The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is an outstanding tragedy by William Shakespeare. It focuses on highly essential issues of tragic flaws, crucial miscommunication, revenge, deep hatred, and love. One of the most significant themes of a play that reflects both the social state of the Renaissance and the current situation is racial differences. The purpose of this work is to analyze how Othello’s difference influences his image in the enemies’ eyes and how he starts to evaluate himself once he has killed his wife.
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Othello as Viewed by Enemies
William Shakespeare emphasizes Othello’s ethnicity from the beginning of his play. The racial characteristic of the protagonist may lead readers to the thinking that this peculiarity will be crucial for the main hero’s perception, and the tragedy will be impregnated with racist ideology. The ideas of the European cultures’ dominance and “deep racial rift” were prevalent during the period of the Renaissance (De Sousa 4). Nevertheless, throughout the play, Othello’s character is discovered as a nobleman, regarded by his peers as a person with a unique history and heritage. He is limited neither by the author’s first description nor by subsequent racist characteristics given by Roderigo and Iago. Although Othello’s race and skin color will be inevitably considered by readers, at the end of the tragedy, Othello appears purely as a man who fell the victim of his enemies’ insinuations and committed a hideous crime.
The tragedy opens with the conversation of two men, Iago and Roderigo, who discuss Othello. They do not mention his name, and readers have a chance to examine how the heroes of the play view him through their description. Iago expresses his hate and jealousy of Othello as the moor promoted another man, Cassio, instead of Iago, and Othello’s race becomes the focus of his enmity. Roderigo and Iago refer to Othello as “the Moor,” expressing their disrespect that this person does not deserve a name due to his race.
The two heroes go to the house of Brabantio, a Venetian senator, to inform that his daughter has a secret marriage with the Moor. Iago skillfully manipulates Brabantio’s racial and patriarchal anxieties to evoke his anger (Callaghan 206). He emotionally tells the senator, “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” and “your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you” (Oth. 1.1.97-98; Oth. 1.1.125-126). These phrases are considered to be one of the most critical quotes from this play, they express all the hatred of Iago to Othello and demonstrate the parallel between animals and a black man. According to Iago, any moor is not a human, but an animal.
Brabantio’s reaction expresses the general opinion of the European society concerning dark-skinned people of another race as well. First of all, he claims that his daughter, Desdemona, could not be attracted naturally, and the Moor used dark magic and trickery to seduce his daughter. According to the senator, all colored men practice witchcraft as the love between Othello and Desdemona is not natural, and people of different colors should not marry or be in a romantic relationship.
Later, when Desdemona’s father insults Othello, he mentions, “for if such actions may have passage free, bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (Oth. 1.2.122-123). By this phrase, he demonstrates his assurance that all moors are uncivilized “bondslaves and pagans” who should be restricted in their rights, otherwise they will destroy the European society. However, later, Brabantio observes Othello and notices that he speaks, acts, thinks, and dresses like white people, and the only difference he has is dark skin. While Iago depreciatingly calls him “the Moor,” people who know Othello refer to him as “the valiant Moor” to express their respect and accentuate Othello’s race as his advantage and peculiarity (Oth. 1.3.55). Brabantio accepts Othello as his son-in-law and forgives Desdemona for a secret marriage.
Othello as Viewed by Himself
The way how Othello sees himself throughout the play can be divided into two parts. At the beginning of the tragedy, readers see Othello as a humble man with good manners who recognize his peculiarities. He accepts his race difference and takes advantage of it; he attracts friends and women by captivating stories of his life. Othello discovers that white people are frequently mesmerized by his culture, and he admires this exotic side of his nature as well. He does not give any chance to his enemies to prove that their racist stereotypes concerning him are reliable, however, there is the immoderate jealousy that made him brutal and led to an unrecoverable disaster.
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When Othello realized that he had murdered Desdemona and she had been innocent, he understood that his prematurity, jealousy, and temper had ruined his life. “Being wrought, perplexed in the extreme,” he compares himself with a man who “of one whose hand, like the base Judean, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe” (Oth. 5.2.405-406; Oth. 5.2.406-408). His act makes readers believe that, despite Othello’s amiable and modest nature, he had an element of savagery that occasionally addresses his ethnicity in negative terms.
Although Othello, a tragedy by William Shakespeare, focuses on multiple issues, one of the most significant themes of this play is racial differences. The author emphasizes Othello’s ethnicity from the play’s introduction. The Moor’s enemies express their deep hatred through the comparison of him with an animal that does not deserve a human name due to his dark skin. However, Othello is subsequently recognized as a humble man with good manners who accept his racial peculiarities. Unfortunately, his immoderate jealousy may be the only element of savagery that occasionally addresses his ethnicity in negative terms and leads to the tragic conclusion.
Callaghan, Dympna, editor. A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. 2nd ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
De Sousa, Geraldo U. Shakespeare’s Cross-Cultural Encounters. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folger Shakespeare Library, Web.