Race and Racism in Othello

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 15:11   /   Views: 2 168
In What Way Would A Modern Audience React To The Way Race And Racism Is Portrayed In 'Othello'?

In the Sixteenth century, as we see clearly from Othello and other works of both Shakespeare and Cinthio's original version of Othello, race was a topic of great debate and discussion. Today, in the twenty-first century the debate retains its controversy and passion. However, attitudes towards race have taken a dramatic turn during the last century. In the developed world people are now living in an increasingly cosmopolitan society would undoubtedly be more tolerant and would reject or even be offended by racial discrimination to any person or sections of the community. Openly 'racist' people today are seen as outcasts. Taking this into account, the way a modern audience would react to race and racism in Othello is dependent upon the way in which that modern audience would interpret 'Othello'. This prompts the questions of what sort of message Shakespeare wanted to send to his audience and was Othello the moor portrayed as a tragic hero or did his character eventually come to resemble the prejudices of which he was a victim. Shakespeare also discusses the issue of race with other characters such as the hateful Iago and the prejudices hidden deep in Barbantio.

The actions of Barbantio initiate the interest in the race issue in Act 1 Scene 1 more so than Iago's foul abuses because the type of hidden racism is actually present in modern society. Barbantio disapproves of his daughter ever marrying Roderigo who has not got a good reputation with him but after listening to Iago tell him that his daughter is seeing a moor he wishes Roderigo,

"...O, Would you had had her!"

Thus Barbantio suggests that a disrespected white man is superior to a respected noble and gentleman in the army whose only 'problem' as Barbantio sees it is that he is black. These words are enough to show Barbantio's true feelings even though he has been rudely awaken from sleep on hearing what for him is awful news in a most crude manner. The hypocrisy of Barbantio, though striking to a modern audience is still prevalent today. In a recent survey by students at Nottingham University, from a sample of 3000 people, 54% said that they would not consider inter-racial marriage. Shakespeare immediately can grasp an audience's attention through an issue as relevant now as it was almost half a century ago and by portraying Barbantio as misguided in his words, Shakespeare is criticising people who may be outwardly gentlemen but covertly hold racist views.

There is some evidence that Shakespeare was using the play to promote racially prejudiced views as some critics suggest. They suggest that Othello finally becomes the violent animal, which he is personified to be by those who dislike him. Cinthio's original version of the play had Othello being a Muslim and was made to be a beastly character but Shakespeare has altered him to be a noble and a Christian. Instead, Iago is portrayed as the most evil villain and also the hateful racist. Iago seems to have few motives for his devious actions. Although he does suffer from paranoia about whom his wife might be having an affair with and 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," and calls out to Barbantio,

"Even now, now, very now an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe..."

By presenting the 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. A modern audience would hence see that in their view, rightly, Shakespeare is sending an anti-racist message.

The portrayal of Othello is the most important in deciding how a modern audience would react to the play in terms of race is very important. It is of utmost importance because the audience's interpretation of Othello will define how they feel to what Shakespeare's views are about race and it's impact or domination, if there is any, of good and bad character. On the face of it, Othello seems to be the tragic hero of the play. However, it can be argued that Othello is shown to be a proud man who eventually becomes a beast, a murderer and hence in a way fulfils the prejudices with which his enemies brand him. They also argue that Othello is portrayed as devious because he 'steals' Desdemona from Barbantio and then announces he has a clear conscience,

"...I must be found,

My parts, my title and my perfect soul."

On the subject of whether Othello becomes a beast and a murderer, some critics suggest that Shakespeare is promoting racial stereotypes because it is shown in Othello how, "The stuff of which he (Othello) is made begins to deteriorate and show itself unfit." Some would also argue that a person cannot be manipulated so quickly and be so naïve as to fall for Iago's plot so quickly as Othello does in Act4, Scene 1. Before this scene Othello lets it known that,

"I do not think but Desdemona's honest."

But after only being presented with a handkerchief as evidence and a few words of opinion from Iago he is requesting from Iago,

"Get me some poison..."

But most brutal of all is the way he kills his supposed beloved. The scene is intensely emotional as Desdemona asks, (in fear and tears as performed in the most recent R.S.C production directed by Edward Hall in 1999) for banishment rather than death. In its rejection she begs for another day of life but is ordered by the increasingly vicious Othello in a most insensitive manner,

"Down strumpet."

Then in a most unchristian way he denies her even a final prayer. This can be interpreted by an audience as Shakespeare suggesting that an 'evil moor', a Muslim can never be a true Christian. The deeply emotional journey that Shakespeare provides the audience with leading to Desdemona's death may, it can be argued, entice the audience to hate Othello. A modern audience would reject the idea of death being a punishment for sexual betrayal in any case. If the audience hates Othello in this way Shakespeare is condoning or even supporting the stereotype that eventually what will come out of the moor is his violent nature and all compassion will be gone because, as Laurence Lerner argues, it is the stuff from which Othello is made. A modern audience would then deplore how Shakespeare in Othello condones racial stereotyping.

However, I believe this interpretation to be incorrect. Othello is a soldier turned General with many victories under his belt. Rather than being proud he does stand out in many productions of Othello as a cultural and colourfully dressed person. There is evidence that shows how humble Othello is. Before speaking to the Duke and Barbantio he apologises,

"...Rude am I in my speech,

And little blessed with the soft phrase of speech."

Believing he has lost Desdemona he questions himself which result in the speech,

"...Haply I am black

And have not these parts of conversation

That chamberers have..."

Surely these cannot be the words of a proud man. Secondly, he cannot be criticised for falling into Iago's trap. Shakespeare also includes the details of how Roderigo and tragically how Cassio also were deceived by the evil manipulations of Iago who himself admits,

"I am not what I am."

Finally, his treatment of Desdemona seems to be misjudgement rather than deeply rooted evil. As a soldier Othello believes his actions to be moral. He is naïve; a chivalric warrior in a world run by self-interest. He has no previous experience of love and women. On the contrary he is suited to battle and warfare and thus, Desdemona is treated like the traitor of an army when Othello passes sentence.

Othello's deepest feelings are exposed in his last speech. TS Elliot described the speech as a, "terrible exposure of human weakness." Here he is resigned to the fact that he did not love wisely, "But too well." He literally could not be in peace for his own or Desdemona's sake thinking that he knew that Desdemona was involved in a scandalous affair with Cassio. Othello was completely deceived; as he himself put it in his final speech,

"Perplexed to the extreme."

He describes himself as,

"Like the base Judean; threw the pearl away."

I believe that a modern audience would see 'Othello' as a terrible tragedy. The, "noble moor," who fights the chivalric code is challenged by the ultimate deceiver and the ultimate deception; Iago and Iagoism. Desdemona has heard from stories of Othello's violent military victory and she herself too is naïve for this. She has little experience of the male gender herself. As Sean McEvoy writes,

"A woman's love inspired by violence finds itself prey to that violence."

Race is not the issue in this case. Any soldier whether Turk. Moor, Portuguese or English who followed Othello's military code for most of his life would have the same problems fitting in to Venetian society which would almost be a new world to them; a world run by jealousy and self-interest. As the South African critic S Plaaje wrote,

"Shakespeare's drama about nobility and valour...is not the monopoly of any colour."

What a majority of the audience would perceive after watching 'Othello' is that Othello's violence is unrelated to his being a moor but Shakespeare is instead discussing the, "amalgam of the noble and the jealous, the soldier and the fool and the Christian and the barbarian who is reduced to stammering brutality." A modern audience would not see Othello as the guilty and barbaric moor but as a victim of Iago and his deception. The audience instead would take would take with them a message that colour does not play a part in character. Instead those who discriminate people racially are the truly devious characters and Shakespeare shows this clearly through Iago and Barbantio. Iago himself is clear evidence that Shakespeare is not in any way condoning racism but instead he is attacking racism. The attack on Barbantio's hidden racist views also prove that this is the case. The main message of Othello would be very positive foe a modern audience; that racism in all forms is totally unacceptable.

Article name: Race and Racism in Othello essay, research paper, dissertation