Race and discrimination in Othello by William Shakespeare
People discriminate for many different reasons: fear, envy, the desire for power, or a need to disassociate themselves from others. They can thus distinguish themselves by skin color, an innate trait that cannot be altered.
Othello, in Shakespeare’s play Othello, is a happily married and widely respected general in the Venetian army despite his African heritage and has not, as yet, experienced such discrimination. However, Iago succeeds in bringing about the ruin of Othello and his wife Desdemona by revealing to Othello the existence of racist ideas and convincing him that he must act out against the individuals supposedly harboring racist-fueled resentment. Through Iago’s manipulation of Othello and others, his claim comes to pass: The color of Othello's skin is what people use to justify his resulting and seemingly irratic behavior, and by his beliving that racism exists, Othello creates it.
Othello is an African prince, born into privilege and royalty. He claims, “I fetch my life and being/From men of royal siege” (III.iii. 21-22). He left this life of guaranteed luxury and his native homeland to live among white Europeans and to make a life for himself free of the innate obligations of royalty. His only obligations are to people he himself has chosen to serve: the Venetian government and his wife Desdemona. Othello still experiences freedom in his position as general, since he can retire at his leisure, and tells Iago:
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea’s worth (I.ii.27-28).
This statement suggests that if he had not met Desdemona, Othello would have continued to live life in a “free condition” without matrimonial commitments, which “put into circumscription and confine” this freedom. Othello delights in and experiences ultimate freedom to do as he pleases, makes the choices that ultimately affect his life, and enjoys his self-made position. The color of his skin has not prevented him from achieving a high rank in society and exercising the power and freedom such a position entails.
These achievements have earned Othello the respect and admiration of those around him with the exception of a resentful few, including Iago and Roderigo. Iago hates Othello because he appointed the inexperienced Cassio as his lieutenant instead of Iago, who instead became his “ancient.” Iago enacts his revenge upon Othello by manipulating Roderigo, who desires Othello’s wife Desdemona and expresses his jealousy of Othello by utilizing racial slurs: “What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe,/If he can carry ‘t thus!” (I.i.65-66). Both plot together to bring about an end to Othello’s marriage by telling Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, that Othello kidnapped her.
They succeed in angering her father when they bring up the subject of race, and Iago tells Brabantio “An old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.87-88). Iago and Roderigo hint at the concept of Othello and Desdemona’s future children being half-breeds that will become the ridicule of society and bring shame upon Brabantio: “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary/Horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have cours-/ers for cousins and gennets for germans” (I.i.110-12). Afraid such events would jeopardize his position as senator, Brabantio accuses Othello of kidnapping and bewitching his daughter in a desperate attempt to retain his own power and honor in the eyes of society. In his defense, Othello points out that in the past Brabantio “lov’d me; oft invited me” (I.iii.128), showing that Brabantio was not racist and did not discriminate against Othello until Iago's interference made him feel it was in his best political interests to do so. Othello is acquitted of any wrongdoing by Desdemona, and the Duke says to Brabantio: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack/Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.288-89). The Duke tells Brabantio that he should not put importance on Othello’s skin color, but on his virtuous deeds and nature.
Othello himself is unaware of any existing racism or of the power of such thoughtless hatred, declaring “My parts, my title and my perfect soul/Shall manifest me rightly” (I.ii.31-32). He does not take into account the possibility of discrimination determining his guilt. This attitude of universal equality at first works against Iago’s claims that Desdemona is cheating on him because of his color, and Othello states “Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw/The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt:/For she had eyes, and chose me” (III.iii.187-89). However, he goes on to say “And yet, how nature erring from itself—” (III.iii.228), perhaps thinking that it is in Desdemona’s inherent nature to favor men of her own race. Iago draws upon this belief, saying to Othello, “Her will, recoiling to her better judgment,/May fall to match you with her country forms/and happily repent” (III.iii.226-28), saying that Desdemona compares Othello with other white Venetian men and regrets her marriage. Under Iago’s persuasion, Othello starts to believe that Desdemona is cheating on him because he is black.
Left alone with these thoughts, Othello states “I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind,/To prey at fortune (III.iii.263-64), saying that if Desdemona was proven false, he would cast her out of his household. However, after he brings up the issue of his own race and recognizes how he is different from the rest of society, Othello lashes out in anger at Desdemona, the scapegoat for his overpowering sense of self-loathing:
Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declin’d
Into the vale of years,--yet that’s not much—
She’s gone. I am abus’d: and my relief
Must be to loathe her (III.iii.264-69)
Othello does not just criticize Desdemona for her infidelity and condemn her for her sins, but he in a way justifies her actions by describing his own race-related weaknesses that would motivate her to have an affair with another man. This quote shows a change in Othello. He begins to hate Desdemona in the belief that she cheats on him because of his race, and he will not be content with just throwing her out, but is now consumed with loathing for her because of the pain and feelings of inferiority she has brought to life in him.
Others notice this change, and as Iago continually supplies Othello with proof of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, Othello is further consumed with rage and jealousy. When Lodovico comes to deliver a letter to Othello, Desdemona makes a comment Othello supposes to be about her other lover, and he slaps her. Lodovico is shocked at this rash behavior, which is so out of character and tells Othello: “My lord, this would not be believ’d in Venice,/Though I should swear I saw ‘t; ‘til very much” (IV.i.225-26). He goes on to question Othello’s reputation after such an act, saying:
Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue
The shot of accident, nor dart of chance,
Could neither graze nor pierce? (IV.i.245-49)
Othello becomes even more rash when he calls Desdemona a whore, and Emilia, Iago’s wife, exclaims: “Here’s a change indeed!” (IV.ii.107). However, it is not until Othello commits the ultimate crime that his skin color is held against him, as others struggle to find a means to explain this sudden and seemingly unprovoked action. The murder of his wife forces those who formerly respected and admired him, and who held him to be equal on all levels, to use his skin color to explain his great misdeeds, Emilia calling him a “blacker devil!” (IV.ii.132). Told of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, Emilia states that she was true and “was too fond of her most filthy bargain” (IV.iii.157), contemptuously referring to Othello in racist terms. His race is recognized and utilized by those who Othello has alienated through his irrational actions, and if he had not been prompted through jealousy and his own sense of self-loathing to commit murder, Othello would continue to have been regarded in high esteem by the rest of society.
Othello had previously lived a life free of racial discrimination, except for those few who envied and resented him, or feared he would sabotage their powers, and these few used his race as a means of bring about his destruction. For the rest of society, he was considered a noble and virtuous general and his color was of little consequence. However, when Othello committed atrocious crimes at the result of unfounded jealousy, those who had previously believed him admirable and good condemned him by his distinguishing racial characteristic: his color.
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