Although Othello has frequently been praised as William Shakespeare’s most unified tragedy, many critics have found the central character to be the most unheroic of Shakespeare’s heroes. Some have found him stupid beyond redemption; others have described him as a passionate being overwhelmed by powerful emotion; still others have found him self-pitying and insensitive to the enormity of his actions. Yet all of these denigrations pale before the excitement and sympathy generated for the noble soldier in the course of the play.
As a Moor, or black man, Othello is an exotic, a foreigner from a fascinating and mysterious land. He is passionate, but he is not devoid of sensitivity. Rather, his problem is that he is thrust into the sophisticated and highly cultivated context of Renaissance Italy, a land that in the England of Shakespeare’s time had a reputation for connivance and intrigue. Shakespeare uses the racial difference to many effects: most obviously, to emphasize Othello’s difference from the society in which he finds himself and to which he allies himself through marriage; more subtly and ironically to heighten his tragic stance against the white Iago, the embodiment of evil in the play. More than anything, Othello is “natural man” confronted with the machinations and contrivances of an overly civilized society. His instincts are to be loving and trusting, but he is cast into a society where these natural virtues would have made...
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