The Question of Racism and Its Representation on Othello
Choose one non-dramatic text offered on the module, (an extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains,) and show how it might help us understand Othello.
The extract presents a sustained attack by Coleridge on Shakespeare for his lack of realism in the ‘monstrous’ depiction of a marriage between 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’, since at the time, ‘negroes were not known except as slaves.’ (Appendix) The extract seems to raise two questions – how central is the taboo of miscegeny to the play, and to what extent is Othello’s reputation able to counter this prejudice?
It is certainly not hard to conclude that it is probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play. There is a clear theme of racism throughout, one 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] Nothing separates Othello from, ‘the wealthy curled darlings of our nation,’ [1.2.68] except skin-colour – he matches or even exceeds them in reputation. At the start of the play, he appears confident that,
OTHELLO: My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
When he is called in front of the court on charges of witchcraft, yet 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 another until their marriage fails. Essentially, 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 existing social order, and ultimately, 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 main premise of the play, introducing the main themes, appears near the beginning. It is obvious 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 very beginning when he and Roderigo approach the residence of Brabantio in 1.1. He uses crude, racist language to appeal to the senator’s traditional beliefs, including such phrases as,
IAGO: Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe!
Iago even goes so far as to propose that Brabantio’s grandchildren will be animals 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’ll have
Coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.
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 though, as Othello relates later, ‘Her father loved me, oft invited me.’ [1.3.129] A shock and a few crude comments from Iago is all it takes to make a respected figure turn against a close friend of equal stature simply because of skin colour.
Technically, Brabantio was not legally allowed to nullify his daughter’s marriage to the Moor as she was over the age of consent. Culturally, however, he had all the support necessary to challenge the marriage given common racist assumptions of the time, and accuses Othello of sorcery and witchcraft. This means firstly that he is unable to imagine his daughter wilfully deceiving him, an understandable reaction given 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 believe she would ever ‘fall in love with what she feared to look on,’ [1.3.99] without the aid 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 might 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 instead 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 instead he falls back on using 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 suggest the chaos that would ensue in a cultural context. Although Othello is not made out to be the cleverest and most cunning character of the play, he is one Shakespeare’s bravest characters, and he does exemplify a certain 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, despite 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 long life full of good deeds, which was necessary 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 people. But has he really won their trust? We witnessed how quick Brabantio was to forget his honourable nature. Othello had won the love 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 same token. He should be able to transcend certain preconceived notions of race through his heroism and courageousness. He took on the whole socio-political structure and had his way with it for a time, but the play shows all too clearly how thin the value 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 extremely significant. Othello has hitherto been treated with great reverence in Venetian society, but Shakespeare creates a moment of crisis to examine the extent to which Othello’s reputation defines him when he needs 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 works by removing logic, his crudity and base animal imagery brings out the primal side of others. Sadly, he shows how easily this can be achieved through a moment of crisis and a few choice words. Act 1almost presents the play in miniature; Iago goes on to bigger and better things 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 quick temper and jealousy, (assumptions held at the time) do not bring about his downfall – Iago does – but he is only able to achieve it by working on Othello’s weaknesses, his insecurity over his race being central to this.
The ‘temptation scene’ of 3.3 is crucial to an understanding of the methods used by Iago to make Othello doubt Desdemona, by making 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’ [3.3.204] reminding him of his nature as an outsider, and as such, of a lesser authority to know the ways of Venetian women, and indeed, women in general, playing on his insecurities at his lack of experience in relations with the opposite sex. He is forced to trust Iago to explain the world to him. ‘And yet how nature, erring from itself – ‘ [3.3.231] is the crucial point at which we see Othello crack – he has linked Desdemona’s rejection of the ‘curled darlings’ [1.2.68] or ‘natural’ choices for husbands with the existence of something innately unnatural and suspect in her character. At line 267, he makes a rare reference to his blackness in a negative way, and begins to compare himself to Cassio, who is fair, eloquent, and courtly, and reveals his insecurity over his age too. However, when he sees her, he refuses to believe Iago, but as we see, the damage has been done, and he returns to Iago to demand ‘ocular proof.’ [3.3.363] Othello is then deceived very easily by a thin and insubstantial illusion, after which, he vows to kill her, without confronting her once. The ease with which Iago was able to achieve this feat is frightening, and rests wholly on a simple optical trick and his ability to play on Othello’s insecurities, a large part of which is his race, and disbelief at Desdemona’s love.
We must not forget to look at the behaviour of Desdemona in order to witness the cultural taboo in action. Desdemona is portrayed as a divine figure, but extremely 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 understand the implications of her speech. In Act 1, Iago states that,
IAGO: It cannot be that
Desdemona should long continue her love to the
He echoes Coleridge’s concern that her love 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, again conversing with Roderigo, Iago states that she will find the fault in her choice because she will notice how Othello lacks,
IAGO: love- liness in favor, sympathy in years, manners and beauties.
Everyone seems to believe that Desdemona has little knowledge of the actions she is taking, and all the characters see the marriage as an inevitable failure.
One of the most controversial scenes in all of Shakespeare takes place in the bedchamber 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 expected by everyone who first saw the marriage between the two as forbidden. However, Othello’s death is much more symbolic because it represents the ‘other’ failing after trying to achieve the status of the white man. Othello ultimately acknowledges the fact that he is an ‘other’ when he realises his irreconcilable fault and chooses to take his own life. Thus upon his suicide his last words implicate that those who stand in his presence should speak of him as he truly is, and know that,
OTHELLO: Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe
At the end 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 because he was able to play on the insecurities buried deep within Othello.
Clearly, the binary opposition represented in the relationship between the black Othello and the white Desdemona is an illustration of cultural tension. The failure of these two individuals to mate successfully demonstrates a cultural failure. Racism is the tool used in Othello by Iago to destroy the lives of two visually different types of people. However, 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 facts. (Davison, 1988, p.64)
We can criticise Shakespeare’s use of racism from a contemporary perspective, but it is important to remember that it was inherent in the culture in which he was writing, and Iago is shown as simply recognising an effective way to bring about Othello’s downfall – he also makes him insecure about his age and lack of experience with women. Othello is an example of a noble black man at a time, supposedly, when, ‘negroes were not known except as slaves,’ (Appendix) yet racism inherent in the society which he lived was capable of reducing him to the barbarous state everyone 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 help, turns social prejudice onto himself.
Davison, P. (1988) Othello: An Introduction to the Variety 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 Critical Evaluations of Othello. Shakespeare Text & Performance: Materials for the Second Assignment (Hand-out)
From: Wheale, N. (2000) Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth Century Critical Evaluations of Othello. Shakespeare Text & Performance: Materials for the Second Assignment (Hand-out, p.7)
Extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains, four volumes, 1836-9, quoted in Bate (Ed.) 1992: 482:
Roderigo: What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe,
If he can carry’t thus. [1.1.67]
‘…here comes one, 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 too marked for the senses of his audience, had practically sanctioned it, — would this prove aught concerning his own intention as a poet for all ages? Can we imagine him so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth, –at a time, too, when negroes were not known 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 surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love 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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