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Racism is the act of prejudice or discrimination against someone on the basis of color, ethnicity or place of origin (Stoner, 1); in other words, it is when hatred and contempt are inflicted upon someone because of their race or ethnicity. Shakespeare’s captivating play, The Tragedy of Othello, is one that is significantly influenced by the impact of racism, for it was written during a time when racism, particularly against black individuals, was in full effect. It is during this time period, known as the Elizabethan era, black individuals were verbally separated from those who had white skin, and were treated unjustly in society, all of which is experienced by the protagonist, Othello.
Throughout this play, racism is exhibited as one perceives how Othello is regarded in the city of Venice as well as how societal oppression forces this soldier to live up to his name in society as the ‘ Moor of Venice. The imagery of racism is portrayed throughout William Shakespeare’s play, Othello.
From the opening scene in Othello, Shakespeare makes it clear that racism is a major concern of this play, but to understand how Shakespeare implemented racism in Othello, it is necessary to understand how racism took place in the Elizabethan era which is one of the most obvious time periods where discrimination against black people was utmostly occurring. People who lived in the Elizabethan society primarily consisted of English whites; black individuals were rarely seen, and this could explain why black people were perceived to be strange and unusual.
They were often isolated and regarded as unattractive, poor, and evil.
To be black was to be doubly foreign, doubly strange. Although there were too few blacks [in England] for there to be prejudice in the modern sense, the color black was traditionally associated with many of the things we regard as signs of prejudice: blacks were associated with ugliness, savagery, sin, and lasciviousness. (Outsiders: Black)
This indicates that Othello was most likely one of the only black people living in Venice, and even though he had a great reputation, he was deemed an outcast by society. Furthermore, since this was the period when black individuals were very much insignificant that they were relatively neglected, Othello’s possession of a general position in Venice led many to condemn him as it was rare for black people to obtain such a position during this era.
Judging by the way he stands up for himself as well as the people of Venice, Othello is a man of virtue and courage, yet with all positive attributes, the people of Venice perceive just one characteristic…his race; in other words, Othello is put in a situation where he can not appease the people of Venice as long as he is a black man; with only one exception, the Duke of Venice, Othello is practically an outcast to many. Furthermore, he is often called a “Moor” by many, which is a term that indicates a black individual from Northern Africa. “Othello has a harmony of racism. This harmony is provided by the tireless verbalization of “Moor” meaning “Black” (Mutlu, 3)
In other words, by calling Othello the ‘Moor,’ one is emphasizing his race. This shows that he is not even respected enough to be called his name, nor is he considered to be a man of great virtue, for all one sees is the color of his skin. This is one of the many ways racism is depicted in this play, for every time Othello is named, they must mention the fact that he is black. Moreover, even his wife, Desdemona, indulges in such a racist act. “So much I challenge that I may profess/ Due to the Moor my lord” (1.3.186-187) This shows that Desdemona is under the pressure of society to always acknowledge that her husband is a black man. The depiction of race and ‘blackness’ is seen more clearly further in the play, for the imagery of animals is commonly used to address Othello. Aside from being referred to as a “Moor”, Othello has been regarded as “an old black ram” (1.1.85 ) as well as a “Barbary horse” (1.1.108), or an African horse, by Iago. Furthermore, he has been called “thick-lips” (1.1.63) which indicates that it was believed that Black people possessed bigger lips; this does not only racially attack Othello physically, rather it initiates a topic of sexuality. “[Stating that one’ possesses “thick lips” does not only reduce one to a racialized physical attribute… but also alludes to their hypersexual nature, as lips, especially big lips, is often a symbol of sexuality” (Bayles, 2) This indicates that Othello is not only being racially insulted, but is viewed as a sexual object, which was a common way people perceived black people during this period of time. In addition, Othello was referred to as the ‘sooty bosom’ (1.1.70) which directly accentuates Othello’s darker skin color; in other words, by calling Othello a sooty bosom, one insinuating that having darker skin is dirty.
Among those who hate Othello, Iago, the standard-bearer of Othello, has shown contempt for Othello, not just because he was not selected to be his second-in-command, but because he is black. In other words, while he resents Othello for supporting Cassio, a scholar, and not himself, it seems from his speech that his skin color is the thing he most hates about Othello.(Stoner, 2) He believes that Othello should not be allowed to be a general, nor should he be allowed to be married to Desdemona because he is a black man.“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.85-86) This shows that Iago believes a black man sleeping with a white woman is a taboo.
The imagery of racism is further depicted when Brabantio, the father of Desdemona, learns that his daughter had married Othello. Iago urges Brabantio by stating several racist phrases about the union of Othello and Desdemona.“Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,/ Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you” (1.1.87-88); In other words, Iago advises Brabantio to break the marriage of Othello and Desdemona before they produce black children. “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 nephew neigh to you” (1.1.106-109); In other words, Iago states that their union will result in a family of horses. This further reveals how Shakespeare used imagery to show the perception of black people as animals. Brabantio has constantly made it known that he does not want Desdemona to be married to a black man, for he believes that would be going against nature. He is so blinded by the fact that Othello is black that he does not see him as a noble General who should be highly respected.
Every father would want such a man for their daughter, but that wasn’t the case for Brabantio, for Othello had just one flaw…his race. “To fall in love with what she feared to look on?/…Against all rules of nature, and must be driven”(1.3.98-101) This shows that Brabantio believes black people are to be feared, and not to be love; a white woman loving a black man can be considered an abomination, for it is not natural.
In addition, Brabantio believes that Desdemona did not willingly agree to marry Othello, for she must be under a spell. “She is abused, stol’n from me and corrupted/ By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks” (1.3.60-61) In other words, Brabentio believed that Othello used witchcraft to captivate his daughter. He thinks that if there were no bewitching, his daughter could not bear and stay with him because the blackness of Othello would give horror to Desdemona. This was a common stereotype of black during this time period, for they were commonly accused of indulging in witchcraft.
To many whites, Africa was a strange and heathen land rampant with demons and devils who were the objects of worship by its inhabitants. Devils were often in the thoughts of the colonists and [they believed devils] were found at almost every turn. The belief that Blacks were inherently connected to the worship of satanic forces no doubt greatly influenced many Whites automatically to suspect them of witchcraft. (McClain,107) This proves that Shakespeare related the accusation of Othello using witchcraft to attract Desdemona to what was currently occuring during that time period; based on this, one can assume that black individuals were believed to be satanic, and for this reason they were commonly feared.
In Othello, the act of racism has also been demonstrated by the symbolism of ‘white’ and ‘black’. During the Elizabethan era, being “fair”, or white, signified righteousness; in other words, if one was white, they were perceived to be a person of virtue whereas a black person was viewed as the opposite. This distinction places greater symbolic importance on ‘fairness,’ as it is used as a term for whiteness, and thus undermines Othello’s skin color. “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.3.289) In this scene, although the Duke of Venice speaks well of Othello, this statement he made does not directly attack Othello, but attacks black people in general. He is stating that Othello is fair and not black, in other words, Othello is a black man, but has the attributes of one who is white. This shows that white-skin was believed to symbolize goodness, while black-skin symbolized impurity.
Throughout Othello, one can certainly view a strong imagery of racism that existed in Shakespeare’s time; in other words, it is safe to note that Shakespeare wrote this play as a reflection of the racial issues that were occuring during the Elizabethan era. Based on the status of Othello as General, one can understand that no matter how noble an individual was, as long as their perceived to be Black, it was considered to be a good reason enough to be disrespected and practically dehumanized by society. Moreover, Shakespeare associating images of animals and witchcraft to represent Othello and African culture reveals the cruel side of the Elizabethan era, and how difficult life was for a black individual living in England during this time period. For this reason, Othello is a true illustration of Shakespeare’s perception of racism in the Elizabethan era as well as the extreme racial prejudice against black people that used to exist.
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