- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Religious/ philosophical context
- Theatrical context
Othello is black African, something which is emphasised right from Act 1 Scene 1. Iago tells Brabantio:
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
Is tupping your white ewe.
Roderigo also refers to Othello as ‘thick lips’ and ‘a lascivious Moor’. It is clear from the first scene that although Brabantio had rejected Roderigo as a son-in-law, he would have preferred him to ‘the Moor’: ‘O would you had had her.’ And in the next scene he refers to Othello as a thief and his daughter running to the ‘sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou.’ Even the Duke is racist when he praises Othello for being ‘far more fair than black.’ (Act 1 Scene 3)
Othello’s ethnicity highlights other racist assumptions. Iago claims that ‘These Moors are changeable in their wills’ (Act 1 Scene 3). And when, in Act 5 Scene 2, Emilia says of Desdemona: ‘She was too fond of her most filthy bargain’ - we can infer that it was Othello’s culture as well as his skin colour that revolted her. Even Othello refers to himself in this way: ‘Haply for I am black,’ (Act 3 Scene 3), implying that he admits he is inferior to his wife.
The tragic impact of sustained racism
These comments may seem objectionable to modern ears, but Shakespeare placed racist speech in the play to highlight a key element in the tragedy. Othello starts the drama as a noble hero who had largely overcome the racist attitudes from others by success in his career and marriage. Yet prejudice about his origins has left its mark. As a ‘Moor’ he implicitly believes he is not worthy enough to keep Desdemona’s love. By throwing his relationship, nobility and command away, he actually reinforces the racist prejudice against him. His downfall is all the more tragic because it was avoidable.
In Act 2 Scene 1, Iago indulges in word play with Desdemona and shows his chauvinistic views:
She never yet was foolish that was fair,
For even her folly helped her to an heir.
For even her folly helped her to an heir.
He is saying that no pretty woman can be considered an idiot, since they are all clever enough to use their looks to ensnare a husband and thus become a ‘respectable’ mother. His condescending attitude to women is clear and speaks of a man with deep insecurities about women and ‘feminine wiles’.
He also shows a cynical and patronising view of Desdemona’s marriage to Othello when he talks to Cassio in Act 2 Scene 3, seeing her in purely sexual terms (although he is also trying to ‘lead on’ Cassio into betraying an unsavoury attitude to his general’s wife):
He hath not yet made wanton the night with her, and she is sport for Jove ..
And, I’ll warrant her, full of game. ..What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley of provocation.
The success with which Iago persuades Othello of Desdemona’s adultery is partly due to the general opinion of macho soldiers towards women, as being easy prey to a man’s advances. In Act 4 Scene 1, Iago refers to Desdemona as ‘the foolish woman your wife.’
Othello may have had such opinions in the past, but his meeting with Desdemona has overturned them – it is clear from the start that their love involves a meeting of minds. However, he is insecure about female behaviour in general, and thus open to Iago’s suggestiveness that Venetian women are easily faithless. Ultimately, Iago brings Othello to the point where he cannot bear to countenance Desdemona’s (supposed) infidelity: ‘I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!’
Sexual double standards
There is a chauvinistic double standard at play – it is unlikely that these soldiers would condemn an unfaithful fellow officer to such a fate. Even ‘noble’ Cassio does not take seriously the harm he brings to Bianca by ‘playing’ with his affections towards her. Emilia highlights this double standard when she complains in Act 4 Scene 3 about male treatment of women, husbands who ‘slack their duties, / And pour our treasures into foreign laps,’ yet ‘Throw[ing] restraint upon us .. strike us’ to stop their wives behaving the same way.
It has only been in the last fifty years or so that many women have chosen not to say ‘obey’ as part of their wedding vows to their husbands. In Shakespeare’s day it was axiomatic that wives should obey their husbands, and be honoured by them in return. So in one sense, Iago can legitimately command Emilia’s silence in Act 5 Scene 2, which she acknowledges: ’Tis proper I obey him, but not now.’ However, his previous disrespect towards her has been witnessed, and here he is soon exposed as a chauvinist bully, referring to her as a ‘Villanous whore’ and ‘Filth’.
Othello had previously shown the same chauvinism regarding Desdemona, who had to die ‘else she’ll betray more men.’ He believes that the fault of her supposed affair with Cassio is hers alone, that it is she who has betrayed him, ‘leading on’ Cassio. By taking such an extreme position, he compounds his guilt at the end when it is shown that she was totally innocent, and that he was the traitor in not trusting her. As he says to his dead wife: ‘This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven.’
In Act 1 Scene 1, Iago shows an inverted snobbery towards Cassio. He dislikes the idea that Cassio has been promoted to lieutenant because of his ‘bookish rhetoric’, his ‘pride and purposes’ and his ‘epithets of war.’ ‘Mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership;’ Iago says, and he believes he should have had the promotion because ‘I am worth no worse a place.’ He is right in one sense, but his prejudice against Cassio is because of the latter’s better education and more scholarly conversation.
Meanwhile, Cassio the ‘gentleman’ reveals his own snobbery regarding Iago and Bianca. In Act 2 Scene 3, when Iago says he hopes to be saved, Cassio replies:
Ay, but by your leave, not before me. The lieutenant is to be saved before the ensign.
He clearly believes that he is more important than Iago, even in God’s eyes. Similarly, his lack of attentiveness to Bianca is largely to do with her background. He is embarrassed that anyone should think he would marry such a ‘bauble’. This is pure snobbery and Shakespeare shows us that such flaws can occur even in the worthy characters he has created.
Othello could also have suffered discrimination from the nobles in Venice, for he is an outsider in his race and country of origin. But there is nothing of this in the play; indeed he is highly respected by all and no-one questions the Duke’s decision to commission him to command the Venetian army in the fight against the Turks.
After the tragedy has been played out, it is Iago, not Othello, who is blamed. And although they are both guilty of murdering their wives, Othello is pitied by the level of society he has come to be a part of, as having ‘Fall’n in the practice of a damned slave’. However Iago, the interloper, is reviled for his appalling act of treachery. Society closes ranks in the end.
The attitude of feeling proud of yourself and superior to others in society because of something about you that society normally regards as inferior.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
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