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How Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity is Represented in Othello

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Othello (1603) is a domestic tragedy written by the famous Tudor playwright William Shakespeare. The tale discusses themes of love, jealously, revenge and most importantly race. Othello is an African man living as an army general in Venice. He falls in love with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senate named Brabantio, and asks for her hand in marriage. Brabantio is horrified by this act of miscegeny and forbids the pair to marry. However, the pair have already eloped and travel to Cyprus where Othello must lead an invasion against the Turks. Upon their arrival, Othello’s scheming ensign Iago plots Othello’s downfall including the destruction of his relationship with Desdemona. Iago is jealous that he has been overlooked for a promotion to lieutenant and ultimately resents having to serve a man of colour. Through a series of well-manipulated events he convinces Othello that his wife has been unfaithful to him. Despite, Desdemona proclaiming her innocence Othello is so enraged he smothers her whilst she sleeps and subsequently kills her. Other characters piece together the lies told by Iago and reveal the truth to Othello that his wife did not commit an act of infidelity. Othello then condemns himself to death by committing suicide thus bringing the play to a close. Shakespeare’s works are still revered to this day and Othello is of no exception as it is a popular play still studied and performed in the present. For example, Othello is a text used by the AQA and Pearson Edexcel A-Level exam boards and has been performed most recently in 2015 by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This raises the question as to how multiculturalism presented in Shakespearean literature influences a 21st century audience particularly ethnic-minority pupils. Those of a younger age could be more impressionable towards certain negative stereotypes presented towards them when studying the play. Therefore, when discussing race in Othello it must be decided whether Shakespeare is simply a product of his time or a social innovator aiming to comment on the inequality present in society.

The play begins with its protagonist Othello receiving a torrent of racial abuse based on uninformed stereotypes; some of which still take precedence in modern society. Smith (2016) states such attacks are “a salacious mix of claims about monstrous blackness and barbaric sexual conquest” which have strong links to conventional views regarding race at the time. Othello’s new father in law Brabantio refers to Othello as a “Moor” (Act1:Scene1) which is an Elizabethan term used to describe dark-skinned people. This labelling fits the Western tendency to categorise people into binary opposites established by Western society. Binary oppositions provide ways of understanding and ordering the world, and of conceptualising identity. Anderson (1983) legitimises this idea through his book “Imagined Communities” which describes each nation as an imagined border which aims to instil a false sense of commitment to nationalism, when in reality we should be committed to the planet we live on that is shared by all. The setting of Othello in the midst of a war represents the threat of external chaos that monarchs and governments must defend their nation from. The play begins in Venice which was associated with power, romance and high culture however when the setting switches to the foreign lands of Cyprus that is when barbary and mayhem ensue. Furthermore, the idea of war had particular relevance to an Elizabethan audience as England was at war with Spain from 1588-1604. As a result of this there was an influx of African people arriving in England from Spanish colonial expeditions as a by-product of the slave trade. The chronicler George Best argued in 1578 that black skin was not a product of heat from the sun but instead was related to biblical damnation and witchcraft. Foucault (1969) defined this form of discourse as language and power including racialized subjects such as race that are constructed by often technical languages used to talk about them For example, sciences like biology shape the way people of colour are understood and legitimised because they are portrayed through the factual lens of science. However, religion had the monopoly over science during this period so these relations between skin colour and character fed into the public assumption that those of a darker complexion were intrinsically sinful. Therefore, any sort of bi-racial relationship was condemned as overtly sexual; fuelled by dark curiosity and exoticism instead of pure, loving intention. Othello’s malicious ensign Iago describes the partnership of Othello and Desdemona to Brabantio as “An old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (Act1:Scene1). This quote is steeped in racial tension as Iago uses sexual animalistic imagery to portray Othello as an aggressive sexual predator. Additionally, Brabantio is convinced that Othello has drugged his daughter into falling in love with him which furthers Othello’s portrayal by others as a vicious creature not worthy of Desdemona’s gentle innocence. It is this separation from society and labelling as “the other” which fuels a deep-seated sense of racial insecurity persuading Othello into believing that his wife is having an affair with a white man.

Despite the racial persecution received by Othello, he continues to remain an eloquent man who is graceful and poised in stature. His speech at the beginning of the play imitates the language of love as he publicly declares “But that I love the gentle Desdemona” (Act1:Scene2). He is initially portrayed by Shakespeare as a caring man with a reputable job within the Venetian hierarchy. Othello has clearly overcome the racial barriers blocking him from achieving status and success. Yet, as Iago begins to manipulate Othello and his underlying insecurities regarding his race; Othello’s façade crumbles and he succumbs to the racial stereotypes predisposed to him by fellow characters. The language and actions of Othello later in the play prove he is ensnared in a self-fulfilling prophecy caused by internalising the racist ideology of others. He admits to being as “begrimed and black as my own face” which suggests he has accepted that not only is he black externally; he has lost all sense of internal light and a moral compass. Once Othello is convinced that his wife has committed infidelity; he addresses her in a manner that completely opposes his loving sentiment in earlier acts. He confides in Iago that he will “tear her all to pieces” (Act3:Scene3). In response to being labelled an animal by others, Othello uses his own form of animalistic language to describe the way he will savage Desdemona when he next sees her. In Act4:Scene1 Othello displays his physical outrage through slapping Desdemona. There is a stark sense of juxtaposition between this stage direction versus the kiss shared by Othello and Desdemona in Act2:Scene1. However, arguably the most shocking physical act of the play is when Desdemona is smothered by Othello in a climatic death scene. For an Elizabethan audience this would have cemented Othello’s transformation into a villain as he eternally damns his reputation by committing the irreparable sin of murder. Overall, Shakespeare presents Othello as a man who has fallen from grace to embody a conniving, barbaric creature judged as worthy of the stereotypes tarnishing his name.

It is important to examine Othello in comparison to the portrayal of other characters in the play who all share the commonality of being white. Othello’s wife Desdemona fits the category of what is known as “the ideal victim” (Christie, 1986). As a white woman she is “most readily given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim.” Othello, having regressed into aggressive racial stereotypes, is therefore viewed as a barbaric perpetrator. Desdemona’s innocence is heightened by her final words on her death bed asking to “Commend me to my kind lord” (Act5:Scene2). Regardless of Othello’s sinful behaviour she defends him which proves that her loyalties lie with her love for her husband. Bradley (1911) states “Desdemona is helplessly passive”. There is a sense of dichotomy between Desdemona’s simplicity of character versus Othello’s web of flaws. Past productions of Othello, such as Oliver Parker’s (1995), dress Desdemona all in white when she is killed to symbolise her pure, angelic presence. Furthermore, Desdemona’s supposed lover Cassio is portrayed to be conventionally attractive, charming and charismatic. He is the perfect pawn in Iago’s plot to make Othello feel inadequate in comparison and consequently jealous of Cassio and his supposed relationship with Desdemona. Othello’s mindset has taken on the form of a racialized Western imagination that has dominated conventions such as beauty standards for hundreds of years and continues to do so today. Brabantio laments that he wishes Desdemona could have married one of the “wealthy curled darlings of our nation” (Act1:Scene2) that he placed before her. Othello is seen as dirty and impure by Brabantio; a trope that has lasted through to present day commercialism. For example, soap adverts depicting black people needing to be washed in order to appear clean. Clearly the issues presented in Othello cannot be completely distanced from racism in modern society.

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Iago is the puppet master of Othello’s downfall. He speaks of Othello’s race in a callous manner suggesting that he resents having to serve a black man. Iago is known to follow the binary understanding of race common to Western thought. For example, in the 1995 Oliver Parker production Iago plays with black and white chess figures symbolising the races of Othello and Desdemona. He only understands opposites and points of contention instead of the shared commonalities of humanity. By Othello not fitting into the desirable category of whiteness he feels like he is something other. Dyer (2017) suggests that the assumption that white people are known as just people “is not far off saying that whites are people whereas other colours are something else, which is endemic to white culture.”. It is understandable that by posing as Othello’s friend, Iago can slowly sow the seeds of racial insecurity and self-doubt into his mind by poisoning him with his racist views. Shakespeare gives Iago the most lines in the play and ensures he is constantly in Othello’s company. Iago is seminal to the plot of the play, yet he also acts as a mouthpiece of evil and vengeance. It is questionable as to why Shakespeare allows Iago to dominate the script and therefore influence not only his fellow characters but also an audience in such a negative way. Consequently, it can be said that Shakespeare had little care for the social implications of a play that somewhat unintentionally celebrates its racist villain.

Lastly, discussing Shakespeare’s intentions is seminal when assessing the way race is presented in Othello. It is hotly debated as to whether Othello fits the mould of the typical tragic hero presented in Shakespearean tragedy. Greenblatt (1980) states that “Othello is both monster and hero” as he commits the heinous crime of murdering his wife but commits suicide after realising his mistakes. An eye for an eye conforms to the Biblical teachings propagated during Elizabethan time thus elevating Othello’s status back to respected tragic hero. He takes his own life as a result of the life he snatched from Desdemona. However, it can also be argued from a modern perspective he is not redeemed for his crimes as he instead disgraces himself through conforming to racial stereotypes and committing such savage behaviour. The trope of the noble savage is all too common in Shakespearean literature. For example, Caliban from The Tempest (1610) makes grand, elaborate speeches about the island he resides on; yet will also revert to barbaric tendencies such as attempting to rape fellow islander Miranda. Caliban’s darker complexion, his forced subservience, and native status on the island have led many readers to interpret him as symbolic of the native cultures occupied and oppressed by European colonial societies. Nevertheless, it is still left up to interpretation as to whether Shakespeare intended his message to be received in this way. The modern reader may overcomplicate the original message by trying to align Shakespeare’s objectives with modern ways of thinking. As an Elizabethan man Shakespeare’s interaction and understanding of ethnic minorities would have been minimal. Did he have the resources and awareness to be socially conscious in his writing?

Othello is widely performed and read today by theatres and schools across the country. In this era of political correctness in modern productions Othello is most likely to be played by a black man. The play is significantly altered when a black man plays Othello; it becomes a play about race, about lived experience and an ancestry of oppression. Yet in Shakespeare’s time a white all male cast would have used black face to portray a darker complexion. This serves to mock racial features and presents a level of unawareness that is frowned upon today by many. Race appears to be commodified for viewing entertainment as Smith (2018) states “Race becomes a kind of prosthesis that one can use to impersonate somebody else. Blackness is a kind of object or thing that is presented for the speculation of the audience.”. For students studying Othello this sense of commodified racism is often uncomfortable to tackle in a classroom. Despite, Othello’s redemption as a tragic hero he is still a stark misrepresentation of what it means to be black and his confusing presentation as part monster part hero may prove unsettling for ethnic minorities to understand.

To conclude, the presentation of race in Othello is understandably controversial in our post-modern society. For a text with racial attitudes such as this to be a part of modern education is a choice that does not reflect the inclusivity and diversity of society. However, it can be said to serve as a reminder of the progression that has been made in society but also the saddening reality that there are elements of Othello’s treatment that ethnic minority students can relate to. Whether Shakespeare had these intentions in mind when writing the play is certainly questionable. As a member of The King’s Men acting company Shakespeare would have had to write in accordance with the beliefs of his royal patrons. This meant his motives were more likely to please and entertain the masses rather than make controversial social statements. Nevertheless, by allowing Othello, as a black man, to gain the status of a tragic hero proves that his intentions were not to fully demonise every aspect of his character. Yet, the misinformed racial stereotypes that Othello adheres to prove that as a privileged white man Shakespeare’s accounts of racial inequality fail to equate to ethnic minority authors who have lived experience of discrimination. Therefore, regardless of Shakespeare’s grand legacy, his ill understanding of sensitive racial issues should be closely examined when teaching and performing this play in our modern, progressive society.

Bibliography

  1. Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities’ Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
  2. Best, G. and Frobisher, M. (1578). A Trve Discovrse of the late voyages of Discouerie. London: Imprinted By Henry Bynnyman, Servant To The Right Honourable Sir Christopher Hatton Vizchamberlaine.
  3. Bradley, A.C., Von and Hügel, V. (1911). Shakespearean Tragedy lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear Macbeth by A.C. Bradley. Formerly Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford. London: Macmillan And Co. Limited St. Martin’s Street.
  4. Dyer, R. (2017). White. New York: Routledge.
  5. Fattah, E. Simon Fraser University. (1986). Société Internationale De Criminologie and Cours International De Criminologie. From Crime Policy to Victim Policy: Reorienting the Justice System. Basingstoke. Macmillan.
  6. Greenblatt, S. (1980). The Improvisation of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Parker, O. (1995). Othello. Castle Rock Entertainment.
  8. Shakespeare, W. (1603). and Watts, C. (2001). Othello. London: Wordsworth Classics.
  9. Shakespeare, W. and Watts, C. (2004). The Tempest. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited.
  10. Smith, I. (Spring 2016). We Are Othello: Speaking of Race in Early Modern Studies. Oxford: Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 67. Iss. 1.
  11. Smith, I. and Thompson, A. (2018). Othello and Blackface. Folger Shakespeare Library. Shakespeare Unlimited. Episode 50.

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How Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity is Represented in Othello. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-race-ethnicity-and-cultural-identity-is-represented-in-othello/
“How Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity is Represented in Othello.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/how-race-ethnicity-and-cultural-identity-is-represented-in-othello/
How Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity is Represented in Othello. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-race-ethnicity-and-cultural-identity-is-represented-in-othello/> [Accessed 28 Jan. 2023].
How Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity is Represented in Othello [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2023 Jan 28]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-race-ethnicity-and-cultural-identity-is-represented-in-othello/
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