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.”
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...
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