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Racism in Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Essay

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2021

Introduction

It is a simple truth that individuals have preferences with regard to all creatures on this planet–including our fellow human beings. Sexism and racism are the two most common forms in human culture. Nowadays, with the invention of creative technology AI (artificial intelligence), a new form of discrimination—speciesism comes to the world. Philip K. Dick, in his science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, discusses the issue of AI in an imaginary world. By comparing this publication in 1968 to Shakespeare’s Othello, written in the 16th century from characters, plot, settings, and imagery, readers can understand that discrimination will lead to tragedy ends. Othello as a powerful Moor, just as the lonely android Rick Deckard being treated differently in his world. It looks like discrimination is always in humans’ culture. It had caused numerous tragedies, and it definitely would cause more in the future. Although it is difficult to achieve the absolute equity in the world, at least racism is no longer a problem in the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I believe that there will be a more equitable world in the future.

Brief Summaries

Shakespearean Othello and Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are two different stories, with centuries of evolution and development separating them. One is a poetic tragedy set in 16th century Venice, while the other is a science fiction novel set in the far future. Othello is a tragedy of a man who perceives himself as an “honorable murderer.” He tried to assimilate into a culture foreign to himself and pursue his love of a woman, only for him to fall to plots, schemes, machinations, as well as various racist innuendos and undertones that slowly warped his perception of himself, Desdemona, and the relationship between them. The hero is both similar and different to Greek tragedies in that he possesses a fatal flaw, but is not portrayed as a victim of circumstance and fate. Instead, in many ways, Othello is the engineer of his own destruction. He kills his beloved Desdemona and then ends his own life, succumbing to his weaknesses as well as the influence of a corrupt society around them (Shakespeare).

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is an exploratory tale, in which the main hero of the story struggles to find his own empathy and humanity, as he is set up to carry out a daunting task of killing off Nexus-6 androids (Dick). They are remarkably human-like, to the point that it takes an elaborate test in order to determine whether a person is a human or an android. The story begets the rhetorical question of whether life is determined by the capacity for emotion, the humanness of existence, or the capability for self-perception and conscience. As the story goes on, the Nexus-6 androids become increasingly more humanized, depicted to have motivations, thoughts, emotions, and a persistent will to live (Dick). This goes against what Rick Deckard has thought about the androids. After going through one murder after another, the hero discovers a newfound empathy for even the creatures perceived as “inferior,” which causes him to risk his life to rescue a frog, which turned out to be robotic in the end.

Connotations of Racism and Formalist Denial

Formalism was a popular style of literature analysis throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, which reviewed and presented the story outside of its philosophical, political, and geographical context, focusing on literary devices, tropes, and the overall plot of the story. It was an attempt at making literature analysis into a rigorous academic discipline. While not without merits, this effort also robbed the analysts of any perspectives outside of the immediate story, disconnected the writing from the author, and created a diluted picture of portrayed reality because of it.

Until recently, the subject of racism was often ignored or not addressed as a part of the literature analysis. In the 18th and 19th centuries, racism was never really perceived as a bad thing by the majority of the white reading audience, so the racist connotations of Othello were largely ignored in favor of emotion and drama. The formalist discussion of the story was typically focused on the politics, the subject of lies and betrayal, and on whether or not Othello could be considered a poetic work of art. Shakespeare violated many of the existing canons of the genre by shifting away from the uniformity of time and place while following the actions of the main hero, which made some critics perceive Othello as a novel.

The formalist analysis of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep repeats the same mistake, as it focuses on the plot devices and tropes presented in the story. As such, comparisons are often made between Dick’s novel and various other pieces of literature, where inanimate objects are given the capacity for empathy and human emotion. Androids are perceived through the human capability to empathize with them and grant them qualities similar to humans, both in behaviors and appearance. Due to the story’s plot revolving around the extermination of sentient beings, formalist analysis cannot ignore the fact that racism and speciesism are present in the story, but the true causes of it remain buried beneath. The analysis of literary techniques separates the story from its author and reviews it as an independent construct, making any allusions to the time in which it was written, lost to time.

Criticism of Discrimination and Racism in Othello and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Literature analysis underwent significant changes in the 1970s-1980s, as formalism slowly fell out of favor, replaced by various other kinds of analysis that took into account the personality of the writer, the historical realities in which the story was written in, and the existence and the influence of racial, species and gender biases present at the time. All of these factors are present in Othello and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, giving them more depth, as they provide new insights on how the people perceived and still perceive certain aspects of discrimination. The key issues of discrimination addressed and demonstrated by Shakespeare and Dick are as follows:

  • Racism and speciesism based on perceptions of the superiority of one race or species over another.
  • Internalization of racist perceptions towards oneself.
  • Sexism and objectification of women.
  • Discrimination based on the capacity for emotion.
  • Android and animal rights.

Racism and speciesism are, perhaps, some of the easiest subjects for a modern reader to spot. Both Othello and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep feature numerous examples of personalized and institutionalized racism towards the representatives of oppressed minorities. In Othello, it is the main hero – a moor, who faces discrimination based on his appearance and race. Although a man of intelligence, courage, and virtue, the race card is used against him by Desdemona’s father, Iago, and many of Venice’s nobles who look down on him for being black (Hogan 298). In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, androids are discriminated against in many ways. The most obvious example is the “retirement” procedure, which is the institutionalized murder of beings that are not considered human, thus devoid of feelings such as love or fear (Alessio 61).

Internalization of racism towards oneself and “fitting into the mold” is presented in Othello. As the character tries to fit in with the white society in order to prove himself worthy of Desdemona’s hand, people who think less of him because of his race constantly surround him (Hogan 300). Desdemona’s father opposes Othello’s advances, whereas other contenders for the woman’s hand describe the brave and virtuous military general through the prism of racist stereotypes. In time, this treatment gets through to Othello, as he often laments about being a moor, and begins to fit the mold of an overly emotional, violent barbarian everyone perceives him to be. This culminates in his murder of Desdemona, followed by suicide.

Sexism and objectification of women are amply presented in both stories. Othello was written during times when a woman was seen as an object of sexual desire as well as a living representation of family honor. Othello’s feelings and thoughts are often presented as lustful and anxious to claim Desdemona for himself, and the ultimate motivation to kill her stemmed from the perception that someone else got a hold of her first. In addition, Desdemona was viewed by her parents and family as an asset. They were planning to use her to get Othello to defend Venice against the Turks (Deats 33). In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the objectification of women takes a new form – female androids are specifically made to pleasure male hosts, work as prostitutes, and perform menial tasks. The fact that these women are androids and not human only adds another layer of discrimination against them (Alessio 60).

One of the deeper and less noticeable discrimination trends presented in both stories. The concept of discrimination based on emotion is present in white culture. Women and “lesser races” are typically presented as overly emotional, whereas certain Asian races are presented as emotionless (Greenblatt 42). What defines a superior race (according to belief) is a balance between emotion and rationality. Historically, the capacity for emotion was used to justify various atrocities against “lesser races.” Africans (just like women) were perceived as overly emotional, thus incapable of governing themselves, which invited the yoke of the white civilization. Japanese felt the brunt of discrimination during the war between Japan and the USA, both domestically and abroad. Being portrayed as emotionless and evil made it alright to kill them. Othello eventually succumbs to emotions enforced upon him, which causes him to kill Desdemona. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the connection between the capacity for emotion and status as a living being is more obvious – the lack of emotion and empathy is used as a reason to kill with impunity.

The last subject of discrimination covered in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the subject of discrimination against animals. It is connected with the issue of emotion. In his writings, Dick makes a statement that the capacity for emotion should not be used criteria for discrimination and trampling upon another’s livelihood (Vint 113). This argument works for androids in his tale but is not extrapolated towards animals, which were brought to near-extinction by the last nuclear war. One of the major reasons why animals are used as food and experimental material in our society is because the animals are stated to not have the capacity for a full spectrum of human emotion. If the moral lesson presented in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is applicable to robots, it can also be applied to animal rights.

Conclusion

Perceptions of literature change over time, based on the stage of evolution of the society. As seen in Othello and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the people now understand the hidden connotations and threats of discrimination, which were either ignored or undervalued in the past. The overall growth in empathy, as well as the emergence of different kinds of literature analysis, focused on historical context, give hope for the future with less discrimination and more tolerance and equality.

Works Cited

Alessio, Dominic. “Redemption, ‘Race,’ Religion, Reality, and the Far-Right: Science Fiction Film Adaptations of Philip K. Dick.” The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic, edited by Will Brooker, Wallflower Press, 2005, pp. 59-75.

Deats, Sara Munson. “Domestic Violence.” The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, Plenum Press, 1991, pp. 79-93.

Dick, Phillip K. Web.

Greenblatt, Jordana. “More Human than Human: Flattening of Affect, Synthetic Humans, and the Social Construction of Maleness.” ESC, vol. 42, no. 1-2, 2016, pp. 41-63.

Hogan, Patrick C. “Othello, Racism, and Despair.” CLA Journal, vol. 41, no. 4, 1998, pp. 431-451.

Shakespeare, William. Web.

Ving, Sherryl. “Speciesism and Species Being in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Mosaic: A Journal for Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 2007, pp. 111-126.

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