Study Guide

Othello

by William Shakespeare

Othello Essay - Othello (Vol. 53)

Othello (Vol. 53)

Introduction

Othello

See also, Othello Criticism and volumes 68 and 89.

Critics have not formed any sort of consensus about the role of race in Othello, despite the fact that the topic of racism continues to be one of the most predominant issues in modern scholarship about the play. Some commentators have held that Othello is not about racism, that Othello is essentially white, or that his race is irrelevant. This position, rather popular among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics, including Charles Lamb and A. C. Bradley, has sparked numerous responses among modern critics who maintain emphatically that race is the essential element of the play. Scholars who assign primacy to race in Othello can be divided roughly into three categories. Critics such as John Gillies, for instance, argue that Shakespeare was upholding the racist views of the Renaissance, and that the play advocates racism. Conversely, other critics, among them Martin Orkin and Emily C. Bartels, state that Shakespeare, through his sympathetic portrayal of Othello, was critiquing racism, and taking his society to task for its racist behavior. Finally, Michael Neill (1998) and other scholars argue that it is anachronistic to apply modern ideas of racism to an earlier period. These scholars maintain that Shakespeare and his audience would have understood race, a cultural construct, in a wholly different way than we do today.

Other theorists offer additional nuances to the analysis of race in Othello. Several feminist scholars, among them Karen Newman and Marianne Novy (1984), explore the relationship of gender and race. Newman's argument that Desdemona and Othello are scorned equally by Venetian society, and that Othello's race and Desdemona's freely expressed sexuality represent the same threat to the dominant white male society, has sparked a heated debate. In a second significant development of theory, such scholars as Paul A. Cantor and Emily C. Bartels, apply anthropologists' concepts of “Self” and “Other” to Othello. They argue that Shakespeare wanted to distinguish Othello from the rest of the play's cast, to set him apart, in order to make a point about society's propensity to vilify those who are not like the “Self.” Cantor maintains that the issue of race is a means unto an end for Shakespeare, allowing the playwright to create an opportunity for the dominant society to isolate, ridicule, even destroy Othello, and through the telling of the story Shakespeare warns the audience against such behavior. Many of these critiques liken the role of Othello with that of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

A third trend in modern studies of the play is the examination of the ramifications of Othello across time and among different ethnicities. Critics explore the history of the play's production from the Renaissance (when people of color were relatively unknown to the audience), through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (the height of the slave trade and institutionalized racism), and into the twentieth century with its move toward greater racial tolerance. Ferial J. Ghazoul studies Othello's influence on Arab culture and literature; Jyotsna Singh's work focuses on the impact of Othello on African and Asian writers. James R. Andreas (1992) compares the work of three twentieth-century writers who have manipulated the plot of Othello to highlight personal concerns about race in their society. Andreas concludes that “the play itself seems to incriminate Western society at large for its predisposition to the periodic, ritual slaughter of marginal and aboriginal groups and all whites—especially women—who consort with them.”

Criticism: Race

Ruth Cowhig (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The Importance of Othello's Race,” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XII, No. 2, December, 1977, pp. 153-61.

[In the following essay, Cowhig argues that race is essential to the meaning of Othello.]

There has recently been general agreement amongst critics that Shakespeare conceived of Othello as a Negro, and not as the tawny Arab on whom Coleridge insisted with such vehemence. But there is a considerable gap between critical opinion and the ideas and assumptions that linger on, even when people have some degree of specialized interest. It is more than usually so where Othello's colour is concerned. To speak of a conspiracy of silence might...

(The entire section is 3923 words.)

Phyllis Natalie Braxton (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Othello: The Moor and the Metaphor,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, November, 1990, pp. 1-17.

[In the essay below, Braxton contends that Othello is not a play about race, and suggests “a dramaturgical purpose for the character's blackness. …”]

Although the circumstance of Othello's blackness is often assumed to embody a racial problem, as in K. W. Evans's assertion in “The Racial Factor in Othello” that “no analysis of the play can be adequate if it ignores the factor of race” (125), Shakespeare's play itself demonstrates that Othello's color outweighs in significance the element of race.1 Physical...

(The entire section is 7223 words.)

James R. Andreas (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Othello's African American Progeny,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, November, 1992, pp. 39-57.

[In the essay below, Andreas compares Othello, Richard Wright's Native Son, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Amiri Baraka's Dutchmanin order to discuss myths and cultural conceptions of race.]

Derrida writes; “There’s no racism without a language.”1 I take this to mean that racism—and all the violence historically associated with it—is generated by language. Racial difference is not genetically “real,” nor is it grounded in real experience but is a product of verbal conditioning.2 Racism...

(The entire section is 8251 words.)

Kim Hall (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Reading What Isn’t There: ‘Black’ Studies in Early Modern England,” in Stanford Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 23-33.

[In the following essay, Hall examines the figure of the black woman in order to show the “problematics of the historical study of race and gender.”]

It is particularly difficult to “attend” to racial difference in early modern England.1 Given the lessening but still widely held assumption, that “race” is not a viable category of analysis not only in the early modern period, but for literature in general, added to the distressing lack of data on people of color in England before the...

(The entire section is 5872 words.)

James R. Aubrey (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Race and the Spectacle of the Monstrous in Othello,” in CLIO, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 221-38.

[In the essay below, Aubrey attempts to show that Shakespeare's construction of Othello's character would have “engaged such popular associations of blacks with monsters and thereby would have intensified audience responses to early performances.”]

Whoever believed in the Ethiopians before actually seeing them?

Pliny

Near the end of The Tempest, Antonio jests that the monster Caliban “is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable.” As an earlier remark in the play makes clear, however, Caliban would be...

(The entire section is 6254 words.)

Margo Hendricks (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “‘The Moor of Venice,’ or The Italian on the Renaissance English Stage,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 193-209.

[In the following essay, Hendricks explores the importance of Venice as the play's setting, and proposes that Venice is “a crucial yet often critically neglected racial persona in Othello.]

A number of critics have read Othello principally with an eye toward illuminating the moral sense of the problematic racial and sexual politics engendered not only by the play's depiction of what is viewed as an interracial marriage but...

(The entire section is 6583 words.)

Janet Adelman (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Iago's Alter Ego: Race as Projection in Othello,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 125-44.

[In the following essay, Adelman discusses Iago's role in corrupting Othello's views on race and sexuality.]

Othello famously begins not with Othello but with Iago. Other tragedies begin with ancillary figures commenting on the character who will turn out to be at the center of the tragedy—one thinks of Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra—but no other play subjects its ostensibly tragic hero to so long and intensive a debunking before he even sets foot onstage. And the audience is inevitably complicit in this...

(The entire section is 12588 words.)

Michael Neill (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘Mulattos,’ ‘Blacks,’ and ‘Indian Moors’: Othello and Early Modern Constructions of Human Difference,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 361-74.

[In the following essay, Neill discusses the contradictory significance of race in Othello.]

“I think this play is racist, and I think it is not”:1 Virginia Vaughan's perplexed response to Othello is symptomatic of the problems faced by late-twentieth-century critics in approaching the racial dimensions of Shakespeare's play. For if the work of recent scholars has taught us anything about early modern constructions of human difference, it is that...

(The entire section is 8383 words.)

Patrick C. Hogan (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Othello, Racism, and Despair,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XLI, No. 4, June, 1998, pp. 431-51.

[In the essay below, Hogan argues that race is a central issue in Othello, stating that Shakespeare opposed racism because it was not Christian.]

In the middle of this century, in the context of the anticolonial struggles being waged throughout Africa and the Caribbean, writers such as Frantz Fanon explored the effects of racism on the minds and hearts of those black men and women who came to internalize the inhuman attitudes of their oppressors, conceiving of themselves in the same brutish terms.1 More recently, Derek Walcott has spoken of...

(The entire section is 6579 words.)

Virginia Mason Vaughan (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Race Mattered: Othello in Late Eighteenth-Century England,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 51, 1998, pp. 57-66.

[In the following essay, Vaughan provides insight into the seemingly irreconcilable popularity of Othello among eighteenth-century audiences during a time of tense racial debates.]

‘When Paul Robeson stepped onto the stage for the very first time’, Margaret Webster recalled, ‘when he spoke his very first line, he immediately, by his very presence, brought an incalculable sense of reality to the entire play.’1 That reality emanated from Robeson's status as the first actor of African descent to impersonate...

(The entire section is 4456 words.)