The current essay deals with a difficult but quite important topic tied with the role of race in Shakespeare’s Othello. As Alvin Kernan remarked Othello is probably the most perfect plays by Shakespeare in terms of the formal and structural design of its composition.
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Structural elements are organized in a manner peculiar to French tradition which means that all events, protagonists are united by some formal laws of motion which however does not challenge Shakespeare’s artistic genius. In this view, the role of race in this play should be regarded in terms of its general function in unfolding the plot of the tragedy.
The out main assumption in this view is that Othello’s Otherness (outsider’s status, black skin, ‘brute behavior’, not civilized manners, etc.) can be regarded as the central elements of mediation between good and evil, civilization and barbarism, nature and society, etc. Articulating ‘civilized’ hatred of Iago and other westerners to Othello’s blackness Shakespeare’s for the first time reveals that what is hidden under the mask of nobleness, religiosity, and other civilization’s virtues may be even more inhumane, hypocritical, and ruthless than barbarism and Otherness of Othello.
Othello’s Otherness and race should be regarded as the main ideological legitimatization for a plot against him as planned by Iago. Many racial and intolerant remarks that are abundant in the text can serve as a perfect explication. The opening scenes of Shakespeare’s play prove our assumption. They completely exoticize Othello using referring to him not by name but as ‘Moor’ and the ‘extravagant stranger’ in this way putting a definite mental boundary between him and other protagonists. (1.1. 58 and 1.1. 37). The plot is organized not only by Iago but another person who feels racial and cultural hatred that is automatically transformed into personal hatred of Othello.
Hence, it should be noted that the main drivers of the tragedy conceived in terms of its compositional unraveling are Roderigo and Iago. They are the main protagonists which develop the racial discursive fabric embedded in the play using racial allegories and insults aimed to expose the supposedly inhumane nature of Othello. For instance, Roderigo says: “What a full fortune does the thicklips owe / If he can carry’t thus!” The use of the word ‘thick lips’ can be understood only in terms of disparaging reference to racial characteristics peculiar to dark-skinned people.
The entire system of racial hatred which can be found in Othello hence can be subdivided into several interrelated elements. The first is a literal reference to various racial characteristics and using offensive words. The second one refers to more abstract culture-determined stereotypes such as humane-inhumane, just-unjust, noble-ignoble, etc. And finally, the last element which can be defined is a structurally determined element of the play which make puts race at the center of the plot’s perception.
Othello’s blackness is used as an argument against his romantic ties with Desdemona. During the first scene of Shakespeare’s play, Iago wakes Brabantio up crying out that “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.89-90). This is used to horrify Desdemona’s father who is also sensible to racial prejudices. Iago continues by saying that “your daughter covered with a Barbary horse” (1.1.112).
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The racist narrative further continues with Iago reminding Brabantio that Othello and Desdemona would produce monsters if not stopped: “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you,” (1.1.112-18). The Iago ‘arguments’ make Brabantio refer to Othello as a ‘foul thief’ who made his daughter leave the ‘wealthy curled darlings of our nation’ to ‘the sooty bosom'(1.2.62-72). Brabantio’s exploitation of racism is more cultural and political as he claims that outsiders are not eligible to deserving women from the aristocratic white circle.
There is no denying the importance of the fact that the exotics of Othello’s origin, skin, manners (racial characteristics) was something that captivated Desdemona as she was enchanted by his mentioning of some very exotic races: “The Anthropophagi and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (1.3.146-47). These stories though they frightened Desdemona had also a positive effect on her attitude towards Othello.
The racial hatred which is at the forefront of the plot against Othello which is united with the hypocrisy and evil rationality of Iago and negative attitudes are in the end redistributed between Othello and Iago as the spectators understand that he should be regarded as the main source of tragedy. Shakespeare vividly shows that those who are perceived racially worthy can be morally ugly and therefore put forward a humanistic approach to every man notwithstanding the color of his skin.
To sum up, it must be said that the role of race as it occurs in Othello shouldn’t be disregarded by any means as it functions as an important operator of composition, literary substance, greater ideas, and their realization in literary work’s totality. Some of the most important thoughts and ideas that can be taken from Shakespeare’s play such as the danger of self-confident moral judgments, hypocrisy, and the nature of human relations seems would have been impossible without their articulation in racial terms. In other words, Shakespeare made use of race as a means for manifesting the ugliness of his civilization, moral duplicity, artificial nature of religiosity, and inhumane behavior of ‘civilized’ aristocracy.
Kennedy X.J. and Gioia D. Backpack Literature Edition, 2008.
Bartels, E. C ‘Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashioning of Race’. Shakespeare Quarterly 41: 454, 1990.
Jones, E. Othello’s Countrymen. The African in English Renaissance Drama London: Oxford UP,1965.
Michael, N. ‘Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello’. Shakespeare Quarterly, 40:409, 1989.
Shakespeare, W. Othello. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 3d edition. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980.