A cursory reading of the first act of Othello would lead the reader to believe that it is an inherently racist text since there is no description of the protagonist given other than his racial difference. FOR:
Several disparaging terms used to define Othello and instead of being referred to by his name, he is only mentioned as “the Moor” or other more directly racist monikersthe – reader is forced into the same racist mindset of the characters simply because of the descriptions they offer FOR:
With such an opening to the play, the reader is poised to read it as a text that is infused with racist ideologies common in Shakespeare’s time FOR:
The theme of the parallels of animals with those of a darker race is further solidified when Iago follows Roderigo’s description on the “dangers” of Desdemona’s union with Othello by saying that the act of this union (sex) between the two forms the “beast with two backs” (i.i.112) FOR:
Closely associated with the racism in the play at the beginning is a fear of the unknown—in this case race is the otherness that separates Othello. Characters such as Brabantio, are convinced that this foreigner is using trickery and dark magic to engage Desdemona. FOR:
Brabantio accuses Othello of witchcraft and wonders how, “against all rules of nature” his lovely daughter could have fallen “in love with that what she feared to look on” (I.iii.98). As one of the more revealing quotes about race in Othello by Shakespeare, this is a particularly revealing statement about how race might have been viewed by contemporaries of Shakespeare. FOR:
Using the information that the Moor is a black man, it is obvious that it may have been common to associate black men with dark magic and seduction and furthermore, it comments on the idea that black and whites should not be allowed to marry or associate in any other way romantically—that somehow this is not natural FOR:
Before the reader is ever given a clue about the identity of Othello, there are only the images of animals and beasts. This is also relevant because it demonstrates a perceived parallel between black men and animals—that they are not fully human, thus undeserving of the humanizing use of a name instead of such images. There is certainly an element of savagery and a lack of civilization that is infused into such description FOR:
Unfortunately, at the ending of the play after he commits his last brutal and even barbarous act, he refers to himself as a “base Indian” which makes the reader unable to forget the stereotypes of savagery that have been trailing him throughout the play. It is only at this final moment when he associates his act with that of a savage, does he address his race in negative terms. FOR:
The distraught father considers such a union to be against the laws of nature and never considers that love does not always recognize color and cultural bounds FOR:
Brabantio seems to view allowing those of a different race “access” to their society would lead to a slippery slope, as he states on one of the important quotes from “Othello” by Shakespeare, “For if such actions may have passage free, / bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (I.iii.98). FOR:
What is most surprising is that in many ways this is not a racist story at all AGAINST:
As the play progresses and Othello’s character is more developed it is clear that he does not fit the limiting and racist description given to him by Iago and Roderigo at the beginning AGAINST:
It also becomes evident that many of those around Othello consider him to be an equal—albeit a peer with an interesting and exotic history and heritage AGAINST:
While evil characters such as Iago refer to him simply and disparagingly as “the Moor” those who actually know him refer to him instead as “the valiant Moor” making his race part of who he is—a respected and revered man who is, quite circumstantially a Moor. AGAINST:
We find that the character of Othello doesn’t match up to any of these terms, thus leading one to rethink Shakespeare’s possible position on the matter of race. AGAINST:
Through the careful and complex development of Othello it is increasingly obvious that he does not match any of the terms of savagery imposed upon him by Roderigo and Iago at the beginning. AGAINST:
In the end, this is not a text about race (or even racism) but is the tale of a man that fell victim to and committed terrible acts. AGAINST:
It is revealing to juxtapose all of the unflattering and racist descriptions of Othello with the first time the reader is introduced AGAINST:
Instead of babbling or seeming like an uncouth and uncivilised animal, Othello’s first full lines convey a depth of personality, intelligence, and cultivation. He encourages his accuser in an important quote, “Keep your bright swords, for the dew will rust them / Good signor, you have more command with your years than with your weapons” (I.ii.58). AGAINST:
He is a man that is willing to accept that he is racially different, yet not racially inferior and in fact, he seems to recognise that his status as “other” in a world of white men can actually be helped by his race and exotic life story.While he tends to use these elements of his “foreignness” to his advantage, he never admits (nor should he) that he is anything befitting the racist stereotypes others hold of him. BOTH
When it is shown throughout the novel that Othello does not fit the racist descriptions thrust upon him by Iago and Roderigo, the reader is forced to wonder how this presentation of the “two Othellos” (the one defined at the beginning in negative terms and the one we “see for ourselves) indicates how the subject of race in Othello would also have been dealt with among Shakespeare’s contemporaries. AUDIENCE CONTEXT
Would they have had a rough time deciding whether he was simply a “Moor” and more like a beast than a man or would they have reacted in a more modern sense, by seeing racism as inherently wrong and resisting the descriptions offered by the villainous characters? AUDIENCE CONTEXT
In the end, although what Othello did was certainly barbarous, it seems impossible that he did it because of some innate savagery—rather, like many of Shakespeare’s other characters in different plays, he was simply a man (white or black) caught in a web of deceit. The fact that race is of secondary importance also demonstrates that the emphasis should be on plot, not race. CONCLUSION