Shakespeare’s Protests against Institutional Racism in Elizabethan England
Othello is not the only play in the Shakespearean canon that features racism, and it certainly is not the only play that challenges social mores. Whether it’s the feisty Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing, turning social convention on its head, in the sense that women were supposed to be prim and proper in Elizabethan England, when she wows Benedick with her powerful desire to save Hero, or whether it’s the Jew Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, endowed with many of the physical characteristics associated with the worst stereotypes associated with members of his religion but possessing the same love of family that motivates all of us, much of Shakespeare’s work appears to be addressing and contradicting the prejudices and biases that ran rampant during his day. One reason, in fact, for the enduring popularity of the stories in Shakespearean drama is that the themes and ideas at work in his stories are still at work today. His plays are retold in modern form, as in the adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew into the modern movies “Clueless” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and, in the case of Othello, into the movie “O.” While there is racism directed toward the brave Moor in Shakespeare’s story, the sole purpose of that racism is not to condone the existence of that prejudice, but instead to highlight its follies and to make change the only rational recourse for the improvement of society.
For the reader working his way through Othello the first time, it might well seem that the author has jumped right on board the racist bandwagon. After all, Othello is only rarely referred to by his first name – instead, the reader sees him as “the Moor” (1.1.57), the “thick-lips” (1.1.66) or an “old black ram” (1.1.88), among other epithets. While the first name does indicate his background, taken in total, these three take Othello and render him less than human – as any systemic use of epithets will do (Little 19). Once Othello takes the stage and the audience has the opportunity to see him in his impressive stature, the viewers move more toward a sympathetic stance. However, referring to him with these descriptors make him seem different than the reader – which is clearly Shakespeare’s goal. The “Barbary horse” (1.1.113) has no business, one might think after the end of that scene, winning the love of anyone – much less the beloved Desdemona, a woman of nobility.
However, the very first act also indicates that this racism was not quite as pervasive on a private level as the opening round of epithets suggests. Had Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, been a devoted racist from the start, the heroic general would never have gained admission to his home in the first place, and would never have had the chance to impress the daughter. As Othello tells the Duke, though, her father “loved [him], oft invited [him],/Still questioned [him] the story of [his] life / From year to year” (1.3.127-129). Clearly, Brabantio admires the heroism that Othello has shown in battle thus far; the repeated evenings of stories served not only to bewitch Desdemona, but to entertain her father. The admiration of the different is a key factor here, as the heroic leaders who also happen to be white do not mesmerize the family with their stories. The psychology of difference cuts both ways.
It is this psychology of difference that serves as the basis of Shakespeare’s protest. If it is acceptable for Othello to enter and dine with Desdemona’s family, and if it is acceptable for Othello to sit and entertainment the family with his tales, why is it not acceptable for him to marry their ivory-skinned daughter? It’s not a matter of social class: as a general, Othello is anything but a servant, with thousands under his command. It’s not a matter of refinement: in their conversations, Othello reveals himself to be every bit as erudite and polished as his companions. The matter, then, is just one of race. The subtle admiration of the other, which undergirds the pleasure that Desdemona’s family takes while listening to his stories, as well as the Duke’s sympathy when Othello relates his plight. Othello is unacceptable, is taboo, because of the color of his skin. Ironically, a character much more craven, much more insidious, and infinitely more treacherous, would be eligible for the hand of Desdemona simply because of his ethnicity. That character, perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most hated, is the wily Iago.
It is Iago who terms Othello a “black ram” (1.1.88) on the one hand, when telling Brabantio exactly where his daughter is. However, to Othello’s face, Iago is the obsequious, every helpful servant. The audience is aware that Iago serves Othello “to serve [his] turn upon him” (1.1.42), and his motive is as clear as it is petty: Iago wanted a promotion that instead went to Cassio. This jealousy does not take long at all to become irrational obsession and even self-deception, as Iago becomes convinced that Othello has also slept with Iago’s wife, Emelia. He rails, “I hate the Moor and it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets / has done my office” (1.3.387-388). While Iago does not know for certain whether or not this is true, the fact that the rumor is out in the public is damaging enough. This brings us back to the difference between public and private manifestations of racism, which are arguably one of Shakespeare’s targets in this play (Orkin 29). Iago is in a rage – and he does not even know if the rumors are true. The rumor is worse because it is this “old black ram” that people believe has slept with his wife.
The fear of black men having white women sexually has been an emotional and psychological powder keg for centuries (Bartels 44), from such images in Elizabethan times to the American boxer Jack Johnson who, early in the twentieth century, outraged Jim Crow sensibilities by dating white women, to mores in our own time, when interracial couples still draw stares from passersby – of both black and white ethnicity. In the film version of Othello starring Laurence Fishburne in the title role, the love scenes containing Othello and Desdemona (played by the fair-skinned Irene Jacob) gain much of their tension from the passion that the two characters feel for one another, but they also feature the juxtaposition of naked skin, white against black, displaying what would have been taboo in their time (and is taboo for many in our own time), in stark contrast for the viewer. Having this image go through not only his own mind but also the minds of Venetian society is a source of intense shame, a feeling that drives him further and further beyond the bounds of sanity as the play goes forward.
While the love of Othello and Desdemona is the flashiest element in the plot, it is only peripheral in the two central conflicts that begin to build the moment Iago walks onto the stage: the clash between general and advisor, and the turmoil within the Moorish general himself. Because Iago has as his goal Othello’s undoing, he is the primary reason for the second conflict to take place at all. As the play progresses, Iago becomes increasingly diabolical, while Othello appears more and more the victim – until he at last gives in to his anger and slays Desdemona, but that is close to the end of the play. While Othello is in Venice, he is not at war – which is the natural state of a warrior. At leisure, Othello does have more time to devote to Desdemona, but he doesn’t have the daily routine of planning battle and the periodic rush of conflict, with the lives of thousands depending on his every decision. As a result, he feels less and less like a true man as the story goes on.
This is ironic given his outstanding record as a general, but it is just as true now, if not more so, than it was in Shakespeare’s time, that warriors who come home have a difficult time adjusting to the mores of peacetime living. The routines are more forgiving, the adrenaline-fueled intensity of the constant expectation of conflict is just not there; the camaraderie of the soldiers fades as other priorities, including the fairer sex and families, come into play. Into the emotional vacuum slips Iago, playing his trick with Desdemona’s handkerchief to implicate Cassio as an adulterer at the beginning of Act 4. Othello becomes so enraged that he falls into some sort of fit, during which Cassio enters the room. While Cassio only wants to help his general feel better by perhaps rubbing his temples, Othello will have no part of it. Convinced (thanks to Iago) that Cassio is sleeping with Desdemona, Othello takes a minute or two to collect himself. Iago asks Othello to “stand…awhile apart” and to “confine [himself] but in a patient list” (4.1.74-75). Then, Iago goes on to ridicule Othello for focusing on such a minor, personal thing: “Whilst you were here o’erwhelmed with your grief –/ A passion most unsuiting such a man (4.1.76-77). In other words, for Othello to become so enraged with the emotion of jealousy is not what a man would do – particularly a man who leads other men into war. While Othello should be more of a Stoic about the rumors he’s hearing, according to Iago, he instead is slipping into anger. Indeed, Iago goes on to urge his general to show patience; the alternative is for Iago to “say [Othello is] all in all in spleen,/ And nothing of a man” (4.1.87-9).
Othello’s response to Iago’s speech is quite telling. In our own time, one of the iconic scenes of an embattled military leader comes from Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Colonel Nathan Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” While Jessup does stumble into admitting his crime under the intense questioning of a defense attorney, he does so with machismo and confidence pushing him swiftly towards his own precipice. There is no doubt, no hesitation, no lack of certainty. Like Othello, Jessup is in a static position but must remain constantly alert for the next battle to arrive. Unlike Othello, though, Jessup has not yet started to question himself. Othello does not strike Iago to the ground; Jessup dresses down his executive officer for questioning him in the presence of a subordinate. Had his executive officer brought up the possibility of Jessup’s wife sleeping with other men, it is not difficult to imagine Jessup swinging a revolver up and firing it into his executive officer’s head. Othello, on the other hand, does begin to doubt himself. He stands by as Iago takes the lead role in questioning Cassio, even sending Othello out of the room during the “interrogation” so that he can give Cassio his next assignment in this deception.
In this conflict between Othello and Iago, not only is the outcome one-sided, but so is the combat. By ceding power to Iago, not just in the interrogation of Cassio but in increasingly more matters as the story progresses, Othello in effect loses the first war of his life. He has fought valiantly and led others heroically in war after war, but he cannot see his dread enemy right in front of him. It is difficult to determine whether or not Iago is a racist, or if he is just jealous of Othello’s position and Cassio’s promotion. Because Iago seeks to lead Cassio to his death, and Cassio is white, it is difficult to argue that racism is Iago’s primary motivation. However, race does play a part in the one-sided nature of this conflict (Orkin 27). As a black man, Othello sees himself as inferior to the nobles around him. Even though he is a moving speaker at various points throughout the play, he deprecates himself at several points, as when he says “…[For] I am black / And have not these soft parts of conversation / That chambers have” (3.3.267-269). As a lauded general who has not only thrilled and entertained Brabantio but also captivated the heart of his daughter Desdemona, and intrigued the Duke – all of whom are white – Othello has no rational cause to view himself as inferior in social mores. The cause of his low confidence in social situations is his race.
It is difficult to argue, though, that this story could not have happened had Othello been white. Shakespeare’s primary argument against racism, throughout Othello and The Merchant of Venice, is that all people have the same motivations, no matter the color of their skin or their ethnic background. Othello is easy for Iago to manipulate – but so are many of Shakespeare’s white characters. The emotions that drive Shakespeare’s plays are the emotions that drive us all: fear, jealousy, envy, hatred, love, desire and passion. In Hamlet, Claudius easily convinces Laertes to fight with a poisoned weapon to ensure Hamlet’s death. In Richard III, the villainous monarch wins over woman after woman (all of them white) not with his deformed physique, but with his raw possession of, and desire to keep, power over England. Because these emotions rule all of us and guide our actions, the idea that skin color, in the case of Othello, would cause him to act any differently than a white character is ridiculous.
The conflict that occurs within Othello, unlike the one between himself and Iago, is itself fraught with racial overtones. Is Desdemona really cheating on him? Is she only interested in him because he is black, and different from what her father would want for her? Does she see him as less than an equal because of his color? Is the color black synonymous with the filthy, the unclean, the undeserving? While Iago’s meddling does exacerbate this conflict with Othello’s own mind, his transformation from calm, cool war leader to wildly jealous husband takes place solely within his own mind. The dynamic of black and white in the play makes this transformation happen more quickly and end more tragically.
Even when Iago and Othello are just bantering about women, the loaded vocabulary comes into the conversation. Iago praises women who are “fair and wise” (2.1.129), but Desdemona comes back with the question, “How if she be black and witty?”(2.1.131). In Elizabethan times, the word “black” could mean dark-haired, but it could also mean “unattractive.” In this situation, Desdemona refers to a woman with brains but no looks. Iago responds, “If she be black, and thereto have a wit, / She’ll find a white that shall her blackness hit” (2.1.132-133). The word “white” here is a homonym, a play on words with the word “wight,” which means “person.” “Hit” means much the same now as it did in Shakespeare’s time. The implication is that a woman can lure a man with her mind, even if she is not particularly attractive. The important part of this conversation for the purposes of this paper, though, revolves around the equivalence of the word “black” with the idea of a lack of attraction. Even in casual social conversation, a word that refers to Othello’s ethnicity, and his visual appearance to others, is a synonym for a lack of desirability. While this might seem like a minor consideration, especially when taken in isolation, it is by no means a lone occurrence in this play, or in society at large (Newman 151). In his soliloquy after he suggests that Cassio go through Desdemona to get his job back with Othello, in effect proving (at least in Othello’s mind) the adulterous relationship between the two, he asks how anyone could refer to him as a villain. He then gloats, “When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now” (2.3.351-353). Again, the concept of blackness is equated with the filthy and, here, evil itself. This connotation for the word “black” was in such wide use in Elizabethan days (and, to a degree, in our own time) that it could not have helped but lodge himself firmly in Othello’s self-concept (Bartels 47). Indeed, when he accepts the idea that Desdemona has cheated on him, Othello uses this terminology himself: “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face” (3.3.386-388). Not only does Othello accept the connection between the color black and the sordid, but he goes further to extend that connection consciously to himself (Newman 157). It is only a matter of time before he embraces that concept as part of his own identity.
When Othello finally strangles his wife out of jealous rage, his inner climax has reached its climax. Interestingly, white and black both start to lose consistency of meaning; as he stands over her before her death, he says that he will “…not shed her blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster” (5.2.3-5). Even though she (in his mind) has become filthy, her sleeping form bedazzles him with its pure whiteness (Daileader 102). However, the connection of evil with the dark regains full sway in his mind when he kills her, as his grief and guilt make him lose reason: “My wife! My wife! What wife? I have no wife. / O insupportable! O heavy hour! / Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon” (5.2.97-100). All light has fled from him. Not only is the emotional light that his wife shone upon him extinguished forever, the moral light that he had held as victim has gone dark, as he has now taken a life with his own hands (Daileader 111). Even as she gasps her last breaths, Desdemona shifts the guilt away from Othello by claiming suicide (admittedly a difficult proposition by strangulation). Othello tries to assert his own identity as the murderer, which makes Emilia think he is insane or sociopathic: “O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!”(5.2.130-131). Even as this climactic scene careens to a halt, the enduring notion that black is evil, filthy, and undesirable rings throughout the theater – and throughout Othello’s soul.
There is no question that racism has bedeviled society for as long as members of different cultures and ethnicities have had to coexist in the same geographical areas. It’s easy to separate ourselves from one another and associate only with those who are like us, be that similarity ethnic, religious, political or along other lines. When that separation breeds prejudice, and that prejudice informs brutality, either of the mind or in action, matters must change. Shakespeare saw this, as the events of Othello indicate; many enlightened thinkers, writers as well as average people have seen this in the centuries since then. It is the impulses and desires common to all of us that make us human; it is the worst of those impulses and desires that keep us at war with one another.
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