Othello: The Racial Issues in the Play

Anybody who has gone through the works of Shakespeare, or even a little bit of it, can never forget the immortal characters created by him. No wonder anybody who has heard the name of Shakespeare has heard the name of ‘Othello, the Moore of Venice’, the main character of his tragic play which was named also after the main character, Othello (Rose 293-311). Othello as a play has many colors painted on it, almost all the colors which one can see around a man’s life in very recent days too. However, the most prominent color that comes out of the play is the issue of skin color or racism, as we call it today. This play evokes the essence of racial tension all over the text and it is racism, primarily, that incorporates jealousy among the characters and drives the play towards its eventuality. This is not a racist play but it possesses all the ingredients of racial conflict.

The main character of the noted Shakespearean play ‘Othello, the Moore of Venice’ is Othello, a General of the Venetian army who was Moorish in origin. The play portrays love, jealousy, conspiracy, betrayal, and racism, none of which is irrelevant in today’s world. All these colors together make Othello so relevant that the character fits the mental frame of today’s generation easily. A character like Lago is very much familiar in today’s world, which can go down to any level of conspiracy and betrayal to take revenge, lie to everybody to make them a puppet of his hands to serve his purpose, and use people’s emotions to satisfy his jealousy. But just as he revokes hatred in one’s mind, Othello finds a place of sympathy in people’s minds in spite of killing his wife out of suspicion. People feel for Othello deeply and Othello forces us to think, think about his agonies (Boose 360-374). The agony has its base in racial tension and the ultimate demise is the result of racial bias among the chief negative characters.

Othello possesses a distinct underlying touch of racism revolving around the play. First of all, Othello, the main character, “has been described as a Moor, a term use to refer to the dark-skinned people by the European people in general” (Rose 293-311). The term was often confused with Arab people also. The term reflects hatred for dark or black skin irrespective of the country to which the owner of the skin belongs. That could refer to any part of the world which was different from Europe and to any people who did not have snow white skin. Othello himself has been made to comment on his dark skin in the play such as “Haply for I am black” (Shakespeare 837). He found no other comparison to make with Desdemona’s imaginary adultery to express the immense depth of her sin except “black as mine own face”. Desdemona’s beauty and her white skin have been described in the play to contrast Othello’s black skin such that it appeared darker, “that whiter skin of hers than snow” (Shakespeare 852).

Lago has also shown his racial mind frame while commenting about Othello and he did not have any regard for his master. Though it is very much expected from a man like him to lack any kind of respect for the man under whom he worked, his disgust appears greater because he had to take commands from a man who was inferior to him regarding his skin color. He complained to Brabantio regarding his daughter’s elopement with Othello saying “an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe” (Shakespeare 819). It is him who referred to Othello as a barbarian. This gives an idea that Othello might have been originated with the inspiration from “Tawny” Othello.

Moors inhabited the coast of Barbary. Lago was so much in rage with Othello that he blasted out saying “hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (Shakespeare 825). Roderigo also called Othello’s thick lips as an insult to him which gives an idea that Othello might have physically resembled sub – Saharan African people (Boose 360-374). Other characters who make racial comments are Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, and though for once only Emilia, Desdemona’s maid. Brabantio, out of rage, called Othello “lascivious moor” (Shakespeare 819). He did not accept his daughter’s relations with Othello. Emilia never made any comments to Othello throughout as he was her ‘Lord’ but lashed out at him on learning that he had killed Desdemona by saying “the more angel she, And you the blacker devil” (Shakespeare 854). She had never accepted that a beautiful white lady like Desdemona had married a black man like Othello.

The play Othello depicts the war between good and evil. Everywhere it is common to depict bad as black and good as white. But here Shakespeare has depicted it differently. Othello, the man with black skin represents the good, and Lago, the man with white skin represents evil. Othello has been shown as a great brave general. Still, then it is unfortunate that he has been marked as inferior in the society of white men. He has shown as a brave man, but his level of intelligence has been looked down upon, and he is also shown as an extremely impulsive man as an evil character like Lago has been able to cheat him constantly and was able to use him just like a puppet. It is quite strange that a clever general who was so strong in political position and achieved so much success through his own efforts could be tricked so easily by his ensign (Rose 293-311). Othello also believed his ensign so much that he lost all belief in his love. He did not think twice before suspecting his love and killing his wife. He had lost his humane nature due to the shock from the notion that his wife had betrayed him, but he has been portrayed as such a savage man probably to paint nature as a man who is different from the white people. It is debatable that had Othello been white if he had believed his wife or not but it points out the lack of sense of a black man who doesn’t make further investigations before taking such a drastic step (Boose 360-374).

Though it possesses a lot of racial elements the aim of the play by Shakespeare was not to spread any racist message. But he had definitely tried to make a statement that the union of a black and a white person in that society of his time was not possible. Even if that union took place it would get ruined, either naturally or by people like Lago as the black and white union was considered as completely wrong by the then society.

References

Boose, Lynda. Othello s Handkerchief: “The Recognizance and Pledge of Love”. English Literary Renaissance, 5.3, (1974): 360-374.

Rose, Mark. Othello’s Occupation: Shakespeare and the Romance of Chivalry. English Literary Renaissance, 35.7, (2009): 293-311.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Vol. 11. Auckland: Classic Books Company, 2001.