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Reading practices can be adopted when reading literature to view a text through a certain perspective and extract a distinct meaning from the text. By adopting a post-colonial reading practice, Shakespeare’s arguably contentious and highly charged Jacobean play, Othello, a black general, can be considered to perpetuate the racist attitudes prevalent in 16th century Europe. For modern day readers, it is impossible to ignore the stark contrast between the racial ideals Shakespeare naturalises and the egalitarian intentions of today’s society. The play’s setting, colonial Venice, functions to allow the racism directed towards the protagonist, Othello or the ‘Moor of Venice’, to occur, while the unfounded perceptions other characters have regarding Othello are obvious examples of racial stereotyping. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s conscious decision to have Othello fulfil racial stereotypes can be criticised through a postcolonial reading.
16th century Venice is the setting for Othello. It was a period of rapid colonisation by military powers such as Spain, Britain and Portugal. Venice was a merchant capital, where colonisers would meet to trade their goods and stories. This setting operates in Othello to allow the existence of racist attitudes, particularly the notion white colonists are superior to other races such as the African and West Indian traders and slaves who passed through Venice. Othello is one such man, often described as ‘the Other’ for he is marginalised from white colonial society due to his black skin. The Duke of Venice tells Brabantio Othello is “more fair than black”, supposedly paying him a compliment. However, through a postcolonial perspective, and further from the context of a reader in multicultural society with an awareness of historical race issues, the Duke’s words are blatantly racist. The Duke assumes that being ‘fair’ or white-skinned is better than being black and is praising Othello for being more like a white man. In this colonial society, Othello does become more heavily influenced by colonial attitudes and attempts to integrate himself into Venice’s white society. One example of this is the way Othello begins speaking more like a coloniser would to describe his travels. His language reflects the mixed level of awe and disgust of reminiscently colonial descriptions referring to the “cannibals who eat each other’s flesh” and “the hills whose heads touch high heaven.” Venice clearly functions to perpetuate racist ideologies by favouring white colonists and forcing ‘the other’ to conform, evident through the use of a postcolonial reading.
From the application of a postcolonial reading, Shakespeare seems to support a colonial agenda, with characters strongly stereotyping Othello’s character, with no consequence for their bias. Iago calls Othello “thicklips” and likens him to “a Barbary horse.” Such bestial images are common throughout the play. Brabantio expresses his fears for his daughter Desdemona, who marries Othello against his wishes. He wonders how his daughter could “marry what she feared to look upon,” as though he is a hideous beast. Other characters have equally racist perceptions of Othello, reflecting Jacobean attitudes towards ‘the Other’ or the foreigner. The idea of Othello being ‘exotic’ is also displayed through the way Othello’s behaviour is interpreted by other characters. Desdemona loves Othello, but it seems not for his endearing qualities but rather in the ways he is different to her. She “loved [him] for the dangers he had passed,” and also because he is mysterious and enchanting to her, showing her his mother’s handkerchief that “has magic in the web of it.” Through a postcolonial lens, Shakespeare’s decision to inject an element of magic and superstition to Othello’s character reflects racial stereotypes of Jacobean England that arose from colonisers branding them ‘exotic’, further contributing to their separation from society as ‘the Other.’ The perspectives of characters towards Othello can be disconcerting for contemporary Western readers, who have a knowledge of the division racial stereotyping and colonial attitudes of superiority can create within a society.
Shakespeare can be argued to oppose miscegenation or mixed race marriages (and the offspring they produce), a perpetuation of a common view in 16th century Jacobean England and Europe. Many characters are concerned about Desdemona and Othello’s union, with Iago warning Brabantio “an old black ram is this instant tupping at your white ewe”, and further describing them as “making the beast with two backs.” This is another use of the bestial imagery that recurs throughout the play, which fills Brabantio with fear and disgust, rousing him to oppose their marriage. Ultimately, Othello and Desdemona’s marriage fails, a strong indication that Shakespeare did not believe mixed race marriages could succeed. Othello is aware of this prejudice and in the middle of the play he begins to believe in it too, claiming Desdemona could not want him as her husband because “[he] had not the soft parts of conversation… haply for I am black.” Thus, it is clear Shakespeare’s Othello perpetuates the belief miscegenation presents a danger to society and cannot succeed.
Finally, a postcolonial reading reveals the extent to which 16th century colonial attitudes are perpetuated in the actions of Othello when he eventually fulfils the racial expectations placed upon him. After being considered “the devil” by Iago and animal-like by Brabantio, among others, Othello eventually internalises these opinions and becomes violent. He “[strangles] Desdemona” to death, fulfilling the racist expectations that he has little willingness or knowledge of how one must behave in “polite” Venetian society. His violence confirms the racist beliefs ‘the Other’ are savage and animalistic and will inevitably succumb to their basic primal urges. The conclusive indication that Shakespeare’s play, Othello, perpetuates racist 16th century ideologies is the fact that white Desdemona dies at the hands of her black husband, the Moor.
A postcolonial reading offers an insight into the way Shakespeare perpetuates 16th century ideologies surrounding race. The setting, Venice, is constructed to facilitate and generate racial prejudice, while the attitudes of other characters towards the Moor are blatantly racist. Shakespeare upholds 16th century views on miscegenation and ‘the Other’, which can be deemed as unacceptable in today’s increasingly progressive society.
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