Theme of ‘Otherness’ and Racism in Othello

In this post-colonial context it is impossible to read Shakespeare’s Othello without considering the issues of race, color and hegemonic ideologies as they are presented in the play. As we go through the play we see a complex relation between a black man, a white woman and the state. The crime committed by Othello can also be judged as a crime of the ‘pressure group’. But in order to understand the racial issues we should ,at first, consider the Elizabethan attitude to the black people.

What was the Elizabethan attitude to Muslims and blacks?

There was a good deal of animosity between the Muslims and Christians in Europe during Shakespeare’s times. Muslims were part of a group that had invaded many lands and threatened Europe with the same. They had stretched their control across the southern end of the Mediterranean Sea and crossed into Spain with their sights set on conquest. There was also much racial hatred between the white and the black. The Elizabethan society fostered a general cultural hostility to strangers,which stemmed from the growing presence of black people who posed an economic threat to the state.Race was a topic of great debate, discussion, controversy and passion in the Sixteenth century, as we see in the twenty-first century society.Othello and other works of Shakespeare also show that racism drew much public attention.

What Was a Moor?

A Moor was a Muslim of mixed Arab and Berber descent. Berbers were North African natives who eventually accepted Arab customs and Islam after Arabs invaded North Africa in the Seventh Century A.D. The term has been used to refer in general to Muslims of North Africa and to Muslim conquerors of Spain. The word Moor derives from a Latin word, Mauri, used to name the residents of the ancient Roman province of Mauritania in North Africa. To refer to Othello as a "black Moor" is not to commit a redundancy, for there are white Moors as well as black Moors, the latter mostly of Sudanese origin. Othello introduces an upright and righteous Moor. The Moors were disliked by Europeans on a lot of levels. They were Muslims that alone made them pretty unpopular. Thus, Othello finds himself in a society and culture that are very much antagonistic to him.

Racial conflict reflected through the character Othello

The Turks, their Ottoman Empire, and their Islamic culture and heritage yield the crisis that sets Othello in motion and layers of meaning which reinforce the play's themes and imagery. Shakespeare sets his play as a struggle between the liberal, enlightened Europeans and the savage, maurading Turks. Othello must wage an inner struggle between the two, and overcomes his sinister side, the Aleppine Turk -- but only at the expense of his honor, his family, and his life, the traditional sacrifices of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The racial conflict in Othello is evident from the very beginning of the play.Othello is depicted as an ’other’ or outsider from the beginning of the play. Within the opening lines of the play, we see how Othello is distanced from much of the action that concerns and affects him. He is ambiguously referred to as "he" or "him" by Roderigo and Iago for much of the first scene and when they do begin to specify just who they are talking about, they use racial epithets, not names.

Iago, the vilest character in all of Shakespeare’s characters, uses racism in the opening scene of the play as a spark to inflame Desdemona’s father, Senator Brabantio, against Othello..After Iago and Roderigo raise a clamor outside Brabantio’s house late one evening, the senator awakens and comes to a window. Iago then uses vulgar animal imagery to slur Othello, telling Brabantio that the black Moor has seized his greatest treasure, his daughter, and at that very moment is defiling her.

Iago shouts to Brabantio
... now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping5 your white ewe. Arise, arise!

There is an obvious racism in this quote. When Brabantio reacts with incredulity, Iago replies with a metaphor that this time compares Othello to a horse: ‘you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse’
Roderigo, whom Iago uses as a cat’s-paw, supports Iago’s story. Iago then says, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” . Roderigo adds that Desdemona is indeed in the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor”.
Brabantio, now convinced of the truth of the story, tells Roderigo to summon help. Roderigo also refers to Othello as ‘Thick lips’ and Iago continually uses the word ‘slave’, which are both racist terms.

The use of animal imagery is used to help convey Othello as a monster and the choices of animals shows the underlying racism: “Old Black ram” and “Barbary horse”. The references to witchcraft and the devil also help to emphasise Othello’s differences: “The devil will make a grandsire of you”, “the beast with two backs”. The playwright uses these characters to paint a picture of Othello as the embodiment of the black stereotype held by people at this time, labelling him as “different” to everyone else.

By and by, Brabantio and others appear. The senator, after denouncing Othello for taking Desdemona to his “sooty bosom” , accuses the Moor of having used “foul charms” and “drugs or minerals” to weaken Desdemona’s will.

The marriage between Othello and Desdemona was an inter-racial marriage

Previouslly Othello was a favorite to Brabantino and he along with Desdemona had had dinner many times with Othello.But why does he instantly react to the news of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona?It is because Othello is a Black. Instantly the matter becomes an issue in the Venetian council chamber, where the Duke and other senators are preparing for war against the Turks.

There is a clear theme of racism throughout, one which was firmly embedded in the Venetian society which rejects the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as erring, 'against all rules of nature'. Nothing separates Othello from, 'the wealthy curled darlings of our nation,' except skin-colour . Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio combine to give us a portrait of Venetian racism.

After Othello speaks eloquently of his love for Desdemona and she speaks on his behalf, the Duke exonerates Othello.But in doing so, the Duke obliquely denigrates Othello because of his race–apparently unintentionally, in a Freudian slip–telling Brabantio, “Your son-in-law is more fair than black” , implying that fairness is superior to blackness. Brabantio reluctantly accepts the ruling.

Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’

The racial conflict becomes clearer when we consider of Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’ against Othello. Iago seems to have few motives for his devious actions. Although he resents Othello being promoted before himself, it seems that from his speech that the thing he hates most about Othello is the colour of his skin. Because of this he uses unintelligent and colloquial racism to insult Othello. He refers to Othello as, "Thick lips,".
Essentially, Iago is a representative of the white race, a pre-Nazi figure who tries to inform the public of the impurity of Othello and Desdemona's marriage. He demonstrates how this miscegenation is threatening to the existing social order.

Having lost a battle, Iago continues to plot to win the war, still using racism as one of his weapons. Consider that in referring to Othello, he sometimes inserts the word black to remind listeners that the Moor is different, a man apart, a man to be isolated. For example, after referring to Othello in Act 1 as a “black ram,” he tells Michael Cassio in Act 2, Scene 2, “Come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine, and here without are a brace of Cyprus gallants that would fain have a measure to the health of black Othello” (25).

Iago's scheme would not have worked without the underlying atmosphere of racial prejudice in Venetian society, a prejudice of which both Desdemona and Othello are very aware. Shakespeare's Desdemona copes with prejudice by denying it access to her own life: Her relationship with Othello is one of love, and she is deliberately loyal only to that.

Racism leads to jealousy

Although "jealousy" is often offered as Othello's "tragic flaw,” but that emotion is not self-creating. Rather, it stems from a psychology of inferiority. Because of his strngemess , Othello can be perceived to be extremely insecure. Factors such as his age, his life as a soldier, and his self-consciousness about being a racial and cultural outsider, simply play on his unsureness of his position.The thing that fuelled his jealousy was his belief that he is black and Desdamona is white.That he is unfit to retain her attention for long.Thus Jealousy and racism are both inter-connected.

There are few things that the human mind cannot stand, and one of them is self-contempt. It is one thing to hate another person, but to hate and despise oneself is equivalent to denying one's existence. Othello, in a fundamentally ethnocentric and racist society, finds himself confronted with the horrible reality of this self-contempt when there is cause to believe that Desdemona, whose loved had been the shield against his self-contempt, now betrays him too. Thus, Shakespeare's Othello is a psychoanalytic view of a self-loathing man and his doomed attempts to defend himself against a painful reality.

Why did not Othello openly discuss the matter with Desdemona?
The society and culture in which Othello finds himself is one where racism and ethnocentrism prevailed and prejudices abounded.Othello, however, is not aware how deeply prejudice has penetrated into his own personality.
This absorbed prejudice undermines him with thoughts akin to "I am not attractive," "I am not worthy of Desdemona," "It cannot be true that she really loves me," and "If she loves me, then there must be something wrong with her." These thoughts, inflamed by Iago's hints and lies, prevent Othello from discussing his concerns and fears directly with Desdemona, and so he acts on panicked assumption. In order to survive the combined onslaught of internalized prejudice and the directed venom of Iago, Othello would have had to be near perfect in strength and self-knowledge, and that is not a fair demand for anyone.
Thus,though invisible in the drama, racism plays a significant part in bringing the tragedy of Othello. Shakespeare is also sending an anti-racist message through his play Othello. Those who discriminate people racially are the truly devious characters and Shakespeare shows this clearly through Iago and Barbantio. Iago is portrayed as the most evil villain and also the hateful racist.
By presenting the main villain of the play to have such deep-rooted racism, Shakespeare is denouncing those who attack people purely on the basis of the colour of their skin or their nationality.

Conflicts of characters in Othello

Many of the scenes in Othello work by the pairing of two characters who are basically different in values or hidden agendas, putting them together through an experience or event, which has a different significance for each. Such pairs are Iago and Roderigo, Desdemona and Emilia, Othello and Iago, and Iago and Emilia.

Iago is paired with Roderigo for purposes of exploitation. By talking to him, Iago can show the audience his wicked intentions, yet Roderigo is so gullible that he is an easy dupe. Desdemona and Emilia are newly in each other's company, but quickly develop a friendly style of conversation that contrasts their different approaches to life. Emilia is down to earth to Desdemona's nobility, and practical to Desdemona's romanticism. Yet, when a crisis comes, they both share the same basic values of honesty and loyalty.

Iago and Emilia, although married and appearing to be similar personalities on the surface, see the world differently. Iago has the reputation of the "rough diamond," who speaks directly and honestly, but he uses his reputation as a disguise for his plotting, whereas the "rough diamond" really is Emilia's true nature. Their conversations are oppositions of opinion about the nature of men or women, or attempts by Iago to control Emilia's actions, balanced — until she discovers his true nature — by Emilia's willingness to do things to please her husband.

The development of the Othello-Desdemona pair is more hidden, and more complex. There is a polite formality of words between these two which persists below the endearments of the first half and the abuse and anguish of the second. At a certain level, they always treat each other as respected strangers, and as circumstances drive them apart, only this formal politeness remains as a frame for communication in the final act, where they go in different emotional directions, despite their underlying love for each other.