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The issue of racial prejudice Research Paper


The play of Othello has been one closely bound up with the question of race and racism. It is the underlying issue of racial prejudice in Venetian society that influences Iago’s plot against Othello, a prejudice both Othello and Desdemona are much aware of its existence. Desdemona denies prejudice in her own life. Her focus is only her love, of which she is loyal in preserving. However, Othello is not aware of how deep the issue of Elizabethan prejudice has conquered his own personality.

Prejudice makes Othello undermine himself by saying “I am not attractive”. “I am not worthy of Desdemona”. “It cannot be true that she really loves me,” and “If she loves me, then there must be something wrong with her” (Shakespeare 72). Such thoughts prevent Othello from discussing the matter with Desdemona, so he acts with the panicked assumptions under the influence of Iago’s lies and hints.

Surviving the Elizabethan’s prejudice requires Othello to be near perfect in strength and knowledge. For instance, Iago explicitly refers to Othello with a vulgar prejudice by asserting that “These Moors are changeable in their wills…” (Shakespeare 30). We cannot ignore this assertion Iago makes about Othello. This vulgar prejudice against Othello is what readers can sustain as the truth about racial prejudice during Elizabethan period (Graham 23).

Other critics consider Othello as one of the finest achievements of Shakespeare, but also as one of the most scandalous plays causing discomfort to both readers and viewers. Some critics argue that Shakespeare made a mistake by making a “Moor” his central character because only white characters could be tragic heroes.

Others argue that Shakespeare was only expressing the values of Elizabethans regarding race issue, which he thought was an offensive portrayal of black people during his times. At the same time, other critics believe that Shakespeare was deliberately exposing the issue of racial prejudice of his fellow countrymen by representing a black tragic hero.

Shakespeare’s characters are among the racist in Elizabethan period. They frequently use the word “black” to refer to Othello. For instance, Iago compares Othello to “an old black ram” (Shakespeare 5). This portrays the perceptions of Elizabethans toward black race. Elizabethans see black people as animals that do not possess human civility, but animalistic instincts. Brabanzio prejudices against black race due to their skin color.

Consequently, he is unable to trust his own daughter’s association with Othello because it goes against his opinion concerning foreign race. Brabanzio reasserts his prejudice judgment by using the word “fear” to reflect his idea about blacks i.e. blacks are savage and uncivilized persons. Brabanzio goes further to substitute Othello’s dignity by referring to him as a “thing”.

At the same time, Desdemona must justify why she must marry a “Moor”. The white society does not accept racial marriages. When Desdemona asserts that she saw Othello in her mind, it means that she must rationalize and validate her love to Othello in her mind and not her heart.

Iago tells Othello that Desdemona as his wife is so unnatural to the point that she refused “many proposed matches …… Of her own clime, complexion, and degree” (Shakespeare 70).

ago uses these descriptions on Othello to invoke a sense of fear, evil, savageness and racial inferiority of the blacks. The culture of the whites portrays black race as degenerated and uncivilized. Othello must act within the limits of a racist society to deal with the alleged infidelity of Desdemona (Adelman 45).

The Elizabethan definitions and identity of the “Moor” varied. They used the term to refer to blacks or someone outside their race. Therefore, any other race outside the white’s society was insignificant. Iago vulgarly refers to Othello as a “Barbary horse”. Elizabethans used the term “black” in reference to “Moor”, black or any other person with Arabic origins. Iago refers to Othello with derogative terms because of his skin pigmentation and his growing love and desire for a white woman.

We can conclude that racial prejudice rotates around racial sexual union of Othello and Desdemona. Characters consider Othello as honorable and admirable person. However, Iago mixes sexual and race issues so as to find ways of attacking Othello from all sides. Therefore, Elizabethans use black’s physical features to define Othello’s identity.

Importance of race in the play

Racial prejudice marks the watershed in this play. The significance of Othello’s race and pigmentation work hard to expose racial prejudice in the Elizabethan era. This forces the audience not to see Othello as a stereotyped Moor, but as a tragic hero. The tragic event perpetuated by Iago transform Othello into what Iago wants him to be. This makes the play creates some discomfort among white audience.

Shakespeare links race, prejudice and sex issues in order to create a web of tragedies. The play exposes the whites’ fear of miscegenation and mingling of races through Othello. Shakespeare is using the Moor to challenge the ideologies of race, sex and miscegenation in the Elizabethan period. The play stirs the audience sympathy through representation of the love of a white woman for a black man (Hadfield 30).

This was a taboo during the Elizabethan era with the fear of mixed-race offspring. A suitable scenario comes out through Roderigo when he tells Desdemona’s father that, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you” (Shakespeare 29).

Cultural treatment of foreigners

The descriptions other characters use in reference to Othello lead the audience to believe that Elizabethan people treated foreigners with a difference. Other characters use a number of culturally stereotyped names to refer to Othello. For instance, Emilia refers to Othello as the “Moor” by saying “The Moor’s abus’d by some outrageous knave…… And made you to suspect me with the Moor” (Shakespeare 30).

Such references make the readers conceive the story as one filled with stereotyped treatment of the Negros during Shakespeare’s period. The racist descriptions permeate the play throughout as evident in Roderigo and Iago.

However, as Shakespeare develops his character, Othello, we realize that some characters around him treat him as an equal. Othello has a rich history of ancestry. We must see Othello as a Negro, but as a high and courteous Moorish chief. In other words, Shakespeare counteracts the Moorish references by developing the traits of Othello so that readers may forget his skin color.

Later, Shakespeare presents Othello as a civilized, master of language, respected and above all, capable of passion beyond race. As the play closes, we realize that it is not all about race, but a story of a tragic character who commits a tragic act of murder.

It is critical to note that the play starts in darkness. Strangely, the characters do not use Othello’s name in reference to him. Readers can only guess who could be “the black ram” through the terms other characters use in reference to Othello. The reference to the terms Moor, thick lips and a Barbary horse equate Othello to an animal. Roderigo sees the union between Othello and Desdemona as an act which will only results into a creation of a “beast with two backs” (Shakespeare, 29).

We know that horses have wide lips, and by saying that the grandson will be a half-horse because of the “animal blood” in Othello is an extreme act of sex and racial prejudice cultural treatment of foreigners. Readers only have hints of Othello through references to animals Roderigo and Iago make. We can draw a conclusion between the Moor and animals. Roderigo and Iago make references to animals. They demonstrate that the Moors lack civility, and are half-human creatures that can only fit the definition of animals.

Brabanzio experiences confusion at his daughter’s affair with the foreigner, the Moor. Thoughts and fear carry Brabanzio away to conclude that Othello is using the black magic and witches to lure Desdemona. It is equally fascinating to note that Brabanzio makes such remarks before even knowing the identity of Othello.

He only relies on the descriptions Iago and Roderigo give Othello. The Elizabethans associated the dark and savage to black people’s magic. Since Othello is a “Moor”, Brabanzio laments, and wonders how Desdemona could have fallen in love with him “against all rules of nature” (Shakespeare 31).

Brabanzio takes it to the extreme by wondering how his daughter could have fallen “in love with that she feared to look” (Shakespeare 31). This reference gives readers ideas how Shakespeare’s contemporaries treated foreigners. In other words, sexual union between blacks and whites was against the law of nature during the Elizabethan period (Sanders 66).

Brabanzio uses some of the strongest remarks to define foreigners. Elizabethan considers different races that access the white’s society as pagans and bondslaves. For instance, Brabanzio asserts that “For if such actions may have passage free, bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (Shakespeare 32).

Readers conclude that the Elizabethan did not recognize the existence of black men as true men. The whites regarded the Moors as bondslaves and pagans with no place in their white society. However, as Shakespeare continues to develop his tragic hero, Brabanzio changes his notion about Othello. Shakespeare presents the Moor as a refined character who speaks, acts and dresses as whites do. He also portrays the outstanding leadership qualities of Othello.

Audiences begin to understand that Othello is no different from other white characters, except for the color of his skin. A part from Iago, Roderigo and other evil characters who characteristically refer to Othello as the Moor, the rest of the characters treats him with respect and call him the valiant Moor. This reference makes Othello’s race a significant part of him: a part which is rich in history and quite glorified.

The cultural context of Othello

When the play opens, it is hard for readers to imagine that the play will revolve around the issue of race. However, the cultural context of the tragic hero, Othello reveals that he does not compare to any racist terms other characters use to describe him.

In order to erase the issue of race in a cultural context of his hero, Shakespeare cleverly develops his character to counteract the savagery and uncivilized terms racist characters use in reference to Othello. It is obvious that Othello does not fit any of the descriptions his enemies impose on him.

For instance, when Othello advices his battalion to watch their swords reveals a deep personality of cultivated and intelligent man. Othello says “Keep your bright swords, for the dew will rust them. Good signor you have more command with your years than with your weapons” (Shakespeare12). These lines draw the readers’ attention to the civility and gentleness of Othello. Readers wonder whether to judge Othello from the stereotyped and prejudiced point of view of Iago and Roderigo or use Othello’s words to judge him.

Othello must prove himself as a truly civilized Moor before the white society. Some readers easily follow the assumptions Iago and Rederigo claim about Othello. Readers cannot judge Othello from the words of characters with ulterior motives. Iago and Roderigo lack credibility to provide substantial information regarding Othello. This makes his opinion insignificant to the reader since they are cruel and baseless.

Shakespeare presents a tragic hero who is humble. Othello recognizes that he is different from other characters in terms of skin color and speech. Othello says that “Rude am I in speech… And little blessed with the soft phrase of speech” (Shakespeare 13). This humble act of humility defines Othello’s character throughout the play. Othello recognizes that he is racially different from whites, but not racially mediocre character to them. Shakespeare asserts the fact that the “other race” can rise above whites and be their hero.

The cultural context of Othello is one full of fascinating history. Othello woos a lover and friends alike with his rich cultural background and stories of heroism. They want to hear more and more of his fascinating tales. This creates a sense of admiration in Othello among some of his white admirers.

It is this rich and exotic history of heroism which is lacking in whites’ society. The fascinating history makes the Duke to admit that his daughter would have fallen for such a story. Othello is using his cultural background to his advantage and never admits that his race is inferior to any.

Throughout the play, comments of animal and savagery follow Othello. When Othello murders Desdemona, he uses the term base India to refer to himself. This barbarous act of brutality leaves the readers wondering whether Othello is a true civilized person or is an animal. This is the only instance where Othello puts is cultural orientation into a negative focus.

The fundamental issue for readers to ponder is whether Othello is a beast or a civilized person. Readers wonder whether Iago and Roderigo have been right all along about the civility of Othello. Like most of Shakespeare’s tragic characters, we realize that Othello is man, regardless of race, trapped in a web of deceit and evil plots.

Whether White or black, anybody is capable of murder, in a brutal manner, of course. Therefore, the issue of race inferiority is secondary to this play. Shakespeare demonstrates that racial prejudice has some of the most negative consequences, especially if people harbor ulterior motive against others.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Iago’s alter ego: race as projection in Othello. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Graham, Bradshaw. Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialis. New York: Cornell University Press, 1993. Print.

Hadfield, Andrew. A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on William Shakespeare’s Othello. New york: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Sanders, Norman. Othello: The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Othello: Cliff Notes. Chicago: IDG Books Worldwide, 2000. Print.

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