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Racism in Othello

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Choose one non-dramatic text offered on the module, (an extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Literary Remains,) and show how it might help us understand Othello.

The extract presents a sustained attack by Coleridge on Shakespeare for his lack of realism in the 'monstrous' depiction of a marriage between a 'beautiful Venetian girl,' and a 'veritable negro,' in Othello. He sees Shakespeare's transformation of a 'barbarous negro' into a respected soldier and nobleman of stature as 'ignorant', since at the time, 'negroes were not known except as slaves.' (Appendix) The extract seems to raise two questions - how central is the taboo of miscegeny to the play, and to what extent is Othello's reputation able to counter this prejudice?

It is certainly not hard to conclude that it is probably Shakespeare's most controversial play. 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,' [1.3.102] Nothing separates Othello from, 'the wealthy curled darlings of our nation,' [1.2.68] except skin-colour - he matches or even exceeds them in reputation. At the start of the play, he appears confident that,

OTHELLO: My parts, my title, and my perfect soul

Shall manifest me rightly.

Othello 1.2.31-2

when he is called in front of the court on charges of witchcraft, yet the malevolent Iago is able to call on Othello's deep-rooted insecurities about his race in order to play Othello and Desdemona against one another until their marriage fails. 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, and ultimately, Othello's lifetime of achievement is not sufficient to persuade

others from prejudice in a moment of crisis (such as Desdemona's elopement,) or sustain his self-esteem in the long-run. Othello is structured so that the main premise of the play, introducing the main themes, appears near the beginning. It is obvious that Iago has an agenda planned of malevolent proportions with Othello at its target. He is the catalyst of all the destructive happenings within the play starting from the very beginning when he and Roderigo approach the residence of Brabantio in 1.1. He uses crude, racist language to appeal to the senator's traditional beliefs, including such phrases as,

IAGO: Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe!

Othello 1.1.87-88

Iago even goes so far as to propose that Brabantio's grandchildren will be animals because of his daughter's base marriage with an 'other.'

IAGO: ...you'll have

your daughter covered with a Barbary horse,

you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll have

coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.

Othello 1.1.109-112

Later we are told that Iago's motive is jealousy and he uses the rhetoric of racism to undermine Othello, playing on Brabantio's prejudices to provoke him, even though, as Othello relates later, 'Her father loved me, oft invited me.' [1.3.129] A shock and a few crude comments from Iago is all it takes to make a respected figure turn against a close friend of equal stature simply because of skin colour.

Technically, Brabantio was not legally allowed to nullify his daughter's marriage to the Moor as she was over the age of consent. Culturally, however, he had all the support necessary to challenge the marriage given common racist assumptions of the time, and accuses Othello of sorcery and witchcraft. This means firstly that he is unable to imagine his daughter wilfully deceiving him, an understandable reaction given her past dutiful behaviour, 'so tender, fair and happy' [1.2.66] and the nature of the patriarchal society in which she lived. Secondly, like Coleridge, he cannot believe she would ever 'fall in love with what she feared to look on,' [1.3.99] without the aid of spells, and thirdly, he suggests that Othello's race makes him capable of these powers of 'black' magic - we have to ask ourselves; if Desdemona had eloped with Roderigo,

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