How are Shakespeare's Othello, Lucifer from Paradise Lost, and Aphra Behn's Oroonoko examples of marginalized characters?    

Expert Answers
Jacob Christiansen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare was a master of writing marginalized characters that are incredibly human, especially given the writing done by other playwrights during his life. Examples of this are Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and, functionally, all of his principal women characters. 

Othello is one of the most accessible examples of this because racial prejudice, especially against African Americans, is still a very prevalent part of today's society. 

In the play, Othello is marginalized because of the color of his skin. Here are two ways this occurs:

  1. Animal Images: Othello is called an "old black ram" (I.i) by Iago. All of the animal comparisons Iago uses to identify Othello play on the stereotype of the time that black people have wild, animal-like hyper-sexuality. Or, even worse, that they are less than human. Later, Iago will call Othello a "Barbary horse" (I.i).
  2. Desdemona's Unnatural Love: Desdemona is a young white woman who has fallen in love with Othello. However, her family cannot accept that she would have fallen in love with a black man! This love, they say, is "against all rules of nature" (I.iii) and a "judgment maimed" (I.iii). How could she have fallen for someone she "feared to look on" (I.iii)?

Despite all the horrible treatment Othello endures, the play is actually quite forward-thinking because it presents these racist opinions as wrong. Othello is actually an upstanding military general, well-respected and deserving of his rank and honors.

Next, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.

Oroonoko is an African prince who is captured and becomes a slave. The racial tensions he faces are similar to those faced by Shakespeare’s Othello. The white English view the Africans as total savages. And why not? They hear stories all the time of how the Africans “cut into pieces all they could take, getting into houses and hanging up the mother and all her children about her.”

Behn, much like Shakespeare, does not continue in the stereotyping of her day. She presents Oroonoko as an intelligent, controlled person—a real person. He is described in contrast to the savagery around him, even in his physical features. (“His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat.”) In fact, Oroonoko is such a great example of an English gentleman that the white society around him seems savage by comparison. Oroonoko’s marginalization is largely by this society. He struggles to find a place in it given the color of his skin.

However, it is important to remember that Oroonoko is not as heroic as he seems. He, an African, sold slaves long before he was captured as one.

Lastly, let's examine Lucifer from Paradise Lost.

Lucifer's marginalization is subtler than Othello's or Oroonoko’s. Before he attempted to overthrow God, Lucifer lived in Heaven, where all angels were equally treated and equally loved. How could he have felt marginalized?

The answer is that Lucifer creates his own marginalization. His absolute pride and desire cause him to be cast out of Heaven to Earth, which he originally thinks is more beautiful. If he could have accepted his place in Heaven, Lucifer would not have faced being a literal outcast.

Also examine Lucifer's language. It sets him apart from the character of God. Lucifer speaks in beautiful, almost Shakespearean dialogue. He is interesting and bold, like Iago from Othello or an evil Hamlet. God, by contrast, is a boring authoritarian. Which character are we more likely to sympathize with?

Thus, we’re left to wonder if Lucifer is actually the hero of the story. Was he thrown out of Heaven (quite evocatively marginalized by God) for being interesting? For wanting more than God was willing to offer?

Read the study guide:
Paradise Lost

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question