The Theme of Race and Racism in Othello, a Play by William Shakespeare

Categories: Othello

Throughout the sixteenth century, racial prejudice was prevalent in European Society beginning with slave trade. This issue is reflected in William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello, which deals with race and racism during this timeframe. It portrays the attitude of European society towards those that were different in color and race. Shakespeare’s play took place in Venice, Italy, and at the time, Venice was a predominantly white city. Given so, Othello was judged more severely than others due to his identity and was looked upon as an outsider.

Shakespeare’s play encompasses around three main characters in which all play a role in racial prejudice. Othello, the protagonist, is portrayed as a black Moor man in the Venetian army who constantly faces racial insults due to the color of his skin. Othello is married to a white woman, Desdemona, daughter of senator Brabantio, who rejects the idea of his daughter being married to a black man. The villain, lago, tries desperately to separate her and Othello in spite of his jealousy by accusing Desdemona of being unfaithful throughout the play.

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Through the actions of the characters, we can see how Venetian society frowned upon people of color just like they did with Othello, the Moor”. In this analytical paper, I will be analyzing how the play, Othello reflects the racial prejudices that were occurring in Venetian society during the sixteenth century through the use of textual evidence and the correlation it has with the city’s’ perspectives.

People of color around the world have suffered for years due to discriminatory factors and further began to grow during the sixteenth century in Venice.

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Shakespeare was aware of these racial issues and took on the character of Othello to further show the way they were treated and looked upon. Othello was a part of the Venetian army and was perceived to be a jealous individual, which mirrors the aspects of a perceived Moor during Elizabethan times. Moors took on the courage to fight in wars but were known to be extremely jealous by Elizabethans. Given so, Iago uses Othello’s racial insecurities and utters racial commentary to disprove Othello. From the very first act of the play, Iago begins to call Othello by racial insults degrading him as if he were not human. He also makes it clear to readers that he hates Othello by saying, “…I hate the Moor”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.3.313-314).

Iago at first pretends to be on his side by telling him to not have jealousy as it is the green-eyed monster”(Shakespeare, 1986, 3.3.171) because it will lead to heartbreak but then later convinces him into thinking his wife is cheating on him. Othello initially states that he would not “make a life of jealousy”(Shakespeare, 1986, 3.3.182) but ends up starting to feel jealous which causes him to ask for proof. It is with all intention that Iago is trying to ruin Othello. Furthermore, Moors during Elizabethan times were considered as animals given their reputation as savages. This is seen numerous times throughout the play as Iago and Brabantio hardly call Othello by his name. They degrade him with racial commentaries such as “Barbary horse”, (Shakespeare, 1986, 1.1.116) “old black ram”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.1.91) and “thick lips” (Shakespeare, 1986, 1.1.68).

These racist slurs ostracize Othello from society and the depiction of “thick lips” further describes his different physical appearance imposing that he is an outsider of the community. Not only were they seen as animals, Elizabethans also correlated Moors with witchcraft, which can also be seen when Brabantio accuses Othello of using magic. Brabantio states, “Judge me the world, if ’tis not gross in sense/ That thou hast practiced on her with foul charms, Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals/ That weaken motion”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.2.75-78). He believes Othello has manipulated his daughter into marrying him, which further shows the theme of racism because Brabantio only believes that Desdemona has to be under a spell to get her to marry a black man.

Othello’s skin color leads to him being undermined and contributes to his lack of confidence. His race and his position of power cause Othello to destroy himself because of his fear and doubt with whites like Iago. Another racial issue of Venetian society that can be exemplified through Shakespeare’s Othello is the disproval of interracial marriage. England was under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I who declared that there were too many blacks in the country and ordered that they be deported. They were considered to be a danger to social hierarchy and the alliance between a black man and a white woman was not acceptable. This is reflected through Othello when he marries Desdemona.

Parents were the ones who arranged marriages during this era and individuals had little choice as to who they would marry. Before marriage, Othello was seen as an honorary white due to his military stature. Brabantio always felt kindhearted towards Othello and would even invite him over to talk about his life story. Othello recalls, “Her father loved me,/oft invited me/still questioned me the story of my life”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.3.130-131). However once married, Brabantio’s attitude began to change towards him and Othello was then considered a black man. He did not welcome the marriage despite Othello’s high stature in the military and adopts a discriminatory attitude.

Brabantio states, Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!/For I’ll refer me to all things of sense,/If she in chains of magic were not bound,/Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy/So opposite to marriage that she shunned/The wealthy curlèd darlings of our nation,/Would ever have, t’incur a general mock,/Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/Of such a thing as thou to fear, not to delight. (Shakespeare, 1986, 1.2.66-74) He believes his daughter was manipulated into marrying a black man because she was opposed to marriage initially. Conversely, later in the play Desdemona clarifies that she indeed married him for love and was not manipulated into doing so. The independence Desdemona showed from her father was unusual in Elizabethan times and would not be tolerable.

If Othello were white then Brabantio would never be against the union of Othello and Desdemona. This further shows us that blacks were discriminated and interracial marriage was frowned upon in Venetian society in the sixteenth century. As a final point, all of the racial commentaries and insecurities Othello faced led him into believing he was an outsider, which ultimately led him to his own death. There are countless times Iago mistreats Othello. As stated before, Othello is called names pertaining to animals such as “black ram” and is manipulated into believing his own wife is cheating on him. Othello mentions, “For since these arms of mine had seven years pith/ Till now some nine moons wasted/ …in the tented field/ … little of this great world can I speak”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.3.86-89). Through this we can see that Othello’s life mainly encompasses around battle and he has yet to have a fulfilled life. He also adds in that he was “sold to slavery, of [his] redemption thence/And portance in [his] traveler’s history”(Shakespeare, 1986, 1.3.141-142).

These incongruities set Othello apart from the community thus making him an outsider compared to the higher social hierarchy at the time This realization destroys Othello causing him to kill himself. When he does kill himself he says he is killing the “turbaned Turk” who “beat a Venetian and traduced the state” (Shakespeare, 1986, 5.2.349-350). Here he finalizes his views on himself such that he calls himself a “Turk”. He has fundamentally become someone else because of Iago’s manipulative power. He is killing himself as the “Turk” or the “Moor” as an act of Venetian devotion. Due to racism, Othello becomes more vulnerable to manipulation and is easily tricked by Iago. Racism assures that Othello will remain isolated from his peers while Iago plays with his mind by separating him from his white peers and making him the outsider.

Shakespeare’s play could not have been a tragedy without the negative pressures from racism. To restate, Queen Elizabeth I had ordered blacks to be deported from the country during the sixteenth century, which caused them to feel unwanted and mistreated. Racism was key during this era and blacks never had the opportunity to fit into society just like Othello. They were deprived from many opportunities and had to face the realities of living in a black body. As has been mentioned, racism was a crucial issue occurring during Elizabethan times in the sixteenth century during the publication of William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello

. Shakespeare was mindful of such issues and personified them in his character of Othello. By doing so, readers are able to see how Venetian society in the sixteenth century discriminated against African Americans in such ways of perceiving blacks as animals and savages just like how Othello was perceived, disproving interracial marriage, and ultimately causing blacks to feel like outsiders. Also through the characters’ actions in Shakespeare’s play, we can further interpret how African Americans were mistreated and caused to feel like outsiders.

Reference List

  1. Shakespeare, W. (1986). The Tragedy of Othello The Moore of Venice With New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography (A. B. Kernan & S. Barnet, Eds.). New York, NY: Signet Classics. (Originally published in 1963).

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The Theme of Race and Racism in Othello, a Play by William Shakespeare. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-theme-of-race-and-racism-in-othello-a-play-by-william-shakespeare-essay

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