Othello (Vol. 53)
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.”
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 be to use too strong a phrase; but there is a reluctance to disturb accepted ideas, and a Negro Othello has a greater novelty than the study either of critical writing or of stage history would lead one to expect—as I found when reading Othello with a group of adult students. The edition we were using included a series of critical essays, but none even mentioned Othello's colour; that it was an American publication had an obvious significance.
Eldred Jones's Othello's Countrymen has clearly established the familiarity of the Elizabethans with Negroes, especially in London.1 Traders with West Africa used them as interpreters and often brought a few home as gifts, or for the family household. Thus...
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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 characteristics, of course, help define race, and Othello's black skin and thick lips identify him as a member of the Negroid race, as distinguished from either the Caucasoid or Mongoloid races. The difficulty of determining Othello's specific ethnic background on the basis of textual evidence suggests that those details that relate to race are included for the purpose of lending verisimilitude to the character's black skin color and not for the purpose of describing an ethnic black of any fixed derivation. In this article, I will try, first, to demonstrate the manner in which race is used in the play primarily to support the fact of Othello's black skin color and, second, to suggest a dramaturgical purpose for the character's blackness in light of...
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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 cannot long survive without the verbal and symbolic apparatus that generates and sustains it: the names, the jokes, the plays, the speeches, the casual exchanges, the novels. In short, racism is a cultural virus that is verbally transmitted and its antidote must therefore be verbally administered as well. Othello—along with the many African American texts it has inspired—provides a running record of Western civilization's attempt to confront what Paul Robeson called “the problem of my own people.” Othello, he said, “is a tragedy of racial conflict, a tragedy of honor, rather than jealousy.”3
As such, the play has traumatized African American literature, and indeed Western culture at...
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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 codification of the slave trade, it is not surprising that women of color constitute a largely “invisible” presence in the English Renaissance. In its very title, Elliot Tokson's The Popular Image of the Black Man in English Drama, 1550-1688, a standard work on the subject, announces the absence of black women.2 Another influential text, Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black, devotes very little space to the problem of gender in racial discourse, even in his discussion of the English obsession with fairness.3
In this article, I will use the figure of the black woman as an example for the problematics of the historical study of race and gender. My concerns spring from my own investment in a...
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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?
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 valuable not only in a fishmarket but also as an exotic creature for display at court, “a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat's leather.”1 When Shakespeare was writing Othello, his attraction to Cinthio's narrative about a black Moor in Venice may likewise have been a playwright's recognition that Othello's skin color would give him a “marketable,” spectacular charge on the stage, as a character whose appearance marked him as Other, as having originated somewhere beyond the boundaries of the familiar. Although blacks had appeared on stage in earlier English plays, such roles were still extraordinary in 1604, when Othello was probably first performed.2 The opening scene of the play further...
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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 also by Othello's sensationalized murder of his wife, Desdemona.1 The obstacle facing all such critical readings, as Michael Neill astutely points out, is that the play itself conspicuously denies us (even as it denies Othello) an opportunity to enact “the funeral dignities that usually serve to put a form of [moral] order upon such spectacles of ruins,” creating an “ending [that is] perhaps the most shocking in Shakespearean tragedy” (383-412). Neill concludes that it is the final tragic scene, where “white” Desdemona is murdered and her husband/murderer, “black” Othello, violently avenges her murder—“I took by th’throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus” (5.2.351-52)2—which most...
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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 debunking: before we meet Othello, we are utterly dependent on Iago's and Roderigo's descriptions of him. For the first long minutes of the play, we know only that the Moor, “the thicklips” (1.1.66),1 has done something that Roderigo (like the audience) feels he should have been told about beforehand; we find out what it is for the first time only through Iago's violently eroticizing and racializing report to Brabantio: “Even now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (ll. 88-89).2
At this point in my teaching of the play, I normally point to all the ways in which Othello belies Iago's description as soon as he appears; in the classroom my reading of race in Othello turns on...
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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 any attempt to read back into the early modern period an idea of “race” based on post-Enlightenment taxonomy is doomed to failure.2 To talk about race in Othello is to fall into anachronism; yet not to talk about it is to ignore something fundamental about a play that has rightly come to be identified as a foundational text in the emergence of modern European racial consciousness—a play that trades in constructions of human difference at once misleadingly like and confusingly unlike those twentieth-century notions to which they are nevertheless recognizably ancestral. In the latter part of this paper, I hope to cast some light on Shakespeare's treatment of what came to be called “race” by exploring...
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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 having black skin but looking at the world through blue eyes—seeing oneself and others through the distorting lenses of white racism. One result of this, Walcott tells us, is “racial despair,”2 despondency over the possibilities for accomplishment, for change, fulfillment, a good life—what the Greeks called eudaimonia. Racial despair is a secular descendent of spiritual despair. The latter results from a sense that one's sin is too great even for all-merciful God to forgive, that this sin blots out one's soul. The former results from a sense that one's skin is too black for anyone to accept—to forget or to “forgive”—that one's skin blots out one's soul.
This, I wish to argue, is the tragedy of...
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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 Shakespeare's Othello on Broadway. Because of his biological heritage, Robeson was perceived as being more ‘real’ as the Moor than a white actor in blackface. Robeson's performance in the longest-running Shakespeare production ever staged on Broadway thus revolutionized the way many people felt about its hero.
As public reaction to Webster's Othello demonstrated, a play in performance is both a maker and a transmitter of cultural codes; it is necessarily imbricated in the broader discourses that surround it. Shakespearians concerned with the history of performance must determine the nature of those discourses and how they shaped the text's reception and transmission. For the history of Othello, especially, the...
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Criticism: Gender Issues
SOURCE: “Othello: Women and ‘Woman’,” in Atlantis, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 1-8.
[In the essay below, Sturrock examines Shakespeare's attack on anti-feminist propaganda, arguing that in Othello Shakespeare urges the audience to recognize the worth of the individual.]
It hath ever beene a common custome amongst Idle, and humerous Poets, Pamphleters, and Rimers, out of passionate discontents, or having little otherwise to imploy themselves about, to write some bitter Satire-Pamphlet, or Rime against women: in which argument he who could devise anything more bitterly, or spitefully, against our sexe hath never wanted the liking, allowance and applause of giddy-headed people.1
Women in Shakespeare's England, as in the England of the Wife of Bath and Janekin, were among the easiest and commonest targets of satire. According to Louis B. Wright in his Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England, the increasingly active role of women during this period “aroused the ire of conservatives, who vented their displeasure in pulpit and pamphlet.”2 The mid-16th century publication of The School-House of Women (1542?)3 renewed the arguments for and against women which continued throughout the rest of the century. In the early years of the next century, partly through the license given by King...
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SOURCE: “Marriage and Mutuality in Othello,” in Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 125-49.
[In the essay below, Novy considers patriarchy in the marriage of Othello and Desdemona.]
In an article entitled “Marriage and the Construction of Reality,” the sociologists Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner say, “Unlike an earlier situation in which the establishment of the new marriage simply added to the differentiation and complexity of an already existing social world, the marriage partners are now embarked on the often difficult task of constructing for themselves the little world in which they will live.”1 By this definition, Othello and Desdemona seem to begin their marriage in a situation more modern than traditional. Othello is cut off from his ancestry; Desdemona is disowned by her father. They spend most of the play in Cyprus, a setting native to neither of them. Thus they have some of both the opportunities and the difficulties of constructing their own world that Berger and Kellner discuss. “The re-construction of the world in marriage,” they continue, “occurs principally in the course of conversation. … The implicit problem of this conversation is how to match two individual definitions of reality.”2
Marriage for Berger and Kellner, as, I have argued, for Shakespeare's...
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SOURCE: “Othello's Occupation: Shakespeare and the Romance of Chivalry,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 15, No. 3, Autumn, 1985, pp. 293-311.
[In the following essay, Rose discusses the role of chivalry in Othello.]
O now, for ever Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content! Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell! Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife, The royal banner, and all quality, Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war! And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats Th’ immortal Jove's dread clamors counterfeit, Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone.(1)
Othello's adieus to tranquility and content at the start of this speech evoke something more like the pastoral than the military ideal. Even when the imagery becomes explicitly military in the evocation of the “plumed troops” and the “big wars” there is a subtle continuity with the opening pastoralism. Here the lines suggest a transformation in which “ambition,” which is a vice in a world defined by pastoral content, becomes a “virtue” in a martial context—that is, both a positive good, and in the archaic sense of virtu, a source of strength. Moreover, the static quality of “plumed troops” and “big wars” is compatible with the feeling the lines convey that something like...
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Criticism: Language And Imagery
SOURCE: “Obeying the Time in Othello: A Myth and the Mess It Made,” in English Studies, Vol. 73, No. 3, June, 1992, pp. 211-28.
[In the following essay, Bradshaw explores whether Othello consummates his marriage to Desdemona, examining the element of timing in the play.]
Although it is factitious and distracting, the theory or myth of ‘double time’ is still respectfully trundled out in every modern scholarly edition of Othello, even the most recent.1 It has been as long-lived as Nahum Tate's adaptation of King Lear, which held the stage for a century and a half, and, like that adaptation, deserves to be firmly laid to rest. It betrays its bad nineteenth century provenance in three different (though related) ways. First, it expects Shakespearean poetic drama to repay an approach which (as C.P. Sanger's examination of the handling of time in Wuthering Heights famously showed) is more appropriate to mid-nineteenth century novels; this, as Jane Adamson crisply put it, leads ‘our attention away from Othello's obsession, towards the kind of details that might obsess an Inspector from Scotland Yard’.2 Secondly, it is bardolatrous, and offends against what Richard Levin has called the undiscussed principle of Knowing When to Give Up.3 For although the theory describes and depends on what is unashamedly called a ‘trick’, which makes a...
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SOURCE: “Putting Out the Light: Semantic Indeterminacy and the Deconstitution of Self in Othello,” in English Studies, Vol. 75, No. 2, March, 1994, pp. 110-22.
[In the essay below, Lucking explores Othello's attempts to assess and define his identity.]
One of the cardinal tenets underpinning contemporary theory in the fields of linguistics, semiotics and literary criticism is that enunciated in Saussure's famous assertion that the relation between signifier and signified is an arbitrary one. Although this intuition is by now indelibly associated with the author of its most celebrated formulation, very clear anticipations of the notion can be detected in the literature of preceding centuries.1 While the statements to which I am referring are predominantly philosophical in character, in the case of certain works the arbitrary nature of signification does not constitute a theoretical problem only, but is conceived instead as entailing potentially far-reaching consequences for all human beings. We are constrained to use signs in order to compose experience and render it intelligible but, because the signs we employ are only contingently related to the world we seek to impose them on, a radical incongruity between the sign and its referent can make itself felt at any moment. And because as culturally constituted beings we inhabit a world of signification, within the framework of which we...
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Criticism: Social Background
SOURCE: “Venetian Culture and the Politics of Othello,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 48, 1995, pp. 123-33.
[In the following essay, Matheson explores Shakespeare's concept of life in Venice as portrayed in Othello.]
In Othello Shakespeare represents a society in many ways fundamentally different from his own, and rather than minimizing or obscuring these differences he explores them in a politically creative way. The play is a powerful illustration of his ability to perceive and represent different forms of political organization, and to situate personal relationships and issues of individual subjectivity in a specific institutional context. Here and in much of his other work Shakespeare displays what might be described as a sociological imagination. He portrays in Othello not a feudal monarchy or Renaissance court but an enduring Italian city-state, a republic which continued to survive despite growing Habsburg domination in the rest of the peninsula. Taken in the context of his career as a whole the play is a fascinating example of Shakespeare's interest in republicanism, which is evident from ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ to The Tempest. It provides clear evidence that he was neither an uncritical advocate of conservative Tudor ideology, as an older critical tradition maintained, nor a writer materially unable to think and imagine beyond the monarchical paradigm, as a more...
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Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 433-54.
Compares Shakespeare's treatment of Moors in Titus Andronicus and Othello, arguing that dominant Renaissance racial views were contested in Othello.
Cantor, Paul A. “Othello: The Erring Barbarian among the Supersubtle Venetians.” Southwest Review 75, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 296–319.
Traces Othello’s struggle between the domestic world of Venice and his past as a warrior and outsider.
Cohen, Derek. “Othello's Suicide.” University of Toronto Quarterly 62, No. 3 (Spring 1993): 323-33.
Links Othello's suicide to his ultimate capitulation to the dominant Venetian society.
Ghazoul, Ferial J. “The Arabization of Othello.” Comparative Literature 50, No. 1 (Winter 1998): 1–31.
Discusses Arab reactions to and interpretations of Othello.
Grennan, Eamon. “The Women's Voices in Othello: Speech, Song, Silence.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38, No. 3 (Autumn 1997): 275-92.
Argues the importance of the female voices in Othello and posits that their speeches play a pivotal role in creating the play's moral...
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