Since the Middle Ages, the issues of race have long been discussed.In nearly every culture, race has been a topic of complex discussion that has brought social discomfort and in most instances racial prejudice – Elizabethan England being no exception.William Shakespeare applies the issue of race in many of his plays; such in the tragedy of Othello that captures the reality of society in Elizabethan England, showing common racial bias of that era.
Through his characters in the play, Shakespeare illustrates Elizabethan social ideology towards race, in which foreigners have adapted to a lifestyle of racial prejudice.In order to better understand the racial context behind the tragedy of Othello it is important to keep in mind the historical complexities that existed in Elizabethan England. Elizabethan vision of foreigners was complex and evolving from the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages, engaging with foreigners involved the spiritual and material aspect of life. Margo Hendricks, author of Shakespeare and Race, explains within Elizabethan culture and literature that foreigners were viewed as those implementing a “process of vulgarization. Elizabethan awareness of foreigners was closely tied to the religious outlook of the world, in which followers of Judaism and Islam were the antithesis of Christians. The difference in religions prompted the same outlook on difference in race. In the beginning, foreigners mostly blacks, were forcefully brought over to Elizabethan England as “creatures” that possessed little to no rights. However, as time went on they became members of Elizabethan society known as moors. Although they were now members of society, racial integration with whites often clashed, resulting in complex tensions amongst the different races.
Many foreigners in Elizabethan England were blacks, according to Diane Abbott, a current British Member of Parliament, in which the sudden rise in number caused Queen Elizabeth I to issue a proclamation complaining about this rise in numbers of blacks in England. For blacks, the aspect of color brought so many negative connotations in the eyes of white Elizabethan Christians that degraded them in Elizabethan society. In this regard, Shakespeare uses the issue of race in Othello, written during Elizabethan times, as one of the main themes in the story represented through characters such as Iago, Brabantio, and others.In the beginning of the play, Iago shares with Roderigo and the audience his intentions of manipulating Othello for his personal gain because Othello passed on Iago as his lieutenant, thus allowing Iago to act a need for revenge based on personal hatred. Before diving into examples illustrating racism in the play it is important to also understand Othello’s background in regards to being a black foreigner in Elizabethan society. Othello, who is the play’s protagonist, is a highly respected general of the Venetian armed forces, although being a “Moor”, a man of North African descent.Ironically in the play, Othello is therefore presented in some ways opposite to the norms of Elizabethan society.
While being a powerful figure and having the respect of his followers, Othello is still subject to racial backlash due to his societal role as a cultural outsider for being a foreigner. Moors, or those of African decent, were seen as second class citizens of Elizabethan society, treated with little respect, and making very little income to help support their families.Othello has to secretly marry Desdemona, a Venetian woman, because he knows not only would Desdemona’s father be opposed to such a marriage between a foreigner and a Venetian, but also society wouldn’t be in favor of it either. This as we see in the play provokes more racial slurs towards Othello, although the love that Desdemona and Othello share for each other is too strong for race to become an issue between them. In the opening act of the play we see Iago, a veteran military man of Venice and the harshest critic of Othello throughout the play, share with Roderigo and the audience his intentions of revenge against Othello.Here not only do we unravel Iago’s personal hatred for Othello, but Roderigo’s racial views as well. “What a full fortune does the thick lips owe if he can carry’t thus! ” (I, i ,65) Roderigo, who wants to win Desdemona’s love away from Othello at any cost, calls Othello as “thick-lips”, a racial stereotype of blacks, when responding to Iago about their plans to turn Venetians such as Desdemona’s father Brabantio, against Othello.
As Roderigo and Iago go to awake Brabantio in the middle of the night to tell him of the news that Desdemona ran off with Othello to get married, multiple stereotypes and slurs are used in this exchange.Iago tells Brabantio that he’s been “robbed” of his soul, for Othello has taken Desdemona by some sort of curse, being that there’s no way a prominent Venetian woman would go off to marry a “barbarian” instead of a Venetian man. “Because 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 nephews neigh to you, you’ll have coursers for cousins and jennets for germans. ” ( I, i, 108) Iago, in his conversation with Brabantio, compares Othello to a Barbary horse in Africa.In a most obscene manner, Iago is informing Brabantio of the repercussions in their society if he doesn’t take action against Othello for his daughter is now within “the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (act 1 sc. 1 line 141). The negative connotation of the color black isn’t only viewed in the eyes only Venetians in the tragedy of Othello.
In fact, Othello uses the color black as a negative implication as well when he hears from Iago that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. “ arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!… thy crown and hearted throne to tyrannous hate! III, iii, 447) It could be possible that perhaps those in Elizabethan England simply used black and white to mirror bad versus good, dark versus light, and through this view brought the same view of foreigners because of skin color. Brabantio accuses Othello of “dark magic” as his way of wooing Desdemona, claiming his impurity in forcing his daughter’s willingness in marriage. Whereas many of such derogatory comments about Othello have much irony considering his status as a leader of the Venetian army, at the same time it clearly illustrates the social gap between citizens and foreigners.
Regardless of the fact that Othello is a man of power – as is Brabantio being a senator – the view of foreigners is rather a big issue, in this case Brabantio despises Othello for his actions because his view just like many Venetians is that a foreigner with a Venetian brings impurity and disgrace to society. Othello being the black Moor of Venice shows an opposite pattern to the norm of Elizabethan society. While racism can be quite obvious through the language of some characters, it can be interpreted through minor characters as well.In the final act after Emilia sees that Othello has killed an innocent Desdemona, she yells “ O the more angel she, and you the blacker devil! ” (V, ii, 132) for believing Iago who was manipulating him the entire time, resulting in killing his innocent wife he much adored. Emilia uses the color as shades of evil, saying that Othello has done something terribly wrong that connects him to the devil. In my opinion, the murder of Desdemona restores order of Elizabethan society, where as Othello having power would disrupt the order of the social hierarchy, bringing chaos and social problems for others.While some determine Othello as the hero of the play, it is important to understand the historical prejudice of blacks from whites in Elizabethan England.
My interpretation of the play in regards to the historical background of Elizabethan society leads me to believe Othello was by no means a hero in the play because he was made out to be very gullible in believing Iago’s perceived truth of his wife, causing him to become jealous, heartbroken, and then proceeding by killing his wife with very little evidence that she was actually unfaithful to him.This could bring up questions about whether Shakespeare was in favor of society’s racial prejudice towards blacks, against it, or just simply used it in his work as one of his appeals, although Othello is portrayed sympathetically as an articulate and intelligent man. In my opinion, had Shakespeare been against racism, he would have made the characters in the play that are racist such as Iago seem weak and have him fail his intentions of revenge on the Moor for choosing Cassio over Iago as lieutenant. In this play however, Iago is killed in such a way that makes him look like a martyr, and the real “hero” of the play.Otherwise, I believe Shakespeare would have made much more emphasis on racism being so derogatory that Othello’s actions would bring positive attitudes from the audience as well as sympathy, while making those that are racist hold major character flaws.Citations in MLA format – Shakespeare, William. Othello.
Russ McDonald, 05/01/2001. Hendricks, Margo. Shakespeare and Race. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2000. Abbott, Diane. “British History In Depth”. BBC.
2009-11-05 . “On Race and Religion”. PBS. .