Was Othello treated better than African Americans were treated before the Civil Rights movement?  

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I have to admit: I think this is rather a strange question, but maybe helpful in looking at the way in which race is a determinant of how much power and privilege one is allowed to have in certain societies, particularly in the United States.

In Shakespeare's eponymous play, Othello is a Moor living in Venice during the Renaissance. Othello is in a position of significant power and respect. He is a commander, yet he is duped by his ensign and supposed friend, Iago, into believing that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him with another soldier, his lieutenant Cassio. Iago resents Cassio for being promoted to lieutenant, despite Cassio's inexperience. He also resents Othello for choosing Cassio over him, and may also resent the fact that Othello, a blackamoor, has the power to make such decisions in the first place.

Prior to Othello, blackamoors were simplistically drawn characters, always associated with villainy. The idea for the play comes out of a collection of tales called The Hundred Tales written by Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi and first published in 1565. Shakespeare includes additional characters, such as Desdemona's father who is opposed to her marriage to Othello. According to Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, he also includes "military action between Turkey and Venice -- infidels and Christians -- which gives especial importance to Othello's posting to Cyprus, a Venetian protectorate which the Turks attacked in 1570 and conquered the following year" (873). Othello and Desdemona are a happily married couple when they arrive in Cyprus. The clash between cultures and ethnicities that indirectly ensues, however, brings their marriage to a tragic end. Othello, much to his consternation, becomes the brute his enemies have accused him of being all along.

In Othello's story, black people -- in both the pre- and post-Civil Rights Era -- have much with which to identify. Desdemona's father does not approve of his daughter's marriage because of Othello's color. Iago resents Othello's power because of Othello's color. Othello himself has fears of inadequacy because of his color and his strong sense of himself as an outsider in Venice. Black people in the United States have had these feelings as well when considering the nature of their citizenship. 

Othello is in a unique position of power as a commander. However, some blacks in the pre-Civil Rights also had positions of power, though usually in sports, entertainment, and the arts, seldom politics. When in these positions, there was, among some, the gnawing sense that the white majority resented their success or was working against them. Othello has similar feelings.

I would then argue that Othello is neither treated better nor worse, but exhibits feelings of fear and inadequacy that are similar to feelings blacks have had as American citizens. Despite his power, Othello is not free.

 

Source: Wells, Stanley and Gary Taylor, ed. The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

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