Race in Othello- An Essay

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Race in Othello- An Essay


Racism refers to discrimination or prejudice directed against an individual of a different race based on such a belief. It is people who prejudice and discriminate others because of their skin color and ethnicity. Racial beliefs and opinions by a society affect the mindset that the social environments have its associated bias.


My topic is on race in literature using Shakespeare’s Othello. People discriminate against others for different reasons: greed for power, fear, need for disassociation and envy. Thus, they can express their hatred to others just because of skin color. Shakespeare’s Othello is a Moor, a black man –indeed, one of the first black heroes in English literature. The play addresses interracial marriage. While other characters have a problem with interracial marriage, Othello and Desdemona are happily in love. Othello holds a significant position of power and influence that makes him become accepted into Veteran society for he is a brave soldier (Erickson 133). When the play starts, Othello is seen to have not experienced any racial discrimination. However, Iago succeeds in ruining Othello’s mind together with his wife Desdemona by revealing the existence of racist ideas to Othello.  Iago’s manipulation of Othello comes to pass by harboring racist-fueled resentment. Towards the end of the play, people begin using Othello’s skin color in condemning his erratic behavior. Othello’s believe that racism exist makes him establish it too. My research paper will discuss race in literature using Shakespeare’s Othello where racism is seen to be a major concern in Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello. A Student Sample: ORDER YOUR PAPER NOW

The Theatrical Framework

  • Racial influence by people: I will be examining whether or not other people influence our attitudes, perceptions, ideas, and behavior towards racism. Shakespeare Othello play will guide me in discussing and finding out the reality of this argument. In the paper, I will argue out how Othello’s personal identity was manipulated by the antagonist characters in the play and how this applies to the contemporary society today.
  • The society and race: I will be explaining what the white’s view the blacks. I will examine different people’s views and beliefs about race and how this shape today’s literature. In the paper, I will show how the Elizabethan society discriminates against people from other races especially black men.

Main Research Question

  • How does Othello’s race a factor shape the play as perceived by audiences in different contexts of time, and why?

Related Research Questions

  • Which characters is Shakespeare’s Othello make an issue of Othello’s race? What is the nature of stereotypes evident in this play?
  • How does Othello’s race affect his relationships with Desdemona and the other characters?
  • What is the role of Othello’s race in building his self-identity as a brave hero?

Research Paper Hypothesis

In Othello, Shakespeare writes about a hero who is not a racist stereotype. Despite his effort, Shakespeare allows Othello to succumb to racial threats that surround him. Othello’s racial identity is undesirable for he lacks confidence something which allows Iago to fool him that Desdemona is cheating on him. I believe that if Othello was firm of his ideas, Iago would not have manipulated his strong stand and believes that were not racial oriented. The black people have the same importance as the whites. The main hypothesis of Shakespeare’s Othello play in this study will be “race affects our relationship when our ideas are manipulated by ill-minded people about our progress”. Here, Othello’s position of power and influence together with his desire to love Desdemona is influenced by Iago’s ill advice which he, Othello acknowledges and finally leads to his failure. In this research paper, I will relate the racial instances evidenced in Shakespeare’s Othello and their applicability to today’s contemporary society and its perception of racial differences.

Race in Literature

People influence our attitudes, perceptions, and ideas towards racism. In Shakespeare Othello, Iago compromises Othello’s believe about racism (Orkin 166). When the play begins, Othello does not know whether racism exists. However, Iago reveals to him the existence of racist ideas that compromise his non-discriminative behavior. Iago’s attempt to manipulate Othello’s perception of people’s color comes to pass. For this to happen, Iago utilizes Othello’s race to belittle and ridicule him by calling him “thick lips”. These insecurities surrounding Othello’s race contributes to his belief that Desdemona is having an affair. Being a black man, Othello feels that he is not worth Desdemona’s attention. Further, Othello begins to disregard his power and influence position in the Veteran society due to Iago’s influence (Erickson 133). In the play, Brabantio is seen to be unhappy of his daughter’s choice of suitor, due to Othello’s race. Desdemona’s father (Brabantio) is excited about Othello’s bravery but when it comes to loving her, Othello is not the best man for her daughter. Brabantio believes that Othello used trickery to win Desdemona: “O thou damned thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter? (Act 1 Scene ii. Line 62). The race of Othello is a major issue for Brabantio and Iago but, as an audience, we are rooting for Othello, and Shakespeare’s celebration of Othello as a black man is ahead of its time. Shakespeare’s Othello empowers the audience to celebrate Othello and guard against the white man’s mockery of the African race. The social environment of the Elizabethan society restricts interaction of the whites with the black, something which remains of great interest to today’s literature on race by different authors.

The society encourages racism through its fear of miscegenation (mixing of races). Brabantio believes that his daughter Desdemona could only have married Othello through some sorts of trickery for he is a white man and does not encourage the mixing of the black and white races in marriage (Orkin 170). The racial bias is seen of Brabantio’s character when he refers Othello as “more fair than black” (Duke of Venice, Act 1, Scene iii. Line 291). The reckless behavior and kind of words Brabantio use against Othello are racial bias and depicts black color as a negative race that is backward and unworthy to be part of his family. Othello too fails to challenge this black color connotation for he seems instilled and imbibed with the same perception too. In particular, this is portrayed when he says “Her name that was as fresh/ As Diana’s visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face is” (Act 3, Scene iii. Lines 389-391). It is ironical of Othello for he desires to be part of the society that has subjugated and rejected him by viewing him as inferior just because he is a Black African. As revealed in Iago’s soliloquy in Act 2, Scene iii, Line 338, Othello religiously baptizes himself metaphorically in an attempt to conform and fit the Veteran society. In this context, Othello attracts comparison to the play Loyalties by John Galsworthy where the Jewish protagonist underwent similar but religious bias other than racial discrimination. A Student Sample: ORDER YOUR PAPER NOW

Further, racism is a vice that attracts hatred and misinformed perceptions about the blacks by the whites. In Shakespeare Othello, the whites have a notion that black men are less evolved, more backward and animalistic in nature; such a deep discrimination is noted by the play’s critics. Michael Neill notes, “Othello is the study of an assimilated savage who lapses into primitivism under stress,” something which suggests as a black-man, Othello is less “human” and more primitive when compared to the white characters in the play (Orkin 185). However, Othello is believed to conceal this as a strategy to blending into the society and when stressed, he returns to his less “evolved” state- an atavistic regression notion (Neill, M. Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery and the Hideous in Othello, 1989). Also, there was a belief that black men contaminated white women in case they have a sexual affair. Othello, in his insecurity and desire for conformity with the whites, leads us to this notion something which makes the audience begin believing that Othello has soiled Desdemona (Orkin 188). Iago’s feeling is that Desdemona is not Othello’s perfect match for this was not natural and went “against nature itself”. Also in the play, the term “Moor” was used and considered offensive and was not acted by an actual black man- instead, it was played by a white man who wearing face pigments and paints.

The societies we live in possess a strange mindset about racial differences. In Shakespeare’s Othello play, the author analyses the society’s deep mindset about racism that is not directed towards Othello alone (Bartels 449). The antagonist character, Iago together with other white characters in the play recurrently use the word “Turk” to insult the protagonist, Othello, and other blacks. All foreign things are considered barbaric and bad to the domestic society. In Richard Knolle’s essay The General Historie of the Turks (1603), he claims that the Turk of the Ottoman Empire stands for the “professed enemy of the Christian.” His argument is too ironic of Othello for he uses this word too insultingly to take a racial stance as he himself is a subject of racism in Shakespeare’s play. The fifth act of the play presents a scaring scene between Desdemona and Othello where the aspect of racism on whiteness, beauty and Othello’s blackness are evidenced. (Felicity A. Nussbaum. The Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race, and Gender in the Long Eighteen Century, 2003). It is not Othello’s wish to “scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” (Act 5, Scene ii. Line 4).

Society’s view of love is warped by racial differences. The view of the society on Othello’s relationship with Desdemona is being warped in various instances. The society considers this relationship as unnatural to the extent that some think their sexual relationship as an act of rape by frequently proclaiming that all black men are rapists and that white women do not have sexual desires. Such a stereotype generalized to all black men is targeted on Othello who is the only black man in a love affair with Desdemona (Bartels 448). Both gender and race biases are evidenced in the play. Desdemona deviates from conventional behavior as she proclaims, “I did love the Moor to live with him.” (Act 1, Scene iii, Line 249). The Moor is a member of the dispossessed and displaced race of the time period. Brabantio’s hatred on Othello that makes him disapprove her daughters’ decision to love Othello is instigated by the Moors black skin color (Bartels 454). According to Iago, Othello is not worth holding the position of power and influence in the military while civilized whites like him are alive. Brabantio strongly holds that her daughter deserves a high born white Veteran and not black Moor like Othello.

Racism and witchcraft are also presented in Shakespeare’s Othello play. Further, Brabantio racist atmosphere is displayed when he confronts Othello of marrying his daughter Desdemona. Brabantio forces Othello to show his where his girl was. Brabantio’s discovery that Othello did not force Desdemona to marry her and that it was her daughter’s willingness to get married by the black man makes him fury over the instance (Bartels 453). Brabantio cannot believe that her daughter was on her right senses and goes on to believe that Othello used witchcraft on her. This is racism of the highest order since Brabantio believes that her daughter is not worth to fall in love with a Moor and cannot do it unless the black man used some sort of witchcraft (Bartels 450). The father thinks that noble white women have nothing to gain from loving black men who are backward, uneducated, and cursed. The association of love to witchcraft just because Desdemona marries a black man depicts how Brabantio is bound with racial thoughts and ideas that are barbaric, and this shapes modern race literature.

People hide their racial prejudice on others based on cultural stereotypes and admiration. In Shakespeare’s Othello play, Othello’s desire to engage Desdemona is not considered right. Brabantio is told to arise and watch an old black man top his white ewe. The black man is called a devil by the society who calls Brabantio to awake the snorting whites with a bell before Othello wins Desdemona’s love (Felicity 97). Brabantio hides is racial discrimination towards Othello by respecting him as a professional military leader by openly stating that the Black’s presence in England was endangering their girls and that his respect on Othello was nothing but affection and admiration of good leadership qualities of him. Brabantio clearly states that other than leadership, Othello deserved nothing else in England and that he deserved no right to freely interact with the whites as far as love affairs were concerned. When Othello marries his daughter, Brabantio is forced to enter into a more intimate relationship with the protagonist. However, he discards this relationship for he is strapped by cultural stereotypes that black men are cruel, dangerous, lustful, and ugly and the devil’s cousin (Felicity 98).  This shows how racially biased he is and how his thinking has been swayed by the society’s stereotypes on black men something which he labels on Othello.

The traditional religious outlook on the world is also racially controlled. Although Othello joined Christianity in an attempt to fight Muslim Ottomans for the sake of Christian country, the religion accepts him partially. Elizabethan’s awareness of foreigners was largely conditioned by a traditional religious outlook on the world’s races. Othello’s decision to embrace Christianity religion was treated in a superficial manner by the Elizabethans. Despite Othello’s efforts to undertake his role as a general and his appreciation by the Venice authorities who respected his position, the society fails to accept him in their religion despite further marrying a Venetian girl (Felicity 90). As a result, racial anxiety and tensions pervade Othello’s atmosphere while serving the Venetian society. Othello himself has a great aspiration and anxiety on the white’s perception about his blackness something which was making him feel dehumanized (330). Today, racism has taken roots in the contemporary society especially in the western countries. Disapproving people’s choice and position of power due to racial differences are eroding the society. The despised and belittled races due to their black skin color feel dehumanized and psychologically disturbed, and this evident in race literature in the case of Shakespeare’s Othello play. A Student Sample: ORDER YOUR PAPER NOW

Further, there are societal norms of femininity that are prevalent in the time period. Desdemona defies the conventional role that the society expects women to conform to. Desdemona wittily converses with Iago using a slanderous language. In this context, she becomes the robust character who disregards the femininity norms that are positioned on the society by not embodying a holy, chaste, or reserved lady (Felicity 88). As a result, Desdemona fights the pre-set sex roles by the society. She momentarily indulges Iago’s sexiest humor which she considers pervasive and disturbing. Iago and Cassio indulge in bad taste jokes that inspire outrage instead of amusement in the audience. Iago’s attitude is manipulative, neglecting, animosity and full of a feud since he wants to be superior in everything. His animosity attitude motivates him to manipulate Othello’s ethical ideas and make him understand about racism. Iago rates Othello to the same class as that of women in the society for it is inferior to men. The position of the black men is inferior to that of the whites (Act 5, Scene ii). Shakespeare’s Othello offers no defense to the blacks, and this is evident in today’s contemporary society.


Shakespeare’s Othello theme of race is exposed throughout the play. Race in literature as a subject has been significantly manifested the play basically among Othello, Iago, Brabantio, and Desdemona who are the main characters of the play. The idea of racism tends to be looked upon as a ground for bias and prejudice by the vast majority, thus derailing progress. Race is juxtaposed with gender in Shakespeare’s Othello play in a simultaneous manner that exposes Elizabethans society prejudiced mindset. As explained in the literature, Othello undergoes racial discrimination by the white-skinned Iago and Brabantio where the women characters in the play; mainly Desdemona fall victim to the patriarchy. The black men are viewed to be cruel, inhumane, harmful, devilish, and womanizers in that they have no worth in loving the white girls. Black men have associated with witchcraft something which depicts racism of the highest order by the Elizabethan society. According to David McPherson’s opinion, characters are of the play become helpless and fall “prey to the forces of their social environment” (Shakespeare’s Quarterly). The society’s mindset on races is barbaric and immoral. There is a need for more race literature that offers counter-arguments to Shakespeare’s Othello play to depict a society whose social environment forces do not discriminate against racial differences among people from different backgrounds. A Student Sample: ORDER YOUR PAPER NOW

Work Cited

Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41.4 (1990): 433-454.

Erickson, Peter. “Images of white identity in Othello.” Othello: New Critical Essays 28 (2002): 133.

Orkin, Martin. “Othello and the” plain face” Of Racism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38.2 (1987): 166-188.

Felicity, Nussbaum A. “The Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race, and Gender in the Long Eighteen Century” (2003): 80-98

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