Othello is a play written by William Shakespeare in the early 17th century. During this time, blacks were becoming increasingly common in England. However, some people had not encountered any blacks other than in texts. Consequently, perception and attitudes towards blacks were profoundly influenced by the dominant narrative at the time. The story of the barbarism of blacks was advanced by explorers and travelers who gave detailed accounts of these foreigners. However, Shakespeare attempts to tackle these stereotypes but presenting a black person as the tragic hero in one of his plays. Although Shakespeare presents Othello as an individual who transcends racial stereotypes, he is ultimately consumed by the racism that surrounds him.
During the 17th century, England had little contact with Africans. However, there were numerous stories both factual and fictional concerning the dark-skinned people from Africa. Korhonen argues that Africans had a mysterious quality in the eyes of the English (95). They embodied the legends and fanciful stories the English had read in travel narratives. The black skin was viewed as a deformity, monstrosity and mysterious. It was also associated with rampant sexuality and lack of reason and sense (Korhonen 95). As such, the public did not expect anything positive from a person with black skin. People with dark skin were known as Moors including those who were not of African descent. However, some features were commonly used to identify Africans. For instance, Africans were presumed to have full lips. According to Korhonen, a Moor could mean non-Christians, Arabs, or people from Africa (182). However, the description by Roderigo in Othello as having thick lips depicts him as being African (I. i. 66). Korhonen argues that thick lips, curly hair and flat nose although not considered foul by themselves, in combination, they represented the stupidity of Africans (95). Africans were the other. They were inferior to Europeans in every conceivable way from their looks to their intelligence. Despite most of the public not having encountered blacks, their perception of their inferiority was entrenched in the system and informed by the narratives they read. The stereotypical perception of African was unchallenged for a long time, and when Othello was written in 1603, the perception of moors was far from favorable.
Moors were perceived by the English public to be out of control due to their primitive nature. As such, jealousy was a trait expected from them. Although Othello in a fit of rage and jealousy strangles and kills Desdemona, he is not the only character who is jealous. Shakespeare underplays the role of the skin color in predisposing one to jealousy by making many of the characters have similar destructive jealous fits. Iago is jealous of Cassio as he believes that Cassio has been unjustly promoted. He is also jealous of Othello as he heard that Othello might have slept with his wife, Emilia. "I hate the Moor: And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets he has done my office: I know not to be true; But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety."(I.iii.12). Iago then plots an elaborate scheme to get back at Cassio by getting him fired by Othello. Roderigo is jealous of Othello as he is in love with Desdemona ("Othello: Entire Play"). Iago manipulates these jealousies to get what he wants, which is to punish Othello and cause him as much distress as possible. Although he cautions Othello and urges him wary of jealousy as It is the green-eyed monster which doth mocks the meat it feeds on;"(3.3.15), Iago does not mean it but hopes to ensnare Othello using Othello's jealousy towards Desdemona. The vulnerability of Othello to deception is not any different from that of Roderigo (Young 26). Shakespeare tries to undermine the role of Othellos race in his jealousy. Instead, he portrays Othello like any other man who loves excessively.
Moors were also perceived to have rampant sexuality. However, Shakespeare does not portray Othello as being highly sexual, but he is portrayed as anxious about sex. Othello exercise sexual restraint in numerous occasions. For instance, he postpones having intercourse with Desdemona when there is a fight between Cassio and Montano. Although Brabantio claims that an old black ram is tupping [their] ewe, Othello states that they are yet to consummate their marriage. He tells Desdemona that although the purchase [has been] made/ the fruits [are] yet to ensue/profits yet to come tween me and you (I.i. 97-98; II.iii. 11-12). Shakespeare denounces the stereotype that blacks were highly sexual. Although Othello was married and could have sex anytime he wanted, his actions show restraint.
Several characters notably Iago and Brabantio emphasize Othello race with racist remarks. Othello had previously enjoyed life in Venice without his race causing him a lot of discomforts. However, Iago takes it upon himself to emphasize Othellos otherness to arouse the fears and stereotypes associated with Moors. Iago refers to Othello as black (II. ii. 28). Iago tells Brabantio that his daughter Desdemona will be coverd with a Barbary horse and that she and the Moor [were] making the beast with two backs] (I. i. 112; I. i. 116). On the other hand, Brabantio wonders how his daughter could leave all the good men in Venice for her to run to the sooty bosom of such as a thing as [Othello] - to fear, not to delight (I. ii. 70-71). Brabantio alludes that Othello is not merely black, but also conforms to the stereotype of being frightening.
Othello actions also show that he does not appreciate his skin color. When Iago told him that his wife might have been unfaithful, he revealed that he was insecure due to his skin color. Although he confidently declares that it is not possible for Desdemona to cheat on him when he proudly asserts Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw/The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt/For she had eyes, and chose me (III. iii. 187-89). He starts to doubt on his suitability when he says and yet how nature erring from itself (III. iii. 228). This statement indicates that Othello felt that Desdemonas love for a black man like himself was unnatural. This change of heart is interesting as Shakespeare shows that although Othello may not be like the stereotypical black man, he succumbs to the racist environment. Young argues that by making Othello a tragic hero, he was not inferior, but merely a great man with flaws (24). Having been told continually that he is not worthy of Desdemona from her father and Iago, Othello seems to finally believe that it may indeed be true that he was inferior to whites. Iago understands the changing perspective and creeping doubt in Othello and capitalizes his fear of being inadequate in his scheme that eventually drove Othello to kill Desdemona.
Othello justifies his rude speech by claiming that his race could not allow him to have finesse. He declares Haply for I am black/And have not those soft parts of conversations/ that clamberers have (III.iii. 264-266). He plays to the stereotype of blacks being uncivilized. Such self-loathing shows that he believed that being black came with inherent weaknesses. He utters these words in Act three showing that his racially charged environment has finally gotten to him. He believes the negative things that were said about blacks and owned the stereotypical behaviors.
Shakespeare created Othello, a character who did not conform to the stereotypical ideas about blacks. He not only rose to fame but was also respected. However, the racial environment he lived in made him perceive his race as something that made him an inferior human. The play and its representation of blacks is worth noting not only because it is an issue that has been in the forefront recently, but also because it indicates that the negative connotations associated with race are created. A person is not inherently inferior due to race. However, the system and the environment can construct race as something deeper than skin color. It can make it be associated with certain qualities. This construction of race is usually done for selfish reasons. Understating how racial prejudice is constructed is more relevant today than it ever was in the 17th century. Othello was confident and act like an upright citizen until he believed that his skin color made him act in a certain way.
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Shakespeare, William, and Gayle Holste. Othello. Barron's Educational Series, 2002.
"Othello: Entire Play." The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
Washing the Ethiopian White: Conceptualizing Black Skin in Renaissance England. In Thomas Foster Earle, K. J. P. Lowe, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 94-112.
Young, R V. "The Bard, the Black, the Jew." First Things: a Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, 2004, 22-28.
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