Othello Key Ideas and Commentary
by William Shakespeare

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The Role of Race in Othello

The historical development of racial relations between Shakespeare's time and our own has virtually compelled twentieth-century critics of Othello to consider the title character's status as a Black man in a predominantly White society. Some modern interpreters of the play have focused on Othello's race as a causal or, at the very least, aggravating factor in the tragedy that befalls him. Others have gone so far as to assert that Shakespeare's Moor is the victim of racial discrimination, if not directly at the hands of Iago's, then indirectly at the hand of the play's author. This, in turn, has generated substantial historical research into the racial attitudes of Shakespeare and of Elizabethan England at large. The results of this effort have been ambivalent: in all probability, White Englishmen of the early seventeenth century (including the Bard) saw themselves as inherently superior to non-Europeans, but they were not racial bigots in our contemporary sense of that word. What can be said for certain is that instances of actual contact between Elizabethan Englishmen and non-Whites were exceedingly rare, that the New World slave trade had not yet emerged, and that Shakespeare (and his audiences) looked upon Africans (and other racial "minorities") in a decidedly different light than we do.

Othello is not the only or even the first Black character in Shakespeare's stage works. Prior to his composition of Othello, Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, an early Roman tragedy in which the character of Aaron, described like Othello as a Moor, acts as a secondary villain to Titus himself in a work so bloody that its attribution to Shakespeare has occasionally been questioned. But Titus Andronicus was undoubtedly written by Shakespeare and the Moor Aaron is unquestionable evil. Indeed, on the cusp of his execution, Aaron repents of any good deed that he might have inadvertently done! There is a strong implication here that Aaron's evil has a genetic basis. The child whom he sires through Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, is described by the Nurse who acts as midwife as being "as loathesome as a toad" among the fair-faced race of ancient Rome. The strength of the blood connection between Aaron and his offspring is underscored by his exceptional fondness toward his infant son and the scheme to substitute a White baby for the Moor's progeny.

Despite having a Black forerunner in Aaron, Othello's presence on the stage as the main character of a Shakespearean tragedy represented something new to Elizabethan audiences. Unlike Aaron, Othello is the chief protagonist of the play in which he appears, and we are forced by its narrative structure to see things through his eyes while knowing that he is being deceived by Iago. The first mention of Othello's race occurs before his initial entrance on stage with Roderigo pejoratively calling him "thick-lips" (I.i.66), a slur that is also applied to Aaron's baby by the Nurse who conveys the infant to him. Iago is even more offensive in his inflammatory remarks to Desdemona's father, telling Brabantio, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (I.i.89-90). Iago's polarity establishes skin color and its mixture through miscegenation as an immutable standard for discriminating natural from unnatural acts.

Shakespeare's primary source for Othello was a mid-sixteenth century novella by the Italian author Cinthio, and while Othello is depicted sympathetically in this work, Cinthio's Moor differs from Shakespeare's in that the Bard emphasizes Othello's Christianity while his prototype is a Muslim. Othello is at least functionally integrated into Venetian society. His importance to the state as its military champion and bulwark against the Turks confers status on Othello that is equivalent to that of Brabantio, a senator with a double voice, and, as the Duke's decision makes clear, greater than that of Desdemona's distinguished father. Prior to Othello's affair with his daughter, Brabantio...

(The entire section is 15,357 words.)