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In Richard Dyer’s essay, (now book) White, he states:
There are inevitable associations of white with light and therefore safety, and black with dark and therefore danger, and that this explains racism (whereas one might well argue about the safety of the cover of darkness, and the danger of exposure to light); again, and with more justice, people point to the Judaeo-Christian use of white and black to symbolize good and evil, as carried still in such expressions as “a black mark,” “white magic,” “to blacken the character” and so on. (Dyer)
These race and theory principles are prevalent throughout William Shakespeare’s Othello. Through the syntax and imagery Shakespeare utilizes, the motifs of light and dark are painted to emphasize the goodness of white, and the badness of black. Othello, the Moor of Venice, is traditionally read as a man of African decent. (While it could be speculated that he is Arab or Spanish in origin, for this analysis, I will refer to Othello as an African black.)
The play follows the relationship between Othello, a Christian Moor, general of the Venice army, and husband of Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. In the opening scene of the play, Roderigo and Iago are introduced in the streets of Venice outside of Desdemona’s father’s house. They have just learned of the secret marriage between Desdemona and Othello. Iago, seemingly irate about the situation, begins to yell in the streets, waking up Desdemona’s father, Barbantio. Iago paints an unpleasant picture for Barbantio utilizing black and white imagery: “Sir, you’re robbed! … Even now, very now, an old black ram/ Is topping your white ewe” (I.i.87-88). This color imagery describes Othello as an anthropomorphic, dark, old “ram” that has stolen Barbantio’s small, innocent, and pure daughter. Iago’s slur is effective in painting Othello as a savage, evil, dark man who utilizes his size and takes advantage of the innocent Desdemona.
This parallels Bell Hook’s article “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination” which exploes the fantasy of white goodness and black badness. Bell claims, “[society is] socialized to believe the fantasy, that whiteness represents goodness and all that is benign and non-threatening,” (Hook 341). Iago effectively associates Desdemona with white innocence, pureness and cleanness, and Othello with black and evil.
Later in Othello, Brabantio forces Othello to prove that he loves Desdemona for love’s sake and not because of some trickery or magic. Othello proves this to Brabantio, and the Duke talks to Brabantio about accepting the union of Othello and Desdemona when he states, “And, noble signor, / If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.288-290). He uses Othello’s skin color as a way to contrast good and evil. Othello is “fair” despite his “black” skin color and, as such, Othello’s demeanor does not match his physical appearance.
This interaction highlights the racism that follows from the assumption that black is evil. Many characters feel that, due to his skin color, Othello is not suitable for Desdemona. Ironically, though, it is Othello, the Moor, who proves to be too innocent and trusting; his ulitmate downfall is his belief and trust in Iago, a white man. In Iago’s most lewd monologue he states:
Ay, there’s the point: as—to be bold with you— / Not to affect many proposed matches/ Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, / Whereto we see in all things nature tends—/ Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,/ Foul disproportion thoughts unnatural. / But pardon me. I do not in position / Distinctly speak of her, Though I may fear/ Her will, recoiling to her better judgment, / May fall to match you with her country forms / And happily repent (3.3.29).
Iago is suggesting there is something unnatural about Desdemona’s attraction to Othello and that if she decided to marry someone of “her own clime, complexion” that she would be of higher distinction. He even states that she would be sexually impure because of Othello’s “rank”.
Othello is a play about racial prejudices. The use of images of light and dark, not only refer to the goodness of white and evilness of black, but also compare chasteness and impurity, love and hate. The imagery helps demonstrate how other characters relate to Othello. It adds a degree of depth and complexity to Othello that reinforces the racial stereotypes already present in the play.
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