Othello: The Tragedy of Internalized Racism William Research Paper

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Othello: The Tragedy of Internalized Racism

William Shakespeare's tragedy of the Moor Othello is the only major drama of the great playwright in which race plays a major role. The title character begins the play a great and esteemed general, despite the fact that he is a member of an 'othered,' despised race against which some whites have great prejudice. Othello's apparent nobleness, his military prowess, and his eloquence (despite his protestations to the contrary) all win him respect. Yet, by the end of the play, Othello's enemy Iago plays upon the Moor's insecurities and in fact tries to 'make' Othello into the barbaric creature whites accuse him of being. This is why it is said that "in Othello, the boundary between Self and Other is famously, and perilously, permeable. Othello's assimilationist efforts to claim a selfhood within the Venetian community leads, for him, to a fatal hybridity" (Marks 101). Othello begins the play a confident author of his own narrative who is able to woo Desdemona with his words and also the opinions of white men. He ends the play entirely subsumed into the crude, devilish Iago's machinations. This is because of the subconscious racism Othello has incorporated into his sense of self.

At the beginning of Othello, Iago claims to hate the military commander Othello because the Moorish general has denied him a promotion. Throughout the play, Iago will make various claims as to why he is extricating such terrible revenge upon Othello. His hatred of the general seems to run deeper than pure racial resentment, although he is certainly capable of playing on such ugliness such as when he shouts to Desdemona's father: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is topping your white ewe" (I.1). Brabantio's anger clearly shows that blatant racial prejudice exists within Venetian society: yet the Duke of Venice's measured response to Othello's supposed crime also implies that racism within Venice is more subtle than Iago's language might indicate. It is noteworthy that the Duke does not say that race is irrelevant: rather, he insists that Othello's ability to tell wonderful stories and to command men effectively elevates him above his race: "If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (I.3).

Blatant prejudice is clearly unacceptable in the eyes of the Duke, at least against a black man as distinguished as Othello, but Othello must 'prove' himself as a black 'other' and cannot take his status for granted, unlike other whites who assume they have a right to do what they please. Othello for example insists that "the young affects/In me defunct" even while Michael Cassio is later shown to be dallying with prostitutes, with little concern about how this affects Cassio's reputation, although Cassio is worried that drinking to excess is wrong (I.3).

For Othello, however, the idea that a white woman might choose a black man is considered shocking and transgressive and he must demonstrate his worth. Othello explains that he has won the heart of Desdemona with his wonderful stories, not used witchcraft as he is accused of doing. Although Othello says "Rude am I in my speech, / And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace," he seems to contradict this when he shows how his eloquence won Desdemona (I.3). Desdemona boldly notes when her father disputes this that: "you are the lord of duty; / I am hitherto your daughter: but here's my husband," arguing that now her loyalty to the Moor outweighs the loyalty to her father (I.3). But Othello must take a stance of public humility and effectively be defended by his wife (a potentially humiliating spectacle in a society where women were regarded as inferior) to be taken seriously as a husband.

Furthermore, as admirable and as free of prejudice the Duke of Venice may seem, Shakespeare makes it clear that his actions are at least partially due to his military need for Othello, not because of pure altruism. This suggests that Othello's insecurities are partially rooted in this sense that he is only accepted provisionally by whites, continent upon obeying certain norms and this is at the root of the facade he must adopt in demanding Desdemona's chastity, which becomes the critical 'plot point' of the play. Othello seems credulous, unusually so, given his background, when Iago tries to convince him, but given the tensions bubbling beneath the surface of the council scene, this should not be entirely unsurprising.

It has been observed for white audiences that the 'thrill' of Othello is often described as the voyeuristic delight of seeing the 'primitive' nature of the Moor. However, it could just as easily be observed that Othello is the tragedy of internalizing black stereotypes of whites, and Othello unconsciously becomes the man he has tried not to be associated with for so long: "In Orientalism, Edward Said lists Othello among those 'orientals' who have 'a special role to play inside Europe...used as part of the West's effort…to 'domesticate' the Other for its own pleasure…Othello, then, allows white audiences to indulge in the liberatory pleasure of the 'primitive'" (Marks 117). Othello begins the play far more measured and civilized than any of the other white men but ends it the victim of his paranoia, doing what whites fear he will do. The crime has its roots in the racial prejudices of whites, not Othello's own culture, but this concept is invisible to all of the characters, both to relatively unprejudiced whites like the Duke of Venice and even to Othello himself.

The idea that black men are seen as 'primitive' is clearly expressed in Brabantio's rhetoric and also Emilia's, Iago's wife, when she discovers Desdemona is dead. "O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!" she cries: "…O gull! O. dolt! / As ignorant as dirt! thou hast done a deed" (V.2). Thus, the most explicitly racist language in the play brackets Iago's machinations -- it occurs in the first scene and the last, with Othello apparently 'earning' his appellation of a black devil. Iago's conscription of Othello into the story he insists on telling about the Moor, makes Othello into the 'black devil' who hurts white women feared by both Brabantio and Emilia.

This is why, "Stephen Greenblatt has identified narrative and storytelling as Othello's characteristic mode of 'self-fashioning,' and he argues that Othello's ability to make others (the Senate, Desdemona) submit to his narrative is a form of power that is mirrored by Iago, who constructs the narratives about Desdemona's adultery to which Othello ultimately submits" (Smith 5). Othello effectively loses the ability to write his own narrative and thus his own fate, and by taking over the discourse and effectively creating his own 'play' (complete with missing handkerchief), Iago is able to write Othello's fate instead, making Othello into a stereotypical, primitive villain.

In fact, given the rhetoric in regards to blackness in the play, it could be argued that Iago effectively turns what begins as a play grounded in humane tolerance, in which Othello is accepted by the Duke of Venice, into a kind of medieval morality play, in which Iago takes the role of a devilish tempting figure (in fact, the only way to explain Iago's actions seem to be to call him a devil, given the fluidity of his insisted motivations) who corrupts the soul of the Moor. Iago not only encourages Othello to commit murder, planting the seed in Othello's imagination, but also encourages his own wife to commit a theft (unwittingly killing her mistress) and Michael Cassio to drink, thus depriving the younger man of the position Iago says he wanted.

Thus, "Othello is a play about narrative and the construction of narrative…narrative as a speech act constitutes action in the play" (Macaulay 259). There is a constant war over who has the 'right' to construct a meaningful narrative about experience -- at first, Othello is briefly able to claim this right, but thanks to Iago's cleverness and the persistence of racist tropes, this right is effectively undone. This is most explicitly seen in the scene in which Othello is convinced of Desdemona's treachery:

I think my wife be honest and think she is not;

I think that thou art just and think thou art not.

I'll have some proof. Her name, that was as fresh

As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black

As mine own face (III.3).

Othello castigates his own wife, yet he does so in a manner which is self-loathing and simultaneously defames his own blackness. He accepts the idea that blackness is the lesser of white, and condemns his wife, after Iago's prompting for being 'black.' In effect, he thus also accepts the conceit Iago and Brabantio brings up at the beginning of the play that Othello's love for Desdemona is bestial and black witchcraft. (And there is even some subliminal evocation of the rhetoric of the Duke who, while he validates Othello's actions, does so only because he says that…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Macaulay, Marcia. "When Chaos is Come again: Narrative and Narrative Analysis in Othello."

Style 39.3 (2005): 259,276,377,379. ProQuest. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

Marks, Elise. "Othello/me": Racial Drag and the Pleasures of Boundary-Crossing with Othello."

Comparative Drama 35.1 (2001): 101-23. ProQuest. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

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