How is Race and Characterisation of Othello Presented?


The characterisation of Othello was presented through the dominant ideology of the predilection, prejudice and paragon image of race. The portrayal of the eponymous character in the play was stereotypically insinuated to be savage, violent and aggressive; however, was based on falsehood in order to expose Iago’s duplicitous character and ultimately Othello’s hamartia.


Shakespeare uses Othello to underscore the animosity between “blackness” and the Venetians, to emphasise the vivid marginalisation of the ‘Other’ that was occurring at that contemporary era. However, the theme of race was overlooked by the audience, as it was not considered a significant problem at that time; no matter how eloquently Shakespeare interweaved it throughout the play. As stated in Shakespeare Unlimited ‘Othello and Blackface’ Podcast: “People weren’t interested in seeing the play in the way in Shakespeare’s time [which] is really sort of startling, because of the very clear and numerous derogatory references to skin colour in the play.” In Act 1 Scene 1, Iago cowardly confesses to Brabantio through Roderigo’s shadow that “even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” Exposing Iago’s malevolence in his stealthy manner that is hidden behind his duality; which further reiterates the “derogatory references”.  As referenced in an article created by Virginia Mason Vaughan: “Othello was crafted at the dawn of the 17th century, shaped by complex social and geopolitical issues”.


Subsequently, Iago extends his antagonising, animalistic and dehumanising characterisations of Othello through his use of visceral, brutal and sexual imagery: “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (1:1) which further degrades Othello, not only as a black person but as a human who was belittled through Iago’s bigotry. Further linking back to the ‘Blackface’ podcast where they negotiated that Iago felt that he “can hide what’s inside behind this white privilege that” he has; linking to Thomas Dekker’s Lust’s dominion, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Shakespeare displays irony, as he intentionally reverses stereotypes as he illustrates Iago to have most of the negative descriptions of the black people and Othello to have the typical English Christian man influence: “Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, My very noble and approved good masters” “Rude am I in my speech” (1:3). These further highlight Othello’s nobility and regal respect: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” (1:3). As this was stated by the Duke, it undermines the fact that Othello is civil in the eyes of nobility, despite the colour of his skin.


Furthermore, the setting of the play creates great significance in Act 2 Scene 1 when the action shifts to Cyprus; he turmoil Cyprus reinforces Othello’s nature as a savage “Moor”, as he can no longer dominate his reactions, but rather, as Shakespeare previously quoted: “wears his heart on his sleeve” as his emotions are on the surface of his “blackness”; in reference to F. R. Leavis’ ‘Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero’: “The noble Othello is now seen as tragically pathetic”. This further demonstrates Othello’s position at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the Great Chain of Being, where there is a great deal of disarray as a result of the interracial marriage which is “Most maimed and most imperfect” to the natural order. When the setting was in Venice, Othello was initially addressed and depicted as a “noble Moor”, however, when the plot moves to Cyprus where there is disorder, it disrupts his “Worthy Othello” title and emphasises his devilish descriptions which dethrones his position in society: “O, thou foul thief” (1:2); further alienating himself.


Moreover, Iago’s malcontent is derived from his hunger for power, through his hatred towards Othello: “A frail vow betwixt an erring barbarian and a super-subtle venetian be not too hard for my wits and all the tribe of hell” (1:3). Many take great issue with Desdemona’s nonconformist decision on including herself in this interracial marriage and Iago’s repetition of “Knee crooking knaves” reinforces his insecurities in his social position; seeing Othello as an Over-Reacher as a result of his race. When Iago finally compels Othello of Desdemona’s “unlawful solicitations” with Cassio; Othello then accomplished in portraying all the black stereotypes through his crescendo of madness: “Lie with her! Lie on her! We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! That’s fulsome.” (4:1) This implies the carnal, visceral and obscene descriptions, through Othello’s use of repeated variances, clever wordplay and imperatives that reinforce his ascending anger and obsession that was clearly elevating throughout the play. The use of exclamatory remarks and disjointed incomplete sentences when he exclaims “Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. – -Is’t possible? – – Confess – – handkerchief! – – O devil – -” reinforce the increase of passion that is fuelling his restlessness and his lack of rationality. Further reassuring the racist implications on Othello’s “blackness”.


In addition to Shakespeare’s reverse in Iago and Othello’s characters; Iago’s devilish implications also reinforce biblical allusions to Lucifer. Iago corrupts Othello “for sport” and as part of his perceived revenge more than personal gain which makes him the embodiment of evil, not unlike Lucifer’s temptation of Christ. Iago’s façade of obedience mirrors that offered to Jesus in Matthew 4:8 “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour…. All this I will give you.” Both Lucifer and Iago demonstrate a feigned subservience: “My lord, you know I love you.” (3:3) Even though Othello was associated with witchcraft because of his black ancestry and tribal religion; Iago succeeded in revealing this association through his morally bankrupt, evasive and contemptuous character. Further linking back to Lust’s Dominion and the Binary black and white imagery.


In conclusion, as stated by Ania Loomba, in ‘Othello, Race and Society’: “black-skinned people were usually typed as godless, bestial and hideous…highly emotional and even irrational, and prone to anger and jealousy.” As the play progresses, Othello illustrates: “a capacity for tenderness as well as a propensity to violence.” As the theme of race in Othello was debated to be relevant to Shakespeare’s intention, some have come to conclude that it is, in fact, majorly about race; to reinforce this, the ‘Blackface’ podcast exclaimed: “the only world in which Othello is not about race is in a white privileged world.” This is vastly highlighted through the demeaning descriptions and characteristics of the so called “Moor” known as Othello; as the Venetians conveyed him in a condescending manner. Further linking back to the dominant ideology of the predilection, prejudice and paragon image of race.


Student exemplar: Jude Soussan


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