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How do race and cultural difference function in the context of the play Othello?


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It is impossible to overstate the role that race and cultural difference play in Othello.  Often framed as a story of obsessive love, domestic violence, jealousy, deceit, and tragedy, it is less a story of the conflict between two people and more the story of racism and the conflict between cultures. That is because Othello being both a beloved and respected war hero and a suspect outsider is central to the plot of the play. That only happens because Othello is an outsider.  Not only is he not a Venetian, but he is a Moor.  This is often reduced to the fact that the Moors were dark-skinned people, but the difference was not just in skin tone, but also in cultural background.  Othello was not like the men of Venice and Iago was very successfully able to manipulate these differences and serve as a catalyst to Othello’s eventual murder of Iago. 

It is important to realize that the cultural differences between Othello and Desdemona form the backbone of their relationship.  He wooed her by telling her about his life.  While this could be seen as some type of exploration of cultural differences as a way to bring them together, as described by Othello it actually reads as more of a fetishization of his differences.  Whether it was based in true emotion or more of a function of Desdemona rebelling against her father, who respected Othello as a soldier and leader, but certainly still objected to a dark-skinned man being romantically involved with his daughter, it still had a way of dehumanizing Othello and reducing him to his race. The fact that Othello seemed to play into her stereotypes suggests  a level of internalized racism that helped facilitate Othello’s rapid descent into the stereotypical violent Moor, a transformation that seems unlikely if Othello had not internalized these racist thoughts and beliefs since nothing in his history suggested a lack of control or violence towards romantic partners.

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