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In the play Othello written by Shakespeare, the issue of racism is addressed. Othello, the protagonist of the play, is African American or black. “According to Lois Whitney, many of Othello’s specific attributes probably derive from Shakespeare’s reading of Leo Africanus, whose Geographical Historie of Africa which was translated and published in London in 1600”(Berry, 1990). Many critics have different views on this. “If Shakespeare depended upon Leo Africanus for such details, he must have been much more interested in racial psychology than critics such as Bradley or Heilman suggest”(Berry, 1990).
One of the most prominent features of this Shakespeare play is the numerous references to Othello’s skin color made by multiple characters however some critics tend to ignore or underplay the issue of Othello’s race. Many critics have different views and arguments on Othello’s skin color. “A. C. Bradley, fro example, asserts that in regards to the essentials of his character Othello’s race is unimportant, and that Shakespeare would have laughed if anyone had congratulated him on the accuracy of his racial psychology” (Skura 2008).
Others differ and believe Othello’s race was important. “Laurence Lemer calls Othello the story of a barbarian who relapses and concludes that Shakespeare suffered from colour prejudice” (Berry, 1990). Throughout the play Othello is referred to as a Moor. Moor is a term meaning a descent from Africa. “Harold Clarke Goddard argues that Othello is neither a Negro nor a Moor but any many who is more beautiful within than he is without” (Skura, 2008). Some critics even put the audience of the play into consideration.
The potential impact of his physical appearance upon audiences is suggested by Charles Lamb’s frank admission that although he could find Othello admirable in the reading he was only repelled by the figure of a coal-black Moor on stage, he concluded that the play should rather be read and not seen” (Berry, 1990). Many critics have tended to ignore or underplay the issue of Othello’s skin color, but these select critics have not. Along with critics making references to Othello’s race, many characters in the play do as well.
The characters that are most racist refer to Othello by his real name less than the people who are least racist. “Othello’s blackness is not only a mark of his physical alienation but a symbol, to which every character in the play himself included must respond” (Berry, 1990). Othello does not refer to himself as African but rather as an exotic Venetian. Other characters do not see Othello as that. Many characters call Othello numerous names other than his real one. “For Iago Othello is an old black ram, the devil, and a barbary horse” (Berry, 1990).
Many see Othello’s blackness as a symbol of ugliness, bestiality, treachery, and demonic. None of those words describe how Othello really is. Those words are the stereotypical definition of what a black man is. This stereotypical definition puts Othello is a predicament and makes his acceptance in the Venetian society difficult. “Once such critics conclude that Othello is not a stereotype, he tends to lose his individuality as a Moor and to become a representative of humanity” (Berry, 1990).
The stereotypical image of a black man plays an important role in the play’s ending. Since this play is a tragedy and Othello is a tragic hero, his blackness does play a role in that. A tragic hero is the protagonist in a tragedy. This play is a tragedy considering Othello commits murder and ultimately takes his own life. “Othello’s Africanness is crucial to his tragedy not because of what he is, innately or culturally but because of how he is perceived by others and himself” (Skura, 2008).
If it wasn’t for Othello being black, the play may have had a different outcome. Throughout the play, Othello sees himself either as an exotic Venetian, a convert in the fullest sense, capable of complete assimilation, or he sees himself as a barbarian, worthy of destruction” (Berry, 1990). In the play Othello was worthy of destruction. It was the racism and hatred that drove him to it. If the other characters weren’t so judgmental about his skin color, the play would have ended very differently. “His failure to break free of this constricting framework, to achieve a true sense of personal identity, is one of the play’s most powerful sources of tragic feeling” (Berry, 1990).
With all the commotion over Othello’s race, it really didn’t give him a chance to be himself. By him being black, it makes him feel less accepted into his society. “Othello attempts to shape an image of himself that will win acceptance in Venice” (Berry, 1990). Critics also even see how Othello’s identity is altered by the constant racial tension against him in the play. “Stephen Greenblatt argues, Othello’s identity depends upon a constant performance of his story, a loss of his own origins, an embrace and perpetual reiteration of the norms of another culture” (Greenblatt, 1990).
All of this racism in the play causes Othello some serious anxiety. Anxiety is a condition that can drive an individual to do things that are out of character for them. “He cannot probe the real cause of his anxiety because to do so would be utterly destructive, leaving him with only two options: to embrace his blackness and hurl its beauty and power in the face of his enemies, as does Aaron in Titus Andronicus, or to internalize their image of him and yield to self-loathing” (Berry, 1990). Othello doesn’t really do either in the play.
He let others put thoughts into his head about his wife cheating on him with another man, which led to a murder scene where he killed his wife and in the end took his own life too. “His immediate reaction to the murder thus reflects his divided image of himself: he is either doomed like all great men or destroyed by his own blackness” (Skura, 2008). Based on the evidence in the play, Othello is definitely destroyed by his own blackness. His blackness is what drove him to commit the murder and kill himself.
In conclusion, Othello’s skin color is central to the play. “It is important not merely because Shakespeare portrays Othello as a Moor or because racial tension and anxiety pervade the atmosphere of Venetian society, affecting Othello’s relationship with every character and increasing his susceptibility to Iago’s appeal; it is important because Othello himself in his aspirations towards assimilation and anxieties about his blackness, internalizes a false dichotomy that can only dehumanize him” (Berry, 1990).
This play does give the stereotype of black people a negative name. Many critics argue what role his race played in the play. Some think it was really important while others argue it wasn’t important at all. One of the most prominent features of this Shakespeare play is the numerous references to Othello’s skin color made by multiple characters however some critics tend to ignore or underplay the issue of Othello’s race.