13 June 2011
Is Othello a play about race?
The question of race in Shakespeare’s Othello is a difficult one to answer because on one level of reading, the play is entirely based around Othello’s Moor status whereas, on another level, the play is entirely based around Iago’s manipulation of the other characters and Othello’s race no longer becomes particularly prevalent. However, for the purposes of this essay, we will review how Othello’s race is presented throughout the play and how the other characters handle this status. In particular, it is important to discuss the repeated references to Othello’s colour and race – especially when considering Brabantio’s abhorrence of his marriage to Desdemona, and Iago’s Machiavellian-like manipulation of the other characters due to a presumed and un-discussed preconception of Othello’s character, based supposedly on his race and the stereotypes attached.
Before moving on further, it is important to first clarify that for Shakespeare to produce a play whose title character is a black man, was wholly unprecedented at the time of writing. So, from that point of view, it is arguable that Shakespeare was writing quite pointedly about race but whether he intended for it to be racist (in the same way that The Merchant of Venice is highly anti-Semitic), is another question.
However, recurrently throughout the play, Othello’s race is referred to through repeated references to ‘the Moor’ and, in Act 1, scene 1, during a scene of duologue between Iago and Roderigo in which they speak insolently of their leader, the two men refer to Othello in a number of derogatory ways: Roderigo refers to him as “thicklips” (1.1.69) – a clear slight on the common physical features of black people, and Iago calls him “the devil” (1.1.99). Iago also refers to Othello as a “Barbary horse” (1.1.125) which is a reference to the famous, Arabic horses and to Othello’s race. However, it is clear that this is also a play on the word ‘barbarian’ which does suggest a degree of racist intent behind Iago’s meaning. Act 1, scene 1 also serves to set up the play’s central plot which is Iago’s attempt to dupe Othello into thinking that Desdemona has lied to him in the attempt to lure her to Roderigo’s bed; Iago states that “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.96-97). Iago’s choice to distinguish between the ‘black’ and the ‘white’ is significant as it demonstrates his contempt for their inter-racial union. However, Othello has risen to the rank of General and as such, he is frequently treated with respect as in Act 1, scene 2 when Cassio refers to him directly, “The duke does greet you, General” (1.2.40) which indicates that regardless of his race, he is still seen as a figure of authority who commands respect from the majority of people. These opening two scenes serve to set up the two opposing views of Othello’s race which run parallel throughout the play: the racist indignation of Iago and Roderigo, alongside the healthy respect that Othello receives as a General.
A key consideration of the presentation of race in Othello is the reaction of Brabantio upon finding out of Desdemona and Othello’s marriage. Although originally a friend, Brabantio does not consider Othello to be worthy of his daughter’s hand in marriage and declares their love to be unnatural in Act 1, scene 3 when Brabantio says to Iago, “She, in spite of nature, of years, of country, credit, everything, to fall in love with what she fear'd to look on! It is a judgment maim'd and most imperfect that will confess perfection so could err against all rules of nature.” (1.3.110-115). This quote clearly demonstrates Brabantio’s racial motivation for not approving of his daughter’s marriage to Othello. He claims that is it unnatural for her to love someone who she should be afraid of, a black man – indicating, again, the implication of barbarism in Othello’s character due to his race. Throughout this scene, Iago plays upon Brabantio’s racism to induce this rant from him. However, in the same scene, the audience are presented with an alternative view which, again, runs alongside the racially motivated one but presents Othello as being a respected nobleman. Act 1, scene 3 sees Brabantio confront Othello and Desdemona with the Duke of Venice mediating events but they conclude with the Duke favouring the new couple when he says to Brabantio, “And noble signor, if virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” (1.3.316-318). The double meaning of the word ‘fair’ (to indicate being a judicious mind and a light complexion) demonstrates the Duke’s ability to see beyond Othello’s race and encourages Brabantio to do the same.
The rest of the play tends to inform of Othello’s race based around his marriage to the white Desdemona. On numerous occasions, Iago passes comment about their marriage which generally imply that he is opposed to it such as in Act 3, scene 3 when Iago is attempting to manipulate Othello’s thoughts of Desdemona and trying to colour her as being untrustworthy. Iago says to Othello: “Not to affect many proposed matches of her own clime, complexion, and degree, whereto we see in all things nature tends— foh! one may smell in such a will most rank, foul disproportion thoughts unnatural.” (3.3.263-267). Iago means that there is something wrong with Desdemona as proven by her choice to marry a black man instead of a white man who is her equal in race and standing. Iago uses this to suggest that Othello cannot trust her and Othello begins to believe him. The irony of this scene is that Othello is the victim of Iago’s blatant racism but he also adheres to it which suggests a resignation to his own fate and status.
The continued parallel of the two, opposing views of Othello may well be designed to encourage the audience to form their own opinion of the character, rather than simply going along with the predilection of the opinions of the other characters on stage. Shakespeare is presenting both sides of the coin and as such, Othello is a racially motivated play but not necessarily a racist one. However, Othello’s acceptance of Iago’s claim that Desdemona’s choice to marry him was an unnatural one, indicates an almost inherent racism which Othello just appears to accept, rather than question it and ultimately trust his wife’s decision to marry him. The play presents Othello as being easily manipulated and changeable which perpetuates a stereotypical image of his Moorish heritage which, from the first scene, the audience is privy to through Iago’s implied comments about Othello’s barbarism. However, much like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the play is fuelled by a forbidden love and society’s desire to destroy it – in Othello, the issue of race is not much more than a plot device used to meet this end.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. London: Hutchinson Educaton, 1989. Print.