Post-colonial interpretation

Critics exploring Othello from a post-colonial perspective would focus on the two areas of colonialism and racism presented in the play, the occupation of Cyprus and attitudes to Othello’s moorish origins.

Attitudes to colonialisation

Shakespeare lived in a European world that had discovered the Americas, parts of northern and coastal Africa, and some of the Far East. Whilst today the brutality and rapacity of the colonial enterprise dominates our perspective, in Shakespeare’s era, colonial ventures were viewed positively (i.e. from the European perspective). Thus the Venetian colonisation of Greco/Ottoman Cyprus would have seemed advantageous to both city state and the island, given that western Europeans regarded non-Christendom countries as being rather uncivilised and backward. In the world of Othello, there was no suggestion that Venice was doing anything more than asserting its rights as a sovereign state to extend its domination and influence in the world at large and the state has no qualms about vigorously rebutting Turkish forces from invading an island which they regarded as theirs.
The reality of Venice’s usurpation of Cypriot power is demonstrated by the fact that, although Montano is introduced as the governor of Cyprus, and Othello is careful to treat him with respect, in reality Othello has clearly supplanted him as governor from the moment of his arrival. At the end of the play, Cassio is appointed the new governor, with no regard for Montano. 

Racism in the seventeenth century

Othello is respected as Venice’s most successful general and the obvious choice to lead the expedition against the Turks. It probably helps that he has assimilated into white society, taking on its Christian faith and the rules of civic behaviour. But his ancestry is from Africa – he is of Moor or Berber race - and his black skin is often referred to by others. (See Themes > Prejudice; Imagery and symbolism > Black and white.) In the Venetians’ mind, there was no disconnect between their respect for Othello as a military ruler and their prejudice against him as a black man. There is a certain humour in the fact that Brabantio’s racist tirade against his new son-in-law (‘the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou’, Act 1 Scene 2) is stopped short once he realises that Othello is a fellow councillor who has the Duke’s trust.  
Shakespeare shows us honestly the colour prejudice of his own era in the racist comments and attitudes of the play’s characters. Othello is ‘other’, of whom it is easy to believe that passion trumps self-control and that magic may have aided his human progress. However, Shakespeare also presents a more progressive and enlightened alternative to these racist assumptions by creating a character of African origin who confounds derogatory white attitudes by his dignity and authority in a white European world. Furthermore, it is clear that Othello’s tragedy has been caused by the hatred of a white man who is obviously his moral inferior. Othello may have been very foolish to believe the lies of Iago, but as a black man of feeling, humanity, loyalty and conscience, he towers over the white man’s world as a hero of immense proportions.

Changing critical attitudes

Shakespearean audiences would have understood and agreed with the many racist comments and attitudes in the play. Indeed, even until the mid-twentieth century, mixed marriages were regarded as ‘unnatural’. Some nineteenth century critics even questioned whether the play was a true tragedy because they considered the marriage of Othello and Desdemona to be doomed to inevitable failure anyway. 
Modern African critics point out that the works of Shakespeare and the Bible were used in African schools in the nineteenth century to reinforce the idea of white supremacy as part of the British colonial domination in Africa. In the days of apartheid, when the subject of race was taboo in South Africa, both the presentation - and criticism - of the play was often avoided, the racial issues it raised being judged too uncomfortable.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.