Othello: Race

Othello is one of the first black heroes in English literature. A military general, he has risen to a position of power and influence.At the same time, his status as a black foreigner in Venice marks him as an outsider and exposes him to some pretty overt racism, especially by his wife’s father, who believes his daughter’s interracial marriage can only be the result of Othello’s trickery.
“An old black ramIs tupping your white ewe” Iago to BrabantioIago uses racist slurs when he wakens Brabantio with the news that his daughter, Desdemona has eloped with Othello Iago plays on Elizabethan notions that black men have an animal-like, hyper-sexuality – geared at manipulating Brabantio’s fears of miscegenation (when a couple “mixes races” through marriage and/or sex).
“The devil will make a grandsire of you” “Devil”Although Othello is a Christian, Iago calls him “the devil,” – idea that black men were evil and that the devil often took the shape and form of a black man.
“Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” Iago implies Othello’s animal-like sexuality corrupts Desdemona.
“She, in spite of nature… to fall in love with what she feared to look on!Against all rules of nature” Brabantio declares Desdemona’s love for Othello as unnaural
“And, noble signior,If virtue no delighted beauty lack,Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.”- Duke of Venice Not everyone in Venice shares Brabantio’s views of Othello. The Senators and the Duke admire Othello, who is a celebrated and honorable military leader.Here, the Duke defends Othello against Brabantio’s accusations that Othello used “magic” on Desdemona. On the one hand, we can read the Duke’s assertion that Othello is virtuous and “fair” as a compliment. On the other hand, the Duke’s words are also troubling because the compliment to Othello hinges on the idea that blackness has negative connotations. Ultimately, the Duke implies that Othello is “fair” despite the fact that he is black. This suggests that Othello is the exception to the rule.
“Her father loved me, oft invited me,Still questioned me the story of my lifeFrom year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes,That I have passed…These things to hear would Desdemona seriously incline.” Othello explains to the Duke and the Senate how Desdemona fell for him – when Brabantio would invite Othello to tell stories about his past, Desdemona paid serious attention and fell in love. Brabantio “loved” Othello, so long as Othello was a military hero defending Venice and not in a romantic relationship with his, Brabantio’s, daughter. Othello’s stories about travel, adventure, and even his enslavement lend Othello a romantic and exotic quality that appealed to Desdemona By the play’s end, Othello ends up fulfilling a racist stereotype (that black men are savage murderers) when he kills his white wife in her bed. In other words, Othello ends up becoming not unlike the murdering exotics he talks about in his adventure stories. Does this mean the play is racist?
“Her name, that was as freshAs Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and blackAs mine own face” When Othello suspects that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio, he suggests that his “name,” or his reputation, is now ruined and “begrimed” because of his wife’s supposed infidelity. This idea, that a wife’s fidelity to her husband can make or break a man’s good reputation is pretty common in Shakespeare’s plays -The Comedy of Errors, where the fidelity of Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife plays such an important role in her husband’s good name around town.Othello’s use of a racist discourse – when he says his “name” used to be “as fresh as Dian’s” face, he aligns his (former) good reputation with the “fresh[ness]” of a white face. (Diane is the goddess of the pale moon and of chastity.) Now that Othello feels his wife’s supposed sexual infidelity has soiled his good reputation, he compares his once good name to his “begrimed and black” face. Othello associates the blackness of his own skin with something dirty and stained, which is exactly the kind of thing that the racist Venetian characters (like Brabantio) thinkBy this moment in the play, Othello seems to have internalised the racist ideologies of other characters. He sees himself as a soiled black man 🙁
“Yet I’ll not shed her blood,Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” As Othello resolves to kill Desdemona, he is noticeably preoccupied with Desdemona’s “whiter” than snow skin. He implies he won’t stab her because he doesn’t want to “scar” her flesh.
OTHELLO She’s like a liar gone to burning hell!’Twas I that killed her.EMILIA O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil! When Othello kills Desdemona, he enacts a racist stereotype – that black men are violent, savage, and to be feared.
“Like the base Judean, threw a pearl awayRicher than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,” Othello has internalized the racist ideas that were common in the sixteenth century. When Othello realises that he murdered Desdemona for no good reason he imagines he’s just like a “base Indian” who “threw a pearl away” without knowing its true worth. Othello’s comparison gives voice to a common notion among Elizabethans – that Native Americans and black Africans alike are “base,” or uncivilized.Othello compares Desdemona to a pearl, a white gem commonly associated with purity.

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