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Shakespeare’s Othello and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2021

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 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.

Comparing this publication in 1968 to the Shakespeare’s Othello written in 16th century, readers can understand that discrimination will lead to tragedy ends by focusing on characters, plot, settings and symbolism. Othello as a powerful Moor, just as the lonely android Rick Deckard is treated differently in his world. Both works look at discrimination as a force always present in humans’ culture. Discrimination has caused numerous tragedies, and it definitely will 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. Understanding how the imagery world suffered from illogical racist and spiciest will give hope for a future with less discrimination and more tolerance.

Despite the time gap that separates the play Othello and the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, there are good reasons to consider that both these literary works are discursively interconnected. The rationale behind this suggestion is quite apparent: both Shakespeare’s tragedy and Philip K. Dick’s novel are concerned with exploring the motif of dehumanization, which can be seen as yet another indication of humanity’s innate predisposition towards discrimination as one of society’s functional principles.

In Shakespeare’s play, the motif of discrimination is explored in conjunction with Othello’s dark skin color, something that caused the “noble Moore” to be treated with suspicion by other characters throughout the play. As Hogan has noted: “Everywhere he turns, Othello confronts racism. Its different faces or masks—not only enmity, disdain, abuse, but friendship, admiration, love—serve to make it more insistent, compelling, inexorable” (298).

Hogan’s suggestion, in this respect, reveals the subtle nature of Othello’s exposure to racism. After all, because of his history as an accomplished military leader, he had never been forced to deal with any direct mistreatment at the hands of the tragedy’s other characters. Moreover, the very fact that he was able to enjoy a good career in the Venetian army suggests that sixteenth century Venetian society had egalitarian aspects, at least in the racial sense of the word.

At the same time, however, there can be little doubt that the practice of racial stereotyping in the city-state of Venice was just as widespread as it is in twenty-first century America. For example, according to the play’s antagonist Iago: “These Moors are changeable in their wills: fill thy purse with money – the food that to him now is as luscious as locusts” (Shakespeare Act I, Scene I). It seems evident that Iago’s statement reflects one of the main racial prejudices regarding people of color: the implication that these individuals are both greedy and tempted to address life’s challenges in a highly irrational or impulsive manner.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that it was only the play’s evil-minded characters who tended to express racial arrogance. After all, despite having been presented as the embodiment of female virtuousness, the character of Desdemona appears to have been just as racially prejudiced as Iago and his cronies. For example, while striving to confront Othello’s suspicions, she could not come up with anything better than the suggestion that her husband was naturally predisposed towards anger and distrust by virtue of his racial affiliation: “You Moors are of so hot a nature that ev­ery little trifle moves you to anger and revenge” (Shakespeare Act IV, Scene I).

Therefore it seems quite clear that Othello did, in fact, suffer from discrimination based on race, even at the hands of those who did not consciously intend to treat him in a racially arrogant manner.

This situation can be partially explained by considering the fact that Shakespeare’s play as a whole radiates a strongly defined male chauvinistic ethos. As Deats argued: “The world of the play (Othello) certainly depicts a society that authorizes violence as a solution to problems, particularly those involving male honor and male shame” (34). This, however, does not necessarily mean that the author wanted to promote patriarchal values in any way. Quite to the contrary – Othello implies that the actual root of just about every evil within society has to do with the fact that, biologically speaking, people are nothing but “hairless primates” – hence their mental fixation on trying to achieve a dominant social status as something that has the value of a “thing in itself.”

This is exactly the reason why human societies have never ceased being innately stratified along the lines of class, race, and gender since the dawn of time. What this means is that, for as long as they remain “biological” (that is, endowed with physical bodies), individuals will always find an excuse to justify the discriminatory treatment of others.

This particular suggestion also underlies the main idea promoted by Dick throughout his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, thus pointing to the fact that it is indeed appropriate to analyze Dick’s twentieth century science fiction novel in conjunction with Shakespeare’s Othello. After all, as was the case with the racist mistreatment of Othello, there appears to have been no good reason for the novel’s android characters to be hunted down and “retired” (which is to say, killed).

That is, the reason for justifying the adoption of this policy in Dick’s dystopian society had very little rationale behind it: “Synthetic humans are distinguished from ‘real’ humans by a particular form of emotional insufficiency. While they usually do feel, they generally lack abilities to know and understand their feelings, feel in relation to others” (Greenblatt 42). This simply could not be otherwise, as the advocates of the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test never even bothered to specify what the notion of “feeling” stands for in the first place.

Nevertheless, this did not cause them to give any second thoughts as to whether using the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test to identify androids is socially appropriate, especially given the fact that those who tested positively and were identified as androids would be automatically declared “dangerous” and consequently found to be unworthy of living. In other words, the Test’s ultimate purpose as something that had value of its own was to serve the cause of people’s dehumanization: “For one thing, the emphatic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it… Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator (such as a spider)” (Dick 12).

Therefore it makes sense to discuss the discriminatory social policy in Dick’s novel in terms of “speciesism” – the reason why androids have been outlawed on Earth is that they lacked what it takes to be classified as members of the species Homo sapiens.

It must be understood, of course, that the motif of “otherness,” explored in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is essentially Eurocentric. The reason for this is apparent: there is an undeniable parallel between how the futuristic society treats androids in Dick’s novel and the way in which European colonists used to treat “primeval savages” in Africa, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand during the Age of Exploration.

Once a particular individual is classified as “not quite human”, his or her status ends up being reduced to that of a soulless commodity: “He (Rick Deckard)… had never felt any empathy on his own part toward the androids he killed… And he felt instinctively that he was right. Empathy toward an artificial construct? he asked himself. Something that only pretends to be alive?” (Dick 56). Concerning this aspect of the novel, Greenblatt came up with yet another enlightening observation: “In Androids… lack of affect implies the lack of humanity itself… Humanness is read as the foundational requirement for personhood by human societies… humanity’s synthetic others can be enslaved, tortured, and summarily executed because they are not people” (49).

This insight also helps to explain people’s veneration of animals in the novel’s dystopian future, which is a clearly fetishist practice intended to emphasize the higher social status of those who can afford owning “four-legged friends”: “In the novel, animals are treated as commodities rather than as part of living nature with whom humans share being. Thus, the relation becomes alienated and alienating” (Vint 118). It is evident that the author did not have to reach far in order to conceptualize such a future – the contemporary realities of living in the West correlate with the novel’s themes and motifs quite well (Alessio 65).

Thus the actual message conveyed by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is that by setting standards for distinguishing between “humans” and “not quite humans,” the policy’s practitioners expose themselves: they are themselves not entirely human because their willingness to act in such a matter is reflective of their unconscious desire to impose their dominance on others – a clearly atavistic (animalistic) behavioral trait. It matters very little what kind of excuses people resort to while trying to justify their discriminatory treatment of other human beings.

The actual purpose of their preoccupation is always the same: to increase their chance to succeed in sexual mating, ensure access to nutrients, and win dominant status within an environmental niche. This is exactly the type of activity that monkeys preoccupy themselves with at all times. In other words, discrimination is always instituted for the sake of discrimination, with such factors as the color of one’s skin (Othello) or the person’s varying ability to experience the sensation of empathy (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) serving as nothing more than the practice’s formal excuses.

In light of the analytical insights gained here into what can be considered the actual significance of both literary masterpieces, it would be logical to confirm once again that there is indeed a strong discursive link between them. Specifically, Shakespeare’s tragedy and Dick’s novel both promote the idea that it is unjust to discriminate against people due to the unconventional aspects of their physical appearance or psychological makeup. Therefore, there is nothing odd about the lasting popularity of both these works. They both contain a number of valuable clues as to what should be done to ensure humanity’s continued improvement.

The main priority, in this regard, would be to abandon a positivist outlook on the formation of one’s existential self-identity. It is clear that both Othello and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? emanate a strongly humanist spirit – which is the best evidence that these two literary works do in fact interrelate. Because of this, there can be little doubt that Shakespeare’s play and Dick’s novel substantially contributed to promoting the cause of tolerance. This represents the main reason to recommend that these works should continue to be read by anyone interested in learning more about one of the most fundamental principles of how society functions.

Works Cited

Alessio, Dominic. “Redemption, ‘Race’, Religion, Reality, and the Far-Right: Science Fiction Film Adaptations of Philip Dick.” The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic, edited by Will Brooker, Wallflower Press, 2005, pp. 59-76.

Deats, Sara. “From Pedestal to Ditch: Violence Against Women in Shakespeare’s Othello.” The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Deats and Lagretta Lenker, Plenum Press, 1991, pp. 79-93.

Dick, Philip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ballantine Books, 2008.

Greenblatt, Jordana. “’More Human than Human’: ‘Flattening of Affect’, Synthetic Humans, and the Social Construction of Maleness.” English Studies in Canada, vol. 42, no. 1, 2016, pp. 41-63.

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

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Simon & Brown, 2014.

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

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