Othello (written in 1903), one of Shakespeare’s most renowned tragedies, is both a fantasy of interracial love and social tolerance and a nightmare of racial hatred and male violence. The protagonist’s Moorish ethnicity and dark complexion provides a platform for probing ideas of racial conflict and discrimination. Similarly, the presence of well-developed contrasting female characters adds a dimension of gender conflict and feminist views. Though the themes of racial difference and gender conflict seem isolated from one another, they are strongly interrelated in the play due to similar ties of stereotype. In fact, the gender stereotypes and conflicts ignite the racist tones and set the ethnic tensions into action.
Unlike other characters in Shakespeare’s plays dealing with oppression due to difference in ethnicity (for instance, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice), Othello isn’t hated by the Venetian community or held in contempt at the beginning of the play. Rather, he is placed at a rank of honour above all white commanders and entrusted with the responsibility of leading the Venetian army and guarding the state. Othello demonstrates exceptional military prowess and hence is able to earn a name for himself in the dominant white society while being excused from prejudice and mistreatment. He enjoys relations of love and marriage within his host community just as any white male would.
The alienation and hate is instigated by his marriage to Desdemona, the senator Brabantio’s daughter. Such a marriage, involving individuals from different races, is considered against the order of nature altogether and seen as a kind of forbidden love. Brabantio had loved Othello and often invited him to his house, until the man married his daughter. Brabantio’s racist speeches thereon are sparked by the defiance of his authority shown by Desdemona, also highlighting the hierarchy of gender, father over daughter, man over woman:
She is abused, stolen from me and corrupted
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks,
For nature so preposterously to err
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not. (1.3.61-65)
When Brabantio discovers that Desdemona wasn’t forced and had willingly married Othello, he not only disowns her by proclaiming her to be dead to him, but also declares that she is overcome by witchcraft. In other words, Brabantio believes that Othello had lured her using spells and necromancy. This amounts to pure racism since he is of the belief that it was impossible for his daughter to fall in love with a Moor unless she’d been enchanted. Her deed is treated as nothing less than an act of pure adultery. A black man has nothing to offer to a white woman – even a noble soldier such as Othello.
Iago and Roderigo’s racist discourses arise from jealousy, frustration and private compulsion. This is a more irrational and implanted form of racism. Iago holds a grudge against Othello for choosing Cassio over him for the position of lieutenant, while Roderigo harbours pure jealousy since Othello seems to have “stolen away” his primary love interest, Desdemona. They hence vent out their anger by blaming his uncivilised heritage and savage origins. In doing so, they try to justify their irrational hatred by projecting it on racism, calling him the “erring barbarian”, “thick lips” and “an old black ram tupping a white ewe”. Clearly, Iago seeks harbour for his malice in resorting to sexism and racism. As observed by critic Sukanta Chaudhuri, ‘He is fascinated by the morbid stereotype of the gross but virile Negro possessing the delicate but perverted white woman.’
The culture differences, as viewed by the Venetians, and the prevailing sense of racial otherness are brought out through the allusions to magic. Brabantio of course, accuses Othello of subscribing to witchcraft and black magic. But Othello too, assumes the role of an exotic, fearsome foreigner when he talks about the legend behind his mother’s handkerchief:
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. (3.4.55-58)
This instigates Othello’s self-alienation and self-division in terms of race. He reduces himself to an exotic other even in Desdemona’s eyes when he courts her by telling her tales of travel, slavery, accidents, hair-breadth escapes and cannibals. In his last speech, he refers to himself as the “circumcised dog” revealing how tragically he has reduced himself in his own eyes.
Othello’s somewhat animalistic passion also plays up to the stereotype of an untamed barbarian from a faraway and distant land. Firstly, his own stories of slaves, cannibals and Anthropophagi, narrated so passionately to his beloved Desdemona in an attempt to court her, ideologically produce his identity as a black man within a configuration of familiar signifiers. And secondly, his act of violence and aggression at the end of the play compulsively attributes itself to his Moorish heritage. Shakespeare’s plays feature many jealous husbands and lovers who are not black, such as Claudio, Posthumus, and Leontes. But none of them are so overcome by wrath so as to murder the suspected woman. Othello’s barbaric passion, on the other hand, breaks through the controlling decencies of a more humane and civilised culture thereby emphasising the Turk-Venetian dichotomy.
While racism indeed is demonstrated in Othello, yet it has nothing to do with the tragic consequences. On the contrary, Shakespeare has displayed Othello as a good black man who was driven to do horrible things by a community of whites. It is his sexual and emotional self, expressed through his relationship with Desdemona, which finally destroys him.
Gender, too in addition to racism, is highlighted in the play as a severe form of discrimination. The male characters are not reserved in their expressions of contempt for females in general. Their treatment of women as inanimate objects displays the prominence of the marginalisation of women. All three women in the play – Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca are charged of adultery and called “whores” at one point or another.
The entire action of the play is set into motion when Desdemona defies her father (and hence the social conduct expected of her) when she marries Othello, a Moor. Brabantio and Othello’s dialogues in the first act are proof of the treatment of women as men’s possessions. Brabantio claims to have had his daughter “stolen” from him and “corrupted”, while Othello claims to have “won” her over. This shows how deep the gender stereotypes are embedded in society. Even Othello, who is portrayed as a noble and good man who loves his wife, sympathises with the idea of women being property. This “property” is simply passed on from one man’s possession to another.
Desdemona plays up to the stereotype of the submissive and docile wife. Even after being accused wrongly of adultery and falling victim to misogyny, she continues to obey Othello’s orders from the early ‘happy’ phase of their relationship through to the later stages of his jealous ravings, declaring herself “obedient”. Even when he orders Desdemona to go to her bed towards the end of Act IV, she still replies with the submissive ‘I will, my lord’. She appears to have completely accepted her role as subordinate and obedient wife. In her final breath she still remains true to her husband, saying ‘Commend me to my kind lord’. She doesn’t even fight back or retaliate when Othello smothers her. Instead, she accepts her death as punishment rather than tragic injustice.
Emilia is a more powerful character who stands as the voice of feminism in the play. As she talks to Desdemona at the end of Act IV, Emilia is fairly damming in her opinion of men:
Let husbands know,
Their wives have sense like them; they see and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour
As husbands have’ (4.3.92-95)
Her speech is reminiscent of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” in The Merchant of Venice. She argues that women are not physically subordinate to men, and that apart from sharing identical physicalities, they also share the same affections and desires. She is articulate about her beliefs regarding men being brutish and unable to control their primal urges with logical thought:
They are all but stomachs, and we are all but food:
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us. (3.4.105-108)
Iago and Othello tragically confirm her arguments.
However, even an arguably stronger character like Emilia is not excused from subjection to male domination. She indicates that she is aware of her “proper” role in society. When revealing Iago’s plotting at the end of the play, she states that:
Tis proper I obey him, but not now (5.2.195)
Although going on to betray her husband, she still feels the need to explain why she is deviating from an acceptable code of conduct.
Bianca expresses a similar sentiment when she is chastised by Cassio and consoles herself by saying that she “must be circumstanced”. She has no other option but to put up with society’s conventions.
Society weighs heavily on the shoulders of these women. They are forced to believe that they must harbour unconditional love and support for their husbands and defer to them, even if the actions of the men are questionable. On a number of occasions, women’s sexuality becomes a reason for slanderous abuse. Othello refers to Desdemona as a “subtle whore” and “cunning whore” in addition to multiple referances to her as a “strumpet”. Bianca is described by Iago as a “housewife” and “strumpet” while Emilia is labelled as a “villainous whore”. What’s truly tragic about Bianca’s case is that even though Cassio is equally involved the adulterous affair, she is the one who is downplayed and accused of having loose morals. The social conditioning is such that men may do as they please without fear of retribution. Yet, women must not do anything to offend their husbands and must adhere to the guidelines of feminine behaviour laid down by the patriarchal society.
All three women are wrongfully accused of sexual misdemeanour in the course of the play. All three, though unequal in class and rank, are equally vulnerable to a sexual charge brought against them. As male society falls apart, its constituent members find it convenient to vent their anger by labelling the female characters as “whores”. When things go wrong, it appears to be acceptable for men to blame the women.
Sexual difference and racial difference are both at the centre of conflicts in this play. Women are judged by some characters as unfaithful and deceptive, simply because they are women. Othello is judged harshly simply because he is black. There is tension between the traditional ideal of woman and a more progressive view, just as there is tension between a racist society and an accepting society. The play’s treatment of feminist tension and gender difference only serves to add to the racial overtones. And hence, Othello becomes as much about race as it is about gender.