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The Question of Racism and Its Representation on Othello


Select one non-dramatic text used on the module, (an extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains,) and demonstrate how it may help us comprehend Othello.

The extract provides a continual attack by Coleridge on Shakespeare for his lack of realism in the ‘monstrous’ representation of a marriage in between a ‘beautiful Venetian girl,’ and a ‘genuine negro,’ in Othello. He sees Shakespeare’s change of a ‘barbarous negro’ into a respected soldier and nobleman of stature as ‘oblivious’, given that at the time, ‘negroes were not known except as slaves.’ (Appendix) The extract seems to raise 2 concerns– how main is the taboo of miscegeny to the play, and to what level is Othello’s reputation able to counter this prejudice?

It is certainly not hard to conclude that it is probably Shakespeare’s most questionable play. There is a clear style of racism throughout, one which was firmly embedded in the Venetian society which declines the marital relationship of Othello and Desdemona as erring, ‘against all rules of nature,’ [1.3.102] Nothing separates Othello from, ‘the wealthy curled darlings of our country,’ [1.2.68] except skin-colour– he matches and even exceeds them in credibility. At the start of the play, he appears positive that,

OTHELLO: My parts, my title, and my best soul

Shall manifest me appropriately.

Othello 1.2.31-2

When he is employed front of the court on charges of witchcraft, yet the sinister Iago has the ability to get in touch with Othello’s deep-rooted insecurities about his race in order to play Othello and Desdemona against one another until their marriage stops working. Essentially, Iago is a representative of the white race, a pre-Nazi figure who attempts to inform the general public of the pollutant of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage. He shows how this miscegenation is threatening to the existing social order, and ultimately, Othello’s life time of accomplishment is not enough to pursuade others from prejudice in a minute of crisis (such as Desdemona’s elopement,) or sustain his self-confidence in the long-run. Othello is structured so that the primary premise of the play, presenting the primary styles, appears near the start. It is apparent that Iago has an agenda planned of malicious proportions with Othello at its target. He is the catalyst of all the devastating happenings within the play beginning with the really beginning when he and Roderigo approach the home of Brabantio in 1.1. He uses crude, racist language to interest the senator’s standard beliefs, consisting of such expressions as,

IAGO: Even now, now, extremely now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe!

Othello 1.1.87-88

Iago even goes so far as to propose that Brabantio’s grandchildren will be animals because of his daughter’s base marriage with an ‘other.’

IAGO: … you’ll have

Your daughter covered with a Barbary horse,

You’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have

Coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.

Othello 1.1.109-112

Later on we are told that Iago’s intention is jealousy and he uses the rhetoric of racism to weaken Othello, using Brabantio’s bias to provoke him, despite the fact that, as Othello relates later on, ‘Her daddy liked me, oft invited me.’ [1.3.129] A shock and a few unrefined comments from Iago is all it requires to make a reputable figure turn against a buddy of equivalent stature merely since of skin colour.

Technically, Brabantio was not lawfully permitted to nullify his child’s marriage to the Moor as she was over the age of authorization. Culturally, nevertheless, he had all the support required to challenge the marital relationship provided typical racist presumptions of the time, and implicates Othello of sorcery and witchcraft. This suggests to start with that he is not able to imagine his child wilfully deceiving him, an understandable response offered her past dutiful behaviour, ‘so tender, reasonable and happy’ [1.2.66] and the nature of the patriarchal society in which she lived. Second of all, like Coleridge, he can not believe she would ever ‘fall in love with what she feared to look on,’ [1.3.99] without the aid of spells, and third, he recommends that Othello’s race makes him efficient in these powers of ‘black’ magic– we need to ask ourselves; if Desdemona had eloped with Roderigo, would he be implicated of witchcraft? If Brabantio had actually not reverted to his bias and remained calm, he might have thought of questioning the legality of the marriage based upon the Canon Law’s requirement of consummation, but he fails to do so, picking rather to attempt to nullify it by claiming that his daughter was the victim of spells and witchcraft. In other words, Brabantio, a reputable member of Venetian society, might have objected to the marital relationship agreement rationally and lawfully, but instead he draws on utilizing prejudiced presumptions as weapons, encouraged by Iago. These occasions, so early on in the play, develop the concept of white pureness and goodness, suggesting that other races represent darkness and evil. The clear cut binary opposition between the blackness of Othello and the fair whiteness of Desdemona is established and united in marriage, an idea that Shakespeare seems to be try out to recommend the turmoil that would occur in a cultural context. Although Othello is not constructed to be the cleverest and most shrewd character of the play, he is one Shakespeare’s bravest characters, and he does exhibit a certain wit uncommon to the European concept of a Moor. He is a significant, romantic guy who has actually won the heart of a senator’s daughter, despite his confession that ‘disrespectful am I in my speech,’ [1.3.82] and the Duke confesses that ‘this tale would win my daughter too.’ [1.3.172] Othello is a hero who has actually led a long life loaded with kindness, which was necessary for a Moor to have his existence endured in a predominately white culture. He has combated as a Venetian soldier and won the trust of his individuals. However has he actually won their trust? We witnessed how quick Brabantio was to forget his honourable nature. Othello had won the love of Desdemona with his stories of battle and he had likewise promised an injured Brabantio that he would be a loyal son-in-law by that exact same token. He needs to be able to go beyond particular preconceived notions of race through his heroism and courageousness. He took on the whole socio-political structure and had his method with it for a time, however the play reveals all too clearly how thin the value of his credibility was to end up being, in the eyes of others, and to himself.

In Act 1, the audience witnesses Brabantio’s response to his child’s elopement, and this is extremely substantial. Othello has hitherto been treated with great respect in Venetian society, but Shakespeare produces a moment of crisis to analyze the level to which Othello’s track record specifies him when he needs it most. As long as reasoning exists, there will be little space for prejudice, which is based upon illogical and unreasonable ‘gut’ sensations, but Iago works by eliminating reasoning, his crudity and base animal imagery draws out the primal side of others. Regretfully, he demonstrates how quickly this can be achieved through a moment of crisis and a few choice words. Act 1almost provides the play in mini; Iago goes on to larger and better things when he handles to make Othello turn social prejudice in on himself. The scene with Brabantio also goes to show that Iago’s provocation is as efficient in enraging a civil Venetian senator as it is (as the Elizabethan audience would see it,) a hot-blooded Moor. Othello’s racial ‘qualities’ such as a fast mood and jealousy, (assumptions held at the time) do not cause his failure– Iago does– but he is only able to attain it by dealing with Othello’s weaknesses, his insecurity over his race being central to this.

The ‘temptation scene’ of 3.3 is important to an understanding of the methods utilized by Iago to make Othello doubt Desdemona, by making him doubt himself. His first relocation following Othello’s refusal of her cheating is to ensure him that, ‘I know our nation’s personality well’ [3.3.204] reminding him of his nature as an outsider, and as such, of a lesser authority to understand the ways of Venetian women, and certainly, ladies in basic, using his insecurities at his absence of experience in relations with the opposite sex. He is forced to trust Iago to explain the world to him. ‘And yet how nature, erring from itself–‘ [3.3.231] is the crucial point at which we see Othello fracture– he has linked Desdemona’s rejection of the ‘curled darlings’ [1.2.68] or ‘natural’ options for other halves with the presence of something innately unnatural and suspect in her character. At line 267, he makes an unusual recommendation to his blackness in a negative method, and begins to compare himself to Cassio, who is fair, significant, and courtly, and reveals his insecurity over his age too. Nevertheless, when he sees her, he refuses to think Iago, however as we see, the damage has actually been done, and he returns to Iago to require ‘ocular proof.’ [3.3.363] Othello is then tricked very quickly by a thin and poor illusion, after which, he vows to eliminate her, without facing her as soon as. The ease with which Iago was able to accomplish this task is frightening, and rests entirely on a simple optical trick and his capability to play on Othello’s insecurities, a big part of which is his race, and shock at Desdemona’s love.

We must not forget to take a look at the behaviour of Desdemona in order to witness the cultural taboo in action. Desdemona is portrayed as a magnificent figure, but exceptionally ignorant. Her naivety is highlighted in her conversations with her partner. She does not know that Othello is the object of Iago’s control, nor does she comprehend the ramifications of her speech. In Act 1, Iago specifies that,

IAGO: It can not be that

Desdemona must long continue her love to the


Othello 1.3.342-344

He echoes Coleridge’s concern that her love of Othello ‘would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.’ (Appendix) In Act 2, once again speaking with Roderigo, Iago states that she will find the fault in her choice due to the fact that she will notice how Othello does not have,

IAGO: love- liness in favor, compassion in years, manners and charms.

Othello 2.1.226-228

Everybody appears to believe that Desdemona has little understanding of the actions she is taking, and all the characters see the marriage as an inescapable failure.

One of the most questionable scenes in all of Shakespeare happens in the bedchamber where the Moor’s virtuous spouse sleeps comfortably. The action is decreased to a sombre rate. Othello has reverted to a savage-like state as everybody had suspected. Desdemona’s death was inevitable or rather expected by everybody who first saw the marital relationship in between the two as prohibited. However, Othello’s death is far more symbolic because it represents the ‘other’ stopping working after trying to accomplish the status of the white male. Othello eventually acknowledges the truth that he is an ‘other’ when he realises his irreconcilable fault and selects to take his own life. Thus upon his suicide his last words link that those who stand in his presence must speak of him as he really is, and know that,

OTHELLO: Like the base Judean, tossed a pearl away Richer than all his tribe

Othello 5.2.345-346

At the end of the play Othello devotes suicide in front of the audience, a public statement of his pity at his dishonour, caused by Iago, but just because he had the ability to play on the insecurities buried deep within Othello.

Plainly, the binary opposition represented in the relationship in between the black Othello and the white Desdemona is an illustration of cultural stress. The failure of these two people to mate effectively shows a cultural failure. Bigotry is the tool used in Othello by Iago to ruin the lives of two visually various kinds of individuals. Nevertheless, as Davison describes, Othello is not ‘about’ race, or colour, and even jealousy. It dramatises the way actions are directed by attitudes, worries, and deceptions that rule the subconscious than by evident truths. (Davison, 1988, p. 64)

We can criticise Shakespeare’s usage of racism from a contemporary perspective, however it is very important to bear in mind that it was fundamental in the culture in which he was writing, and Iago is revealed as just acknowledging an efficient method to produce Othello’s downfall– he also makes him insecure about his age and absence of experience with ladies. Othello is an example of a noble black man at a time, supposedly, when, ‘negroes were not known other than as slaves,’ (Appendix) yet racism fundamental in the society which he lived was capable of decreasing him to the barbarous state everybody at root anticipated of him. Therefore Shakespeare provides us with a morality play at the historical height of the colonial slave trade with bigotry and miscegeny at its core, first we witness this through Brabantio, then the tragic effects when Othello, with Iago’s help, turns social prejudice onto himself.


Davison, P. (1988) Othello: An Intro to the Variety of Criticism Hampshire: Macmillan Press

Shakespeare, W. (1997) Othello (c. 1602) E. A. J Honigmann (Ed.) Surrey: Thomas Nelson & & Sons Ltd.

. Wheale, N.(2000)Nineteenth-and Early-Twentieth Century Critical Assessments of Othello. Shakespeare Text & Efficiency: Materials for the 2nd Project (Hand-out)


From: Wheale, N. (2000) Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth Century Vital Evaluations of Othello. Shakespeare Text & & Efficiency: Products for the 2nd Project (Hand-out, p. 7)

Extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains, four volumes, 1836-9, estimated in Bate (Ed.) 1992: 482:

Roderigo: What a complete fortune does the thick-lips owe,

If he can carry’t thus. [1.1.67]

‘… here comes one, if not the just, seeming validation of our blackamoor or negro Othello. Even if we expected this a continuous custom of the theatre, which Shakespeare himself, from desire of scenes, and the experience that nothing could be made too marked for the senses of his audience, had almost sanctioned it,– would this show aught worrying his own intention as a poet for any ages? Can we envision him so absolutely ignorant regarding make a barbarous negro plead royal birth,– at a time, too, when negroes were not known except as slaves?– As for Iago’s language to Brabantio, it implies merely that Othello was a Moor, that is, black … No doubt Desdemona saw Othello’s visage in his mind; yet, as we are made up, and most definitely as an English audience was gotten rid of in the start of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to develop this lovely Venetian girl falling for a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a desire of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.’

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