partly, this interpretation of the play would depend on how the play is staged: does Iago spit the words out with disdain when Othello is out of earshot? For certainly, some people use the term with affection: both Desdemona and Emilia, her companion and Iago's wife, refer to him as The Moor but clearly care for the man, although in different ways. Others do the same. However, combining Iago's repeated use of the phrase with the intent of his actions in the play suggest that Iago does not mean it with affection or respect.
Iago promotes the idea of Othello's marriage as unlikely to last, telling Roderigo that Desdemona is attracted to him because of his exotic looks, but that when her blood is made dull with the act of sport," (II.i) she will become bored with him and seek comfort in the arms of another man. He warns Roderigo that she might choose Cassio and that Roderigo should disgrace Cassio to clear the path for himself. If this plan works, Iago will cause Roderigo to remove Cassio as a professional rival for him. This plan works and ends with Cassio stabbing the governor. Iago pretends reluctance as he implicates Cassio. Then he encourages Cassio to try to get Desdemona intervene, because Iago intends to use that action to make Othello think Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. Othello sees them together and asks if it was Cassio, and Iago implies that Cassio slunk away guiltily when he saw Othello, planting the seeds for Othello's suspicion of his wife's fidelity.
As Othello broods, Iago states the possibility more clearly. Desdemona, unaware, comes to her husband and pleads for him to reinstate Cassio to his former position as Othello's lieutenant. Othello is convinced she is pleading for her lover. As Othello begins to feel sick, she offers to wrap her handkerchief, Othello's first gift to her, around his head. He says it is too small, and it drops to the floor unnoticed by either of them. Emilia picks it up because Iago has wanted her to get it for some time.
Iago hides the handkerchief in Cassio's quarters to prove his affair with Desdemona, and tells Othello that he has seen Cassio wipe his face with it. Othello is now fully convinced that he has been cuckolded by his former lieutenant and vows that he will have vengeance. When he sees Desdemona, he insists that she show him the handkerchief. She says she doesn't have it, and again brings up the subject of returning Cassio to his former position, which enrages Othello so much that he has a fit.
Iago suggests that Othello should be absolutely certain, and tells him to hide while Iago gets Cassio to talk about his relationship with Desdemona. Iago asks Cassio about Bianca, a whore he spends time with. Othello, of course believes that Cassio is talking about Desdemona. When Othello is called back to Venice, with Cassio left in charge, Othello is so angered he hits Desdemona before storming out, believing that her lover has been reinstated against his wishes. Later he calls Desdemona a whore, and Iago encourages Roderigo to kill Cassio to get his rival out of the way, but Roderigo only wounds him. Othello hears the cry and assumes that Iago has killed Cassio. Othello assumes Roderigo has been helping Cassio, and kills him.
Othello then enters his wife's bedchamber, and smothers her with a pillow for her supposed infidelity. He insists that Iago told him the truth in telling him about this. Emilia is present, and tells how the handkerchief really disappeared. Othello is devastated and tries to kill Iago, but he is disarmed, and Iago kills Emilia. Rather than face trial and life without the wife he has wronged, Othello kills himself.
Throughout the play, Othello is referred to as "The Moor" in important scenes by important people. People on the street aren't using this phrase, talking as they see him and saying something like "That's the great hero, the Moor who is such a courageous soldier." Some debate exists in the literature regarding just how "black" Othello really is. One critic reports, "There is also the dilemma of Othello's race. Almost from the first performance on, critical debate has raged over whether a Moor is Arab or African." (Coles, 1998). However, when Roderigo, Iago's loyal companion, says in the very first scene, "What a full fortune does the thick lips owe?" (I.i) It certainly seems to suggest that Othello looked racially different than Europeans in a marked and distinct way.
Iago makes it clear that he dislikes Othello and cannot believe Desdemona really finds him attractive. His judgments are not the same as other people, such as the Duke, and suggest bigotry:
Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil? When the blood is made dull with the act of sport, there should be, -- again to inflame it…[continue]
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