Racism in Shakespeare’s Othello

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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. And according to Brabantio a white Venetian who is high born deserves his noble daughter. He can not match really them. Even though Othello has turned into Christianity and fight against Muslim Ottomans for the sake of Christian country he can not be accepted totally “The Elizabethan awareness of foreigners was closely conditioned by a traditional religious outlook on the world; and that much ‘new knowledge’ lay follow or was treated in a merely superficial manner because of this. ” (Hunter 50) Even though Othello fulfills his duty as a general and he is appreciated by the authorities in Venice and earns a respected position, he is not embraced by the society enough to marry a Venetian girl. In his article “Othello’s Alienation” Edward Berry says that Shakespeare portrays Othello as a Moor because racial tension and anxiety pervade the atmosphere of Venetian society, and Othello himself, in his aspiration towards assimilation and anxieties about his blackness, internalizes a false dichotomy that can only dehumanize him (330). His otherness caused Venetians to assault him. The reason lies behind this can also be the fear Europeans have for Islam which was the religion of the most powerful empire of that time, the Ottomans, and the territories it controls. Since many African countries were controlled by the Muslims, Othello is probably coming from an Islamic background. Edward Said stated in his Orientalism: “For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the end of the seventeenth century the "Ottoman peril" lurked alongside Europe to represent for the wholeof Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices as something woven into the fabric of life. ” (60) Iago’s defining Othello’s sexual affair as something animalistic brings about another racist criticism argued for decades. Likening Othello to wild animals, Iago tries to agitate Brabantio. Iago once again turns his invective on Othello, with tough racial epithets: Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God, if the devil bid you. Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans. (I. i. 106-12) The words “devil”, “barbary horse”, and “gennet” are all related to Othello’s race. His definition of Othello and his comparison of his relatives with animals and Roderigo’s stating that Desdemona has gone "To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" and "made a gross revolt "are again other examples of harsh attacks towards blacks in Elizabethan time. Even though that night is a night when two lovers rejoin, they define it something so disgusting, animal like. Another obvious offence to Othello’s color comes from Brabantio when he first sees Othello and when they gather in Senate saloon: The wealthy curled darlings of our nation, ould ever have, to incur a general mock, Run from her guard age to the sooty bosom Of such a thing as thou, to fear, not to delight (I. ii. 67-70) In the play there are many scenes Othello is described someone to be feared of because of his physical appearances. Brabantio humiliates Othello with his appearance when he runs away with Desdemona. We do not see any other offense than his race and prejudices based on his race. “To fall in love with what she feared to look on! /It’s judgment maimed and most imperfect. ” (I. iii. 99-100) G. K. Hunter shows in his article “Elizabethans and foreigners” how the Moors are thought to be with animalistic attachments in Elizabethan times: “Throughout the Elizabethan period, indeed, there seems to be a considerable confusion whether the Moor is a human being or a monster. ” Shakespeare manages to convey this idea in Othello with his racist characters such as Iago and Brabantio yet he proves its being a false idea with his character, Othello, who is portrayed as a honest and innocent man who is turned in to a murderer with Iago’s manipulations. Brabantio directly attacks Othello’s color defining him as someone to be afraid of. Sooty is synonymous with black, of course. He cannot even think of the possibility of his daughter’s falling in love with Othello. He keeps accusing Othello of magic: Ay, to me; She is abused, stol'n from me, and corrupted By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks; For nature so preposterously to err, Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, Sans witchcraft could not. (I. iii. 0-5) Magic was something that associated with blacks at those times. Brabantio believes that a black man can only earn the heart of his daughter, Desdemona, by magic since she never indulged young boys of their own race who were longing for her “Othello is simply a black man, with all that stereotype implies, and only witchcraft could account for a beautiful, intelligent and high-born maiden becoming enamored of him” (Salgado 87). Brabantio thinks that it has something to do with Othello's heritage. Since he is black, he can bewitch. Magic also reappears when Desdemona's handkerchief cannot be found; Othello has too much trust in the symbolism and charm of the handkerchief, which is why the object is so significant to him. It was not because he really did magic through the handkerchief but because the handkerchief has a cultural meaning to him. Othello’s defense that he made in front of the Dukes and the Senators is an answer to all attacks that Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio have made so far. I ran it through, even from my boyish days, the very moment that he bade me tell it; Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents by flood and field Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach, Of being taken by the insolent foe And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence (I. iii. 133-8) Othello simply tells how Desdemona fell in love with him through his life story. Their love story was out of sexuality and it was not Othello who forced Desdemona to run away with him. He shows he does have real magic, in the words he uses and the stories he tells. He draws a real imperturbable character that readers appreciate. The reader feels even more sympathy towards Othello because of Iago’s hypocritical behavior. As the play goes on Othello speaks of his own color implying negative connotations it has when his faith in his wife is destroyed because of Iago’s manipulations on her faithfulness, the Moor sees that her name has become as black as his face: “Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face. (III. iii. 386-88)Othello uses the color “black” in order to liken Desdemona’s so called cheat. We see how the color issue was widespread among people at those times since even a black person uses his color in order to imply its bad connotations. ” Tragedy, in Chapman's metaphor, is always ‘black-fac'd’; but Othello's dark countenance is like an inscription of his tragic destiny for more reasons than the traditional metaphoric associations of blackness with evil and death” (Neill 29). Shakespeare’s creating a character like Othello who gets on well with almost all people in the play –the duke, the senators, and soldiers- is sign of Shakespeare’s not being racist. Salvago states that : “The general esteem in which he is held , Brabantio’s earlier regard and affection for him and the Duke’s remark on hearing his story, show that this ‘extravagant and wheeling stranger/Of here and everywhere’ has earned himself a respected position in Venetian society” (87). Desdemona has always been loyal to his husband, Othello, till the very end. In the play Desdemona is young Venetian woman of high birth and good breeding that is favored by many white young men yet chooses to marry Othello, to a Moor. She does not show less respect to her husband than any other white husband in that time. “Captivated by Othello and his traveler’s tales, Desdemona either falls in love him personally or imagines she does, and marries him without the slightest regard for her father’s wishes or feelings. ”(Unwin 159) When Emilia says “But I do think it is their husbands' faults/ If wives do fall (IV. iii. 88-9). Desdemona’s response is “Good night, good night. Heaven me such usage send. Not o pick bad from bad put by a bad mend” (IV. iii 106-7). Since she never did wrong to her husband, she had nothing to fear of. Desdemona is constantly associated, throughout the play with images of whiteness and purity: wedding sheets; a handkerchief; skin whiter than snow and ‘smooth as monumental alabaster’. It is this purity of spirit that Othello mistakes for sin, just as he mistakes Iago’s malevolence for honesty. The honest Desdemona is accused of dishonesty; the dishonest Iago(insincere, deceitful, lacking in candor and public spirit) is labeled ‘honest’ over and over again in line after line. ( Garber 593) It is significant that in Othello the dishonest traitor is white, racist Iago not the black Moor. The dishonest white man destroyed the relationship between the faithful, innocent white Venetian girl and the other honest, innocent black Moor. Normally a black person would be used in Elizabethan literature to represent the darkness, yet in Othello Iago’s absolute evil character takes on that role. At the very end of the play, Othello being poisoned by wicked Iago’s provocations Othello kills innocent Desdemona and upon learning the truth he turns on himself and commits suicide quietly. He kills the savage, green-eyed, murderer, and the outsider. Garber says that: “Othello kills Othello. He is both Turk and Venetian, as he has been all along, and he dies in the act of describing a noble public gesture, the killing of a public enemy, in front of Venetian ambassadors who are public men themselves” (615) Othello is converted into Christianity after he comes to Venice. Probably, he has been a Muslim before, and he has belonged to the Ottoman Empire which was the most powerful empire at that time. Therefore he might have been also representing a Turk. We see that Iago managed what he tried throughout the play. From the very beginning till the end he speaks of Othello’s being a barbaric Moor and at last because of his slanders Othello commits a barbaric crime. Iago’s wicked plan destroys Othello. The seeds of jealousy that Iago plant over starts to bloom and Othello plans on taking the life of his beloved Desdemona for he believes in her so-called infidelity. We see that Othello starts to lose his humanity, and takes on the mentality of a savage. As G. K. Hunter stated in his article “the relation between wild-men, green-men, foresters, Robin Hood, the Moors and the devil was very difficult to clear up. Man of African heritage is typically portrayed in Elizabethan literature in a negative light, yet is allowed to shine in Othello. ”(56) Therefore Othello is depicted as a true hero. He is portrays as good general and honest man. He is flawed; his nobility and honesty permits Iago to abuse him in his deceitful ways. Othello’s color is dramatically important since the reader visualize how outsiders especially the Moor with an Muslim Arab ancestry are seen Elizabethan times and lights the way for seeing the differences between European and Non-European societies in that time. Works Cited Berry, Edward. “Othello’s Alienation. ” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 30. 2 (1990): 315-333. Everett, Barbara. “ ‘Spanish’ Othello: the making of Shakespeare’s Moor”. Shakespeare and Race. Ed. Stanley Wells and Catherine M. S. Alexander. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare Afterall. NY: Pantheon Books, 2004. Hunter, G. K. “Elizabethans and foreigners”. Shakespeare and Race. Ed. Stanley Wells and Catherine M. S. Alexander. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 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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