Othello is one of Shakespeare”s darkest tragedies. It explores the issue of race, particularly in terms of the implications of interracial marriage. Like any great work of art, Othello has many timeless qualities, but its treatment of the issue of race allows us to gain a perspective into Elizabethan attitudes. “If Othello didn’t begin as a play about race, history has made it one.”
Othello is, in one sense of the word, by far the most romantic figure among Shakespeare”s heroes; and he is so partly from the strange life of war and adventure, which he has lived from childhood. In addition, he is not a merely romantic figure; his own nature is romantic. He has not, indeed, the meditative or speculative imagination of Hamlet; but in the strictest sense of the word he is more poetic than Hamlet. Elizabethan audiences would not have reacted very kindly to Shakespeare making a black man one of the most romantic figures in his plays. They would not like the fact that Shakespeare has made a foreigner seem more ardent than the men back in their own country.Order now
The Venetian society that Othello is set in is representative of the writer’s context, and reveals some of the prevalent attitudes and values of Elizabethan society. In Shakespeare’s plays, settings were vital part. In the Cambridge Shakespeare Introduction it says, “Italy had become almost the accepted site of the more sensational tragedies of the period.” Therefore, the fact that that the beginning of the play is set in Venice, Italy symbolises that the play will be tragic. In the sixteenth century, Venice was a dominant colonial force in the Mediterranean. It was a thriving commercial centre and its empire was protected by powerful merchants with military strengths, including a mercenary force. After act one, the play is set in Cyprus. Cyprus was considered a valuable colony. However, it was also located between Venice and Turkey. Venice was a Christian state. Its Christian faith protected it from Turkish infidels. As the Turks attacked Cyprus, before Othello was written, Shakespeare exploits real political situation
It can be said that Othello, might also argue that another theme that arose was order and chaos. This links in with the fact that Othello is a tragedy as in Steven Croft’s book, Literature, Criticism and Style, it says that if a play is a tragedy the, “chaos or disorder in society results.” In Othello order is changed when Desdemona is “stolen”1.3.61 by Othello.
From the opening scene, Othello’s race defines his difference from others in Venice, “Barbary horse, 1.1.111. This metaphor is particularly important as in 1600, sixteen members f the Barbary embassy, led by Abdel Ouahedben Messaoud visited London. Their cultural differences and dress caused disgrace and they were referred to as barbarians. The Cambridge Shakespeare informs us that Elizabethans distrusted foreigners and thought they were ‘savage’ and ‘uncivilized’. This is ironic as in the first scene of the play the shouting is done by Iago and Roderigo when they visit Brabantio’s house. From the heated discussion between Iago and Roderigo, we learn that the daughter of a highly respected Venetian senator, Brabantio, has eloped with Othello, referred as the Moor. He is a foreigner, black in colour and this is emphasized by the insults used by Roderigo and Iago. Only Iago voices an explicitly stereotypical view of Othello, depicting him from the beginning as an animalistic, barbarous, foolish outsider.
In presenting Othello like this, Shakespeare is exploring the inaccuracies of stereotypes in the 1600’s. In act one scene three we discover that Othello has a past filled with tragic and exotic tales and has proved himself worthy of the title General in the Venetian army. Even before we, as an audience, have had a chance to meet Othello and Desdemona we learn that the match is considered as disgusting as it is outrageous. In act one scene three Brabantio highlights the social unease with interracial marriage, “that it engluts and swallows other sorrows.” 1.3.58 He is called “an old black ram,” 1.1.88 a “devil,” 1.1.91 and a “Barbary horse,” 1.1.111. Also, in act one scene one a vast amount of animalistic imagery is used to describe Othello. We learn that Othello is called a devil because in the seventeenth century, the devil was usually depicted as black, and was a demonstration of non-Christians.
Throughout the play, the character that uses the most racial slur toward Othello is Iago. Iago is the most villain like character. This is ironical as he is white and acts like the devil, whereas Othello is black is influenced by Iago. This interpretation is also agreed by ‘The introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare’, written by Norman Sanders. Sanders expresses the view that “Physically Othello is black like the devil, yet it is beneath the white skin of Iago that the devil really lurks.” Sanders also mention white skin again when he says, “â€¦Desdemona’s whiter skin that her alabaster is not the sepulchre concealing her dishonour but the symbol of her purity and truth.”
Although Iago and Roderigo make him sound despicable in their disparaging first-act conversation, Shakespeare then shows Othello as a well-spoken and highly regarded military leader who has won the hand of an aristocratic woman. When we do meet Othello we are familiarized to a composed, intelligent and noble man whose self-assurance and temperament counter all that which had come before. For instance, when Brabantio confronts him with accusations of witchcraft, “mixtures powerful o’er the blood” 1.3.105, Othello’s calm reaction diffuses this dangerous situation, “send for the lady to the Sagittary.” 1.3.116. It is also clear that Othello’s authority is respected and admired by the duke and senate of Venice as well as by those who serve him, such as Cassio, Montano, and Lodovico. The Duke calls him “valiant Othello” 1.3.49. Also in the same scene, a senator calls him “brave” 1.3.290. In act one scene three we learn that Brabantio himself “loved” and “oft invited” Othello, but when it came to Othello having a sexual relationship with his daughter he becomes angry and accuses Othello of using witchcraft to get Desdemona to marry him, “â€¦some mixturespotionsâ€¦”
Othello explores the issue of race, especially in terms of interracial marriage. Its confrontation towards the issue of race allows us to gain a perspective on Elizabethan attitudes towards race. Since Othello was first written, its readers have interpreted it in many different ways. One issue that has come up consistently in writing about Othello is that of Othello”s race. Some critics have been offended by Othello”s blackness, while others have found that it adds to the character”s dignity; some have conspicuously ignored the issue, and others have made it the focus of their discussion of the play. Critics of Othello in the 19th century seem to have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that Othello could have been a black man. The Romanticism of the times encouraged readers to see literary characters as individuals, even to identify with them; seeing Othello as an individual meant seeing him as a Moor, and many 19th-century critics felt a strong reluctance to identify themselves with a Moor. Nevertheless, as he appears in the play, Othello is quite a noble figure.
Shakespeare”s contemporary audience would have found it hard in accepting the fact that a black person could be noble. In order to retain Othello”s nobility while avoiding the conclusion that a black person can be noble, many critics from this era found ways to avoid the thought that Othello was a black African. Their methods included everything from avoiding seeing the play performed Charles Lamb to the assertion that Othello was actually white Miss Mary Preston. An early 1990’s critic Edward Berry wrote in an article called “Othello”s Alienation,” that Shakespeare has portrayed Othello as a black man, “to evoke Elizabethan stereotypes of Moors in order to discredit them.” Berry also argues, “in order to understand the character and the play, it is necessary to recognize how Othello”s ethnicity affects the way other characters understand Othello and the way in which Othello thinks of himself.” As Othello is black, he feels the effect of social alienation and a result readily accepts. Berry also believes Othello dies, as he is unable to accept his racial identity, having come to understand himself in the racist terms in which the Venetians see him.
Another critic from the late 1990’s Janet Adelman believes race functions in the play as a projection of Iago”s envy toward Othello. At the beginning of the play, Othello is whole and blameless while Iago is an inwardly conflicted and dark character; by the end, Iago has succeeded in transferring his darkness and pain onto Othello. His is reflected through the subtle changes in the language used by Othello. He loses his articulacy and descends to the barbaric creature he was first described. The picture of Othello as hideously black and savage originates in Iago”s poisonous mind. Nevertheless, by the end of act three Othello has become savage and uncivilized.
By pouring his poison into Othello”s ear, Iago manages to turn Othello into the foul black thing Iago has imagined. The result is that “Othello becomes assimilated to, and motivated by his racial “type” becomes the monstrous Moor easily made jealous.” At the end of act three scene three his language descends gradually as he becomes more insecure and he starts repeating words and using very short sentences, “O, blood, blood, blood!”3.3.449. Berry had argued that the potential for self-doubt had existed in Othello”s mind from the beginning; Adelman argues that Othello does not come to think of his blackness as a “stain” until he is tainted by Iago”s poisonous words.
Importantly, Othello’s final speech articulates his inner turmoil in terms of opposing racial values and beliefs. it shows his process in change, from his articulate and eloquent to barbaric and out of control and back to his bombast self. This final speech allows him to regain his articulacy. His language goes from “O, damn her, damn her” 3.3.473 to “speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate”. 5.2.338 Here he regains former nobility and honour. Shakespeare also creates a bit of empathy for Othello by showing Othello in emotional chaos, “perplexed in the extreme,” 5.2.342. Othello also compares himself to “base Indians” 5.2.343 as they were thought not to value precious stones. In the same way, Othello believes Desdemona was his precious stone and did not distinguish he true value. Othello’s sense of himself being a Christian throughout the play is emphasized when he talks about the base Indian throwing the pearl away.
This is a biblical reference as it is a reference to Judas Iscariot, who in betraying Christ, threw away the pearl of great price, i.e. the kingdom of Heaven Matthew 13:46. Othello’s feelings towards outsiders is shown when he wants to kill the “turbaned Turk”5.2.349 and he soon recognises himself as one of them. Also in his final sentence order is restored again as the closed couplet is romantic and a tragic climax. This also agrees with Steven Croft’s ideas that in a tragedy, a climax is reached usually with the death of the main character before order is restored.
Shakespeare”s tragic hero, Othello, was a man whose gifts far outnumbered his weaknesses. On the battlefield, he was accomplished; in his profession, he was highly ranked; and, in his life, he was blissfully married. Despite these great advantages, however, Othello”s destiny was ruin. Everything he had so carefully made for himself would be destroyed by one fatal flaw: his fear of remaining an outsider. He feared this fate, yet he moaned on continuously, tearing himself between his identity as a foreigner and his desire to live as a normal citizen.