Wednesday, May 8, 2013



1. Discuss the role that race plays in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello. How do the other characters react to Othello’s skin color or to the fact that he is a Moor? How does Othello see himself?

KEYWORDS: 'race', 'Shakespeare's portrayal of Othello', 'other characters', 'Othello's skin colour', 'Moorish culture' (remember the full name of the play is Othello, the Moor of Venice), 'Othello's self image'.

2. Race was not an issue in the play until the antagonist Iago used race as a weapon against Othello and his wife Desdemona. How did race affect the outcome?

3. Is his race Othello's fatal flaw? How does Iago manipulate him because of this?

Some suggestions to help with these questions:

Here you will be analysing power relationships in the play - class and cultural power relationships. In Othello, you cannot examine 'race' without examining 'culture'. You would refer this question to the Great Chain of Being, and where the main characters are placed in this chain. You have Venetian nobles of high class. Venice is a hugely-powerful nation at the time. What of Othello? What gives him the right to marry a girl from the top of the hierarchy so to speak? 

So...both Othello and Desdemona challenge the Great Chain of Being - chaos results (by their hasty marriage and by Iago's deliberate lies and manipulations). We know that Shakespeare must restore order from the chaos. How will this be done?

REMEMBER: Othello is respected by the nobles of Venice, including the Duke of Venice. He is a mighty soldier (but this seems to be the only area of his life where Othello feels secure. He feels his lack of culture, his black colour...this provides an Archilles Heel for Iago to exploit.)

Iago, motivated by jealousy, used Othello's race against the general who felt inferior in every area of his life except his military prowess. His wife, Desdemona, is blind to Othello's colour and showed steadfast love for her husband.

Society in Venice reflected society in England in the Elizabethan Era, where white people were considered superior to black people who were rarely seen. It appears somewhat unusual for Shakespeare to give a Moor (a black North African), a lead role.


While Moor characters abound on the Elizabethan stage, none are given so major or heroic a role as Othello.

Othello is possibly the most famous literary exploration of the warping powers of jealousy and suspicion. At the same time, it's among the earliest literary works dealing with race and racism. Othello, undeniably heroic even if ultimately flawed, is the most prominent black protagonist in early Western literature. Othello faces constant racism from other characters, especially when he marries Desdemona, a privileged white woman whose father disapproves of the union. ( Read more here about racism in Othello.

Othello is referred to as a “Barbary horse” (1.1.113) and a “lascivious Moor” (1.1.127). In III.III he denounces Desdemona's supposed sin as being "black as mine own face." Desdemona's physical whiteness is otherwise presented in opposition to Othello's dark skin; V.II "that whiter skin of hers than snow." Iago tells Brabantio that "an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88). In Elizabethan discourse, the word "black" could suggest various concepts that extended beyond the physical colour of skin, including a wide range of negative connotations.

There is no consensus over Othello's race. E.A.J. Honigmann, the editor of the Arden Shakespeare edition, concluded that Othello's race is ambiguous. "Renaissance representations of the Moor were vague, varied, inconsistent, and contradictory. As critics have established, the term 'Moor' referred to dark-skinned people in general, used interchangeably with similarly ambiguous terms as 'African', 'Ethiopian', 'Negro', and even 'Indian' to designate a figure from Africa (or beyond)." Various uses of the word 'black' (for example, "Haply for I am black") are insufficient evidence for any accurate racial classification, Honigmann argues, since 'black' could simply mean 'swarthy' to Elizabethans. Iago twice uses the word 'Barbary' or 'Barbarian' to refer to Othello, seemingly referring to the Barbary coast inhabited by the "tawny" Moors. Roderigo calls Othello 'the thicklips', which seems to refer to European conceptions of Sub-Saharan African physiognomy, but Honigmann counters that, as these comments are all intended as insults by the characters, they need not be taken literally.

OTHELLO speaks:

 Haply for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have; or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much—
She’s gone. I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses. Yet ’tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base.
’Tis destiny unshunnable, like death. (III.iii.267–279)
Explanation for this quote:
When, in Act I, scene iii, Othello says that he is “rude” in speech, he shows that he does not really believe his own claim by going on to deliver a lengthy and very convincing speech about how he won Desdemona over with his wonderful storytelling (I.iii.81). 
However, after Iago has raised Othello’s suspicions about his wife’s fidelity, Othello seems to have at least partly begun to believe that he is inarticulate and barbaric, lacking “those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers [those who avoid practical labor and confine their activities to the ‘chambers’ of ladies] have.” This is also the first time that Othello himself, and not Iago, calls negative attention to either his race or his age. His conclusion that Desdemona is “gone” shows how far Iago’s insinuations about Cassio and Desdemona have taken Othello: in a matter of a mere 100 lines or so, he has progressed from belief in his conjugal happiness to belief in his abandonment.
The ugly imagery that follows this declaration of abandonment—Othello finds Desdemona to be a mere “creature” of “appetite” and imagines himself as a “toad” in a “dungeon”—anticipates his later speech in Act IV, scene ii, in which he compares Desdemona to a “cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in,” and says that she is as honest “as summer flies are in the shambles [slaughterhouses], / That quicken even with blowing” (IV.ii.63–64, 68–69). Othello’s comment, “’tis the plague of great ones,” shows that the only potential comfort Othello finds in his moment of hopelessness is his success as a soldier, which proves that he is not “base.” He attempts to consider his wife’s purported infidelity as an inevitable part of his being a great man, but his comfort is halfhearted and unconvincing, and he concludes by resigning himself to cuckoldry as though it were “death.”

When Desdemona asks to be allowed to accompany Othello to Cyprus, she says that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind, / And to his honours and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (I.iii. 250252). Othello’s blackness, his visible difference from everyone around him, is of little importance to Desdemona: she has the power to see him for what he is in a way that even Othello himself cannot.

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