Race and Characterisation in Othello


‘Othello’ is a socio-critique of the flaws in Jacobean society and of the presentation of stereotypes based on race. Shakespeare presents race and the characterization of Othello through his marriage to Desdemona, how others treat him and his initially strong “reputation”. His reputability deteriorates as the play progresses leading to his downfall. Shakespeare exemplifies the importance of position in the social hierarchy in Venetian society: “Oh I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial” This play is a testament to why Shakespeare’s plays are still being studied; exploring issues that are still prevalent today such as the alienation of black people and the discrimination towards people of colour.  Jan Knotts in ‘Shakespeare our Contemporary’, believed that “characters have little or no power over their lives, but are swept aside by inevitable social and historical forces beyond their control” this was directly mirroring Othello’s life as he was trying to break out of the vicious stereotype about him as the “Moor of Venice” but ultimately fell into Iago’s trap, proving that the negative reputation he has acquired because of his race were true. Shakespeare makes race an essential part of Othello’s character and his development in the play. He attempts to erase the negative connotations that came with being a “moor” by challenging the idea that his life is dictated by his race; this struggle is both internal and external as he fights not only others but himself in breaking that preconceived notion. Consequently, it mirrored the shift in dramatic tragedy from Aristotelian political tragedy to early modern personal tragedy; Othello bridges the two

It is questionable what Shakespeare’s message was when presenting the play to his audience; Thomas Rymer, in A Short View of Tragedy (1693), saw the moral of the play to be ‘a caution to all maidens of Quality how, without their Parents’ consent, they run away with Blackamoors’. The play was written in the 17th Century which leads to different interpretations of what the play’s true message was. On the podcast, ‘Shakespeare Unlimited’, a different perspective was explored as some believe that “Othello is not about race” because of the time it was written as it was argued that the 18th century was when modern day racism was established. It was discussed that the American audiences come with complex baggage to blackface, to race, and to Shakespeare which leads to variants of analysis regarding the play. Many of the topics that are addressed in Othello, usually bring out a negative response in people as it has been a taboo to speak about sensitive topics regarding race. Othello’s ‘exotic qualities’ that he embodied were alluring to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience.

Shakespeare uses Othello’s relationship with others around him to highlight the medieval socio-economic hierarchy that favoured wealthy, white men. Tim Wise states: “That which keeps people of colour off balance in a racist society is that which keeps whites in control”. Shakespeare uses Othello’s race to drive most of people’s speech about him. Throughout the play, Othello is referred to as “devil” and “moor” by multiple different people such as Brabantio and Iago. This reiterates the Great Chain of Being that directly affects the social hierarchy which holds the devil at the lowest position. Brabantio’s initial monologue in front of the Duke exemplifies the hypocrisy that the Venetian society had encouraged as he was friendly to Othello, inviting him into his home until he discovered that Othello married his daughter. Brabantio calls Othello: “an abuser of the world, a practise/ of arts inhibited, and out of warrant” (1.2.62-81).

Furthermore, Shakespeare demonstrates a clear dichotomy between Iago and Othello and highlights how differently they act, considering the expectations people have of them and their reputations as “the lusty moor” and “honest Iago”. Iago manages to deceive everyone around him with his words: “pour[ed] this pestilence into [Othello’s] ear” (2.3.265). Iago’s duplicity manipulates Othello’s trust: “I was loving you too much”. Shakespeare draws similarities to Janus, the two-faced god in ancient roman religion believed to be the god of beginnings and endings. This is a contrast to the name he has made for himself as “Honest Iago”. Shakespeare dismantles people’s perception of race through Iago. As exemplified in one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, ‘Lust’s Dominion’ explores binary oppositions: “the whitest faces have the blackest souls”. Othello’s initial mistake is that he allowed his naivety and gullible nature to be taken advantage of by Iago who called him “lord” presence but vocalises his resentment in his absence: “I hate the Moor”. Othello is expected to be “ignorant as dirt” and he allows that narrative to continue as he says: “I am rude of speech” at the beginning of his soliloquy before speaking eloquently. Othello’s race is his inherited hamartia and is frequently used to contrast “Fair Desdemona” who exemplifies purity and virtue.

The eponymous character, Othello, is described with animalistic language, he is called a “beast” and his marriage is described as “Sagitary” to lay emphasis on the unnatural nature of their marriage and the disruption they caused to the Great Chain of Being. The use of zoomorphism de-humanises him and further enforces his position in society. There was black and white imagery used heavily throughout to describe Desdemona’s union with Othello. Iago yelled at Brabantio in the First Act that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.89-90). In ‘Shakespeare Unlimited’, it was said that Shakespeare was calling attention to patterns of behaviors and practices in a ‘White Privileged World’. Adrienne Rich put it as “Think, imagine, and [can] speak as if whiteness described the world”. Othello faced a lot of scrutiny regarding Desdemona as people believed he used “witchcraft” to lure Desdemona. It was unthinkable that a white female would fall in love with a “lusty moor” without her being bound “in chains of magic”. Othello himself eventually describes the marriage as “nature erring from itself” further demonstrating the engrained importance of the social hierarchy that is taught. Brabantio repeatedly implies that Othello had “abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals”. To further reinforce the racist language being used to describe people of colour, not only Othello, Iago and Rodrigo both yell at Brabantio, detailing how he is related to savages, now that Othello is his son-in-law: “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (1.1.115-8) and “you’ll have your daughter covered in Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephew neigh at you”

In ‘Radical Tragedy’ (1989) Jonathan Dollimore stated that: “Tragedies expose the injustices and inequalities of society, and they question the beliefs and structures which maintain those unfair practices.” Whether Shakespeare wanted this play to act as a warning against black people or a message of unity, he successfully challenged societal rules and made the reader cathartically question their world in the process.


Student Exemplar: Leen Elamin

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