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The Question of Racism and Its Representation on Othello

Decide on one non-dramatic text supplied on the module, (an extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains,) and show how it may well aid us recognize Othello.

The extract presents a sustained attack by Coleridge on Shakespeare for his lack of realism in the ‘monstrous’ depiction of a marriage among a ‘beautiful Venetian girl,’ and a ‘veritable negro,’ in Othello. He sees Shakespeare’s transformation of a ‘barbarous negro’ into a respected soldier and nobleman of stature as ‘ignorant’, because at the time, ‘negroes have been not recognized except as slaves.’ (Appendix) The extract appears to raise two questions – how central is the taboo of miscegeny to the play, and to what extent is Othello’s reputation in a position to counter this prejudice?

It is definitely not challenging to conclude that it is almost certainly Shakespeare’s most controversial play. There is a clear theme of racism all through, one particular which was firmly embedded in the Venetian society which rejects the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as erring, ‘against all rules of nature,’ [1.3.102] Absolutely nothing separates Othello from, ‘the wealthy curled darlings of our nation,’ [1.two.68] except skin-colour – he matches or even exceeds them in reputation. At the start off of the play, he appears confident that,

OTHELLO: My parts, my title, and my ideal soul

Shall manifest me rightly.

Othello 1.2.31-two

When he is called in front of the court on charges of witchcraft, however the malevolent Iago is able to call on Othello’s deep-rooted insecurities about his race in order to play Othello and Desdemona against one particular one more until their marriage fails. Basically, Iago is a representative of the white race, a pre-Nazi figure who tries to inform the public of the impurity of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage. He demonstrates how this miscegenation is threatening to the current social order, and in the end, Othello’s lifetime of achievement is not sufficient to pursuade others from prejudice in a moment of crisis (such as Desdemona’s elopement,) or sustain his self-esteem in the long-run. Othello is structured so that the principal premise of the play, introducing the primary themes, seems near the starting. It is apparent that Iago has an agenda planned of malevolent proportions with Othello at its target. He is the catalyst of all the destructive happenings within the play starting from the quite beginning when he and Roderigo method the residence of Brabantio in 1.1. He makes use of crude, racist language to appeal to the senator’s standard beliefs, which includes such phrases as,

IAGO: Even now, now, quite now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe!

Othello 1.1.87-88

Iago even goes so far as to propose that Brabantio’s grandchildren will be animals simply because of his daughter’s base marriage with an ‘other.’

IAGO: …you’ll have

Your daughter covered with a Barbary horse,

You’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you will have

Coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.

Othello 1.1.109-112

Later we are told that Iago’s motive is jealousy and he uses the rhetoric of racism to undermine Othello, playing on Brabantio’s prejudices to provoke him, even although, as Othello relates later, ‘Her father loved me, oft invited me.’ [1.three.129] A shock and a few crude comments from Iago is all it takes to make a respected figure turn against a close buddy of equal stature just because of skin colour.

Technically, Brabantio was not legally permitted to nullify his daughter’s marriage to the Moor as she was over the age of consent. Culturally, nevertheless, he had all the support necessary to challenge the marriage provided widespread racist assumptions of the time, and accuses Othello of sorcery and witchcraft. This means firstly that he is unable to picture his daughter wilfully deceiving him, an understandable reaction offered her past dutiful behaviour, ‘so tender, fair and happy’ [1.2.66] and the nature of the patriarchal society in which she lived. Secondly, like Coleridge, he cannot think she would ever ‘fall in love with what she feared to look on,’ [1.3.99] without having the help of spells, and thirdly, he suggests that Othello’s race makes him capable of these powers of ‘black’ magic – we have to ask ourselves if Desdemona had eloped with Roderigo, would he be accused of witchcraft? If Brabantio had not reverted to his prejudices and stayed calm, he may have thought of questioning the legality of the marriage based on the Canon Law’s requirement of consummation, but he fails to do so, choosing rather to attempt to nullify it by claiming that his daughter was the victim of spells and witchcraft. In other words, Brabantio, a respected member of Venetian society, could have contested the marriage contract logically and legally, but alternatively he falls back on making use of prejudiced assumptions as weapons, encouraged by Iago. These events, so early on in the play, establish the idea of white purity and goodness, suggesting that other races represent darkness and evil. The clear cut binary opposition between the blackness of Othello and the fair whiteness of Desdemona is established and united in matrimony, a concept that Shakespeare seems to be experimenting with to recommend the chaos that would ensue in a cultural context. Although Othello is not created out to be the cleverest and most cunning character of the play, he is one particular Shakespeare’s bravest characters, and he does exemplify a specific wit uncommon to the European notion of a Moor. He is an eloquent, romantic man who has won the heart of a senator’s daughter, in spite of his confession that ‘rude am I in my speech,’ [1.3.82] and the Duke admits that ‘this tale would win my daughter too.’ [1.3.172] Othello is a hero who has led a extended life full of good deeds, which was needed for a Moor to have his existence tolerated in a predominately white culture. He has fought as a Venetian soldier and won the trust of his individuals. But has he truly won their trust? We witnessed how fast Brabantio was to neglect his honourable nature. Othello had won the enjoy of Desdemona with his stories of battle and he had also promised an injured Brabantio that he would be a loyal son-in-law by that identical token. He need to be in a position to transcend specific preconceived notions of race through his heroism and courageousness. He took on the complete socio-political structure and had his way with it for a time, but the play shows all too clearly how thin the worth of his reputation was to become, in the eyes of others, and to himself.

In Act 1, the audience witnesses Brabantio’s reaction to his daughter’s elopement, and this is very significant. Othello has hitherto been treated with fantastic reverence in Venetian society, but Shakespeare creates a moment of crisis to examine the extent to which Othello’s reputation defines him when he requirements it most. As long as logic exists, there will be little space for prejudice, which is based on illogical and irrational ‘gut’ feelings, but Iago performs by removing logic, his crudity and base animal imagery brings out the primal side of others. Sadly, he shows how effortlessly this can be achieved by means of a moment of crisis and a few option words. Act 1almost presents the play in miniature Iago goes on to larger and far better factors when he manages to make Othello turn social prejudice in on himself. The scene with Brabantio also goes to show that Iago’s provocation is as capable of enraging a civil Venetian senator as it is (as the Elizabethan audience would see it,) a hot-blooded Moor. Othello’s racial ‘characteristics’ such as a swift temper and jealousy, (assumptions held at the time) do not bring about his downfall – Iago does – but he is only able to obtain it by operating on Othello’s weaknesses, his insecurity over his race becoming central to this.

The ‘temptation scene’ of 3.three is essential to an understanding of the approaches utilised by Iago to make Othello doubt Desdemona, by generating him doubt himself. His first move following Othello’s refusal of her infidelity is to assure him that, ‘I know our country’s disposition well’ [three.3.204] reminding him of his nature as an outsider, and as such, of a lesser authority to know the approaches of Venetian ladies, and certainly, ladies in common, playing on his insecurities at his lack of knowledge in relations with the opposite sex. He is forced to trust Iago to explain the planet to him. ‘And but how nature, erring from itself – ‘ [three.3.231] is the crucial point at which we see Othello crack – he has linked Desdemona’s rejection of the ‘curled darlings’ [1.two.68] or ‘natural’ alternatives for husbands with the existence of one thing innately unnatural and suspect in her character. At line 267, he makes a uncommon reference to his blackness in a damaging way, and starts to compare himself to Cassio, who is fair, eloquent, and courtly, and reveals his insecurity over his age too. Nonetheless, when he sees her, he refuses to believe Iago, but as we see, the damage has been accomplished, and he returns to Iago to demand ‘ocular proof.’ [three.three.363] Othello is then deceived very very easily by a thin and insubstantial illusion, soon after which, he vows to kill her, without confronting her when. The ease with which Iago was able to obtain this feat is frightening, and rests wholly on a basic optical trick and his capacity to play on Othello’s insecurities, a big part of which is his race, and disbelief at Desdemona’s love.

We have to not forget to appear at the behaviour of Desdemona in order to witness the cultural taboo in action. Desdemona is portrayed as a divine figure, but really naive. Her naivety is illustrated in her conversations with her husband. She does not know that Othello is the object of Iago’s manipulation, nor does she recognize the implications of her speech. In Act 1, Iago states that,

IAGO: It can't be that

Desdemona must extended continue her really like to the


Othello 1.three.342-344

He echoes Coleridge’s concern that her enjoy of Othello ‘would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.’ (Appendix) In Act 2, once more conversing with Roderigo, Iago states that she will locate the fault in her selection due to the fact she will notice how Othello lacks,

IAGO: adore- liness in favor, sympathy in years, manners and beauties.

Othello 2.1.226-228

Every person seems to believe that Desdemona has tiny understanding of the actions she is taking, and all the characters see the marriage as an inevitable failure.

A single of the most controversial scenes in all of Shakespeare takes location in the bedchamber exactly where the Moor’s virtuous wife sleeps soundly. The action is slowed down to a sombre pace. Othello has reverted to a savage-like state as everyone had suspected. Desdemona’s death was inevitable or rather anticipated by everybody who very first saw the marriage among the two as forbidden. Even so, Othello’s death is significantly more symbolic simply because it represents the ‘other’ failing soon after trying to obtain the status of the white man. Othello ultimately acknowledges the truth that he is an ‘other’ when he realises his irreconcilable fault and chooses to take his own life. Thus upon his suicide his final words implicate that these who stand in his presence should speak of him as he really is, and know that,

OTHELLO: Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe

Othello 5.2.345-346

At the finish of the play Othello commits suicide in front of the audience, a public declaration of his shame at his dishonour, brought about by Iago, but only simply because he was able to play on the insecurities buried deep within Othello.

Clearly, the binary opposition represented in the connection in between the black Othello and the white Desdemona is an illustration of cultural tension. The failure of these two people to mate effectively demonstrates a cultural failure. Racism is the tool used in Othello by Iago to destroy the lives of two visually diverse types of people. Even so, as Davison explains, Othello is not ‘about’ race, or colour, or even jealousy. It dramatises the way actions are directed by attitudes, fears, and delusions that rule the subconscious than by evident information. (Davison, 1988, p.64)

We can criticise Shakespeare’s use of racism from a modern perspective, but it is critical to remember that it was inherent in the culture in which he was writing, and Iago is shown as basically recognising an efficient way to bring about Othello’s downfall – he also makes him insecure about his age and lack of knowledge with girls. Othello is an example of a noble black man at a time, supposedly, when, ‘negroes had been not known except as slaves,’ (Appendix) yet racism inherent in the society which he lived was capable of minimizing him to the barbarous state every person at root expected of him. Thus Shakespeare presents us with a morality play at the historical height of the colonial slave trade with racism and miscegeny at its core, first we witness this through Brabantio, then the tragic consequences when Othello, with Iago’s aid, turns social prejudice onto himself.


Davison, P. (1988) Othello: An Introduction to the Range of Criticism Hampshire: Macmillan Press

Shakespeare, W. (1997) Othello (c. 1602) E. A. J Honigmann (Ed.) Surrey: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd.

Wheale, N. (2000) Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth Century Essential Evaluations of Othello. Shakespeare Text & Overall performance: Materials for the Second Assignment (Hand-out)


From: Wheale, N. (2000) Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth Century Critical Evaluations of Othello. Shakespeare Text & Performance: Components for the Second Assignment (Hand-out, p.7)

Extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains, 4 volumes, 1836-9, quoted in Bate (Ed.) 1992: 482:

Roderigo: What a complete fortune does the thick-lips owe,

If he can carry’t hence. [1.1.67]

‘…here comes a single, if not the only, seeming justification of our blackamoor or negro Othello. Even if we supposed this an uninterrupted tradition of the theatre, and that Shakespeare himself, from want of scenes, and the experience that nothing could be made as well marked for the senses of his audience, had practically sanctioned it, — would this prove aught regarding his personal intention as a poet for all ages? Can we envision him so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth, –at a time, also, when negroes were not identified except as slaves? — As for Iago’s language to Brabantio, it implies merely that Othello was a Moor, that is, black …. No doubt Desdemona saw Othello’s visage in his mind yet, as we are constituted, and most certainly as an English audience was disposed in the starting of the seventeenth century, it would be some thing monstrous to conceive this gorgeous Venetian girl falling in enjoy with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.’
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