“And when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.”
(Othello, Act III, Scene iii. Lines 91-92
Othello, W. Shakespeare).
The lines quoted above have been taken from one of William Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedies, Othello and reflect the eponymous character’s utter devotion to his wife Desdemona, which the reader continually questions in reading the play. Shakespeare’s play, written originally in 1603 and published in 1622, includes a racial perspective that is imperative for the reader to consider. The theme of gender, though, is an equally significant factor in the play. Immediately recognised is the theme of racism with the subtitle’s reference to the protagonist Othello’s identity as the ‘Moor of Venice’ and he is seen as the only black man in a European society. (The subtitle also finds a structural resonance with that of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.) He is thus caught almost in the talons of a society in which he does not instinctively belong and the norms of which he struggles to conform and comply with. Being the sole black man surrounded by white people, who were considered to be racially superior at the time, makes him strive to compensate for what is considered by the society to be a lack in him and this is why he takes the initiative to prove himself a worthy general. It is due to this state of isolation, and view of his racial identity as undesirable, in which he exists that he develops a deeply rooted sense of insecurity, which is why he is so easily swayed by the antagonist Iago’s words. In the words of critic Walter S. H. Lin, “Part of Iago’s ability to manipulate Othello with such ease can be traced to his recognition that Venice’s great general harbours deep-seated anxieties about his place and identity in Venetian society.” (Lin, W. Representing the Other: Othello, Colonialism, Discourse, 1993.)
Iago holds an air of superiority over him, despite being of a lower rank, as he is white. Iago continually refers to him as “Moor.” He also, along with character Roderigo and refers to him as “thick lips.” Brabantio, the father of Desdemona (Othello’s wife), too makes extremely prejudiced remarks against him, referring to him as “O thou foul thief” who has stolen his daughter (Act I, Scene ii. Line 62) and also says Desdemona has been “stolen from [him] and corrupted.” (Act I, Scene iii. Line 61.) He believes that his daughter could only have married Othello through some sort of trickery on his part. Thus the idea of the society’s fear of miscegenation (mixing of races) is seen here, for the first time in the play. Even in the positive view of his character taken in the play, a racial bias is seen as referring to him as “more fair than black” (Duke of Venice, Act I, Scene iii. Line 291) is considered a compliment, as black colour of skin is seen as negative. This connotation of the colour black goes unchallenged by Othello, too, and he seems to have imbibed and instilled the same attitude within himself. This can be seen in particular in his lines “Her name that was as fresh/ As Diana’s visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face is.” (Act III, Scene iii. Lines 389-391) The society that has rejected and subjugated him and decreed him as inferior remains one that he wishes and strives to be a part of. Othello baptised himself (as is revealed in Iago’s soliloquy in Act II, Scene iii, Line 338) religiously as well as metaphorically in order to conform to the Venetian society. Othello can, in this context, be compared to the play Loyalties (1922) by John Galsworthy, in which the Jewish protagonist was put through a similar discrimination, only on a religious basis, rather than a racial one.
There can also be seen the notion of black men bring believed to be less evolved and animalistic, and this deeply discriminatory reading is employed in the play some critics. Michael Neill writes, “Othello is the study of an assimilated savage who relapses into primitivism under stress,” suggesting that he is actually, as he is a black man, less ‘human’ than the white characters and is more primitive. He feels that Othello conceals this in order to blend into society and, when stressed, goes back to his less “evolved” state, referring to the notion of atavistic regression. (Neill, M. Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery and the Hideous in Othello, 1989.) There existed also the persistent belief that black men contaminated white women if they have sexual interactions (with the concept of miscegenation coming up) and Othello, in his insecurity and desire for conformity, feeds into this notion and thus starts to believe that he has ‘soiled’ Desdemona. Iago too feels that their match is unnatural and goes “against nature itself.” This seems outrageous to the reader however, as Othello was not the only male character to show violent dominance towards a woman- but was the only one called a “savage” for it. Also reflecting the deeply racist society outside of the play is the fact that this “Moor”, a term now considered offensive slander, was not played by an actual black man until centuries after the play was first performed- Othello was instead played in each adaptation by a white man wearing face paint or pigments.
The play itself analyses the deeply racist mindset of the society, and this racism is directed not towards Othello alone. The recurring usage of the word ‘Turk’ as an insult by various characters in the play, from the antagonist Iago to the protagonist Othello, since everything foreign and barbarian is considered bad and insulting underlines this. Richard Knolle claims, in his essay The Generall Historie of the Turks (1603), that the Turk of the Ottoman Empire represents the “professed enemy of the Christian.” This is ironic as Othello uses this word insultingly too, taking thus a racist stance, while himself being a subject of racism in the play. In the final (fifth) act, the discovery scene between Othello and Desdemona is the precise moment in the play when “scarring, whiteness, beauty and Othello’s blackness are most powerfully visible.” (Felicity A. Nussbaum. The Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race, and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century, 2003.) Othello’s wish not to “scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” (Act V, Scene ii. Line 4) irradiates this as well.
Society’s view of Othello’s relationship with his wife, Desdemona, is seen as being warped. They consider it an unnatural relationship and some even argue to the extent that their sexual relationship is an act of rape, by simultaneously proclaiming that women do not have sexual urges and that all black men are rapists. Thus, both race and gender assumptions are revealed and these arguments are broken down by Othello and his wife’s relationship. Desdemona deviates from conventional behaviour and proclaims, “I did love the Moor to live with him.” (Act I, Scene iii. Line 249). The play can be seen as dealing with gender bias as this is evidenced in the characters of the play in that there exists a prevalent assumption that it is every married man’s destiny to be cuckolded by his wife as all woman are inherently promiscuous. This point is also strengthened by the belief in the mind of the characters that sexual compliance is something to be expected of women, and this is the prominent discourse in the society. Othello’s struggle can be seen in his finally entering the white patriarchal world he stubbled against, done by possessing Desdemona, according to Chaudhuri, S. in Shakespeare and the Ethnic Question.
Desdemona however, defies the conventional role that women are expected to conform to. In the very beginning of the second act, she converses and repartees with a man known for his slanderous statements (Iago), and engages with him wittily. She comes across thus as a robust character who defies the norms of femininity prevalent at the time, since she does not embody a pure, chaste or reserved woman. Therefore she is able to fight against society’s pre-set gender roles. Iago’s sexist as well as sexual humour, that Desdemona indulges momentarily, becomes disturbing and perverse. He and Cassio indulge in jokes that are in bad taste, that inspire outrage rather than amusement in the reader. Through this, Iago and Cassio are exposed to be sexist characters in the play. Their sexism can also be seen in Cassio’s treatment of a courtesan he uses and discards for his own pleasure, Bianca, and Iago’s attitude of manipulation, neglect and animosity towards, and ultimate murder of, his wife, Emilia. Iago also exploits Bianca and conveniently lays all blame (of Cassio’s death) upon her, due to her inferiority in both class and gender (Act V, Scene ii). This reveals not only his misogyny but that of the entire Elizabethan society- portrayed by Shakespeare on a microcosmic level in the characters of the play as a synecdoche- as no one defends or attempts to vindicate her. She thus becomes another victim of the patriarchy.
In Iago in particular, a sort of chauvinism can be seen, so much so that critics have speculated on his sexual orientation, proposing that he may have a homoerotic love towards Othello. This theory, though far-fetched, finds basis in Iago’s frequent and effusive expression of love for Othello as well as Shakespeare’s tendency to explore homosexual themes in his plays and poems. This can be seen in his ‘Sonnet 13’ or ‘Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?’ (1608), said to be written by him about a boy as well as in the homosexual love investigated through the motif of cross-dressing in his plays Twelfth Night and As You Like It. In both plays mentioned, female characters (Olivia and Phebe respectively) develop an attraction towards the cross-dressing protagonists of the same gender, mistaking them as men. In Othello itself too, homoerotic resonances may be found in Act III, Scene iii, where the supposed image of Desdemona and Cassio to be presented to Othello is displaced onto Iago and Cassio.
Othello also takes on gender as a theme in a bleak way, since both prominent wife characters in the play are murdered by their husbands, thus indicating how marriages are marked with male cruelty and jealousy. Unmarried woman are considered their father’s property, and once they are married the patriarchal ownership shifts to their husband in a male-centric transfer of dominant order, like in the orthodox Indian belief, that still prevails in rural regions. This notion is also seen reflected in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where the society panders to masculine desires. Gender roles are thus seen in the play as antagonistic. Othello himself has little faith in his own wife and accepts a handkerchief as ocular proof of her infidelity. He considers her a whore because of a handkerchief alone. Critic Arthur L. Little comments on this in his essay An Essence That’s Not Seen: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello (1993), saying the handkerchief constitutes “ocular proof of what [Othello] thinks he has missed seeing all along.” With the handkerchief being presented to him being considered a “visual testimonial that Desdemona has been transformed (or deformed) into a whore.” (Little, 1993.) Another critic, Thomas Rymer, dismisses the symbol Little attaches such significance to, referring to the play Othello as “tragedy of a handkerchief,” believing it to be flippant or frivolous. (Rymer, 1693.) However, one can comprehend the significance of this object and thus justify the importance attached to it.
Despite his insecure feeling of not quite belonging to Venetian society, Othello is a strongly masculine character and holds fast to his male pride and vanity. This is illuminated in Act IV, Scene i, in his public striking of her and in Act III, Scene iii (line 349) as well, where his masculinity again manifests itself along almost violent lines. He claims that he would rather have Desdemona be “tasted” by “pioneers and all,” (the lowest rank of soldiers) than have himself know about her being with another man. This is almost like a punishment he is wishing on her and the reader can note that he operates on a motive of self-interest more than regard for his loved ones. He is more concerned for his pride and mental distress than the wife he seemed at first to be so devoted and affectionate towards. Othello is also seen to adopt the patriarchal mindset when he decides to allow the onus of preserving the marriage to lie on his wife’s shoulders. He asserts, in the subsequent scene (Act III, Scene iv), that if Desdemona were to loose the handkerchief he had gifted to her, he would no longer love her. The handkerchief thus becomes symbolic of the maintenance of their relationship and the efforts the wife must put in to uphold it. The handkerchief thus becomes not only a gift, but also a threat or warning and this is reinforced when it later “becomes a sign of her unfaithfulness.” (Harry Berger. Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona’s Handkerchief, 1996.) The balance in their relationship is thus broken as Othello begins to find ways to possess or take control of Desdemona. His almost obsessive fanaticism over the handkerchief can be compared to the passion that turns to obsession in Robert Browning’s 1836 poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover.’ There is a sense of ‘reason in madness’ and ‘madness in reason’ that resonates with the poem as well as the play (and most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet). Also seen in both Othello and Porphyria’s unnamed lover is that they claim their act of murder was an act of justice, trying to rationalise and justify their deed. Othello claims “she must die, or else she’ll betray more men” (Act V, Scene ii. Line 6), an argument that is illogical. His proclamation that his love for her will persist after her death, too, is reminiscent of Browning’s poem.
Furthermore, Desdemona, on realising the base of their relationship has ceased to exist, rejects Othello and claims, “I have [no lord]” (Act IV, Scene ii. Line 104), refusing to recognise him as her lord. She has also become distracted and her thoughts are scattered, as is elucidated in her bewildered questioning of Emilia’s statements. Towards the end of the play, she becomes almost meek and submissive to Othello, even going so far as to take the blame for her impending murder, responding to Emilia’s “Who hath done this?” with “Nobody, I myself.” (Act V, Scene ii. Lines 133-134) She can be seen to become so defeated that she refuses to even defend herself (until faced directly with Othello’s suspicion, by which time it is too late to alter his decision of murdering her) as women are forced to do constantly. However, Emilia makes an empowered choice and stands up for her mistress (Desdemona) an asserts her power, also establishing her place firmly as an important female character. She maintains her loyalty and fights for her fellow woman’s integrity. This is in contrast with her behaviour previously during the course of the play, when she had been subdued and submissive, as her character in the source text for Othello, Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi (1565), where she remains quiet out of fear of Iago. Her feminism in the play however, does not appear to extend to Bianca, and she sides with her husband in his false incrimination of her very soon after she had talked of equality of the sexes, calling Bianca a “strumpet.” (Act V, Scene ii.) In this way, her feminism can be seen to be subject to constrains of class. Thus, Shakespeare has awarded a significant amount of power and significance to his female characters. Despite the struggles of the female characters, however, they continue to be stereotyped. Desdemona is stereotyped even by her own father Brabantio who warns that because she deceived her father to marry Othello, she will deceive him, too, and be promiscuous. This is indicated in the lines, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:/ She has deceived her father, and may thee.” (Act I, Scene iii. Line 10).
In this way, both the themes of race and gender are simultaneously exposed in the play. Both these ideas tend to be looked upon as grounds for prejudice by the dominant majority, thus hindering progress. Thus, race and gender are juxtaposed in the play while simultaneously exposing the deeply prejudiced mindset of the Elizabethan society. In the play, Othello is subjected to discrimination by the white-skinned and the women characters fall victim to the patriarchy. In David McPherson’s opinion, characters are helpless, and fall “prey to the forces of their social environment” (Othello and the Sexual Reputation of Venice).