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Racism and sexism are prominent twentieth century ideas, both which are main themes in many of Shakespeare’s works. In The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare, the character of Othello is used as the subject of discrimination and his wife, Desdemona, as the victim of bigotry. Shakespeare utilizes the marriage of Desdemona and Othello to both satirize Elizabethan society’s view that Black and White relations are conducted by the devil, while also bringing up the idea that mixed-race marriages would produce mixed-race children. Likewise, Shakespeare ridicules how women and Blacks are treated and bring up the notion that society should rethink their views of both groups.
William Shakespeare based Othello on a short novel by Giraldi Cinthio (see Appendix A for Character Alignment). However, Cinthio’s version had an obscure theme of racism as there was a Black man present in the story, but this character was not used as a subject of prejudice. very little said beyond that point. Shakespeare’s version on the other hand is very much devoted to the motif of racism, it is one of the few things Shakespeare changed between his play and the original story, suggesting that he wanted to bring attention to this subject. Analyst Alexander W. Crawford states that “The dramatist has almost completely changed the point of view of the whole story, by inventing an entirely new, and perhaps loftier if not better, motive for his Iago.” (Crawford) In Cinthio’s story, the Ensign, renamed Iago in Shakespeare’s play, is in love with Disdemona, spelled with an “i” instead of an “e” in the original version, who rejects him, which leads him to tricking Othello into hating her. If the Ensign could not have Disdemona, then he did not want anyone to have her. In the play, however, there is very little evidence that Iago loves Desdemona even though it is clear he does not love his wife, Emilia, very much either as he does murder her in the end just so she does not spoil his plan. Shakespeare’s Iago has the motive of losing a promotion that Othello acquired and he brings the motif of race into the story in this manner. Iago uses the other characters’ hatred of mixed-race relations and Black people, such as Othello, in general to get what he wants: for Othello to lose his newly-gained position.
As expected, the outsider of Shakespeare’s play, Othello, is the subject of racism by many of the other characters, including himself. The play begins with Roderigo and Iago using only racial slurs, instead of names, to talk about Othello which gives the audience a grotesque image of the protagonist. The slurs portray him as if he is an animal since he is called “Thick-lips” (Shakespeare I.i.68), “old black ram” (I.i.90), and “Barbary horse” (I.i.115).
In her analysis of Othello, literary expert Nicole Smith states that “Before the reader is ever given a clue about the identity of Othello, there are only the images of animals and beasts.” (Smith) The audience thinks poor thoughts of Othello because that is the only information it is given. However, the first time Othello arrives on stage, he is portrayed with eloquence and the audience is immediately given a conflicting view of him. Smith fittingly calls it the “[…] presentation of the ‘two Othellos’ (the one defines at the beginning in negative terms and the one we see for ourselves).” (Smith) These two versions of Othello are used by Shakespeare to contrast how the Elizabethan society perceived Black people–as animals–and how Black people like Othello are in reality–composed and far from beastly. Shakespeare satirizes how erroneous some of the racial slurs are and makes the audience contemplate how their society perceives discriminated groups. In her analysis, Karen Kay supports this by saying “Throughout the play, Shakespeare explores a rhetoric of ‘blackness’, but always with an ironic distance.” (Kay) As an addition to the short novel, Shakespeare makes seventeenth-century England ponder its assumptions of those they discriminate against.
Besides the Elizabethan idea that black men and women are animals, they were also perceived as evil. The Shmoop Editorial Team explored the “sixteenth century idea that black men were evil and that the devil often took the shape and form of a black man.” (Shmoop Editorial Team) This gives light as to why Brabantio is so upset when he finds out Desdemona has run off with a Moor since they could potentially have mixed-race children, another paranoia of Elizabethan society. Shakespeare uses the marriage of Desdemona and Othello to satirize this fear since Othello is such a poised and composed man that, if they were to have children, it seems that they would actually be far from Iago’s idea that they will “neigh” (I.i.116) since Moors are considered animals. When alerting Desdemona’s father, “Iago and Roderigo hint at the concept of Othello and Desdemona’s future children being half-breeds that will become the ridicule of society and bring shame upon Brabantio.” (Schatzie) Though the marriage of Desdemona and Othello brings up the topic of mixed-race children, it is Brabantio, with the help of Iago and Roderigo, who makes a fuss about it. Shakespeare gives voice to Elizabethan society’s fear of miscegenation, or mixed-race children resulting from a mixed-race marriage.
While Shakespeare exaggerated the theme of racism from the short story, he simply regurgitated Cinthio’s theme of sexism. A prominent theme in seventeenth-century England was the idea that women were property to be nothing more than traded and sold. In Othello, both Brabantio and Othello view Desdemona as property. This can be seen initially when Iago alerts Brabantio that Desdemona has run off. He says “What tell’st thou me of robbing?” (I.i.109) meaning that Othello has stolen Desdemona from him as if she were merely a piece of furniture. On this subject, the Shmoop Editorial Team talks about the history behind this statement. “[…] it’s pretty common in Shakespeare’s plays (and sixteenth-to-seventeenth-century England in general) for daughters to be considered their fathers’ property – unmarried women are often portrayed as something to be stolen, bartered for and/or traded by men.” (Shmoop Editorial Team) Elizabethan society viewed males as the dominant sex, and as such, they had the power to control women, leading men to view them as property.
Later in the play, Othello learns of the alleged affair Desdemona is having with Cassio. He proclaims:
What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harm’d not me:
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips:
He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stol’n,
Let him not know’t, and he’s not robb’d at all. (III.iii.346-351)
Othello believes that Desdemona has been stolen from him and, as this is a major turning point in the play, he decides he has not been robbed as he does not miss her. This is a turning point because Othello has shifted from loving Desdemona to hating her just by Iago’s influence. This “influence” that Iago has stems from the fact that he is a White, Christian, Male with a high military status, giving him power to share his opinion. The Shmoop Editorial Team also commented on this quote, saying that “When Othello (and Brabantio) say that Desdemona is something that has been ‘robb’d’ or ‘stol’n’ from them, they talk about her as if she’s a piece of property that passes from one man to the next.” This theme of sexism towards women can also be seen when Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has cheated on him.
The play ends the way it does, with Othello and Iago both murdering their wives, because Iago instills the fear in Othello that his wife is cheating on him. A credited Shakespeare analyst, Stephen Greenblatt, in his essay “The Improvisation of Power”, states “for all of the cheap tricks Iago plays seem somehow inadequate to produce the unshakeable conviction of his wife defilement that seizes Othello’s soul and drives him mad.” (Greenblatt 52) Iago simply telling Othello that his wife has been cheating on him convinces Othello to a large degree this is true, even with no proof. There is a historical reason for the immediate negative assumptions about women, however. In William Shakspeare, Complete Works’s introduction to Othello, it is stated that men “exploit the stereotypical image of Venetian women [, that they are] habitual sexual deceivers.” (Bate et al. 2081) This theme of women cheating on their husbands is echoed throughout Othello, as Iago believes that “[…] the Moor/ […] that ‘twixt my sheets/ He has done my office” (I.iii.378-330) meaning that Iago believes Emilia has cheated on him with Othello, though the audience knows that to be false. One of the reasons Othello is so easily convinced he is being cheated on, is that he believes that all husbands are destined to be cheated on:
O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad,
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon,
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses. Yet, ’tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base;
‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death:
Even then this forked plague is fated to us
When we do quicken. (III.iii.272-281)
Othello is saying that every man will become a cuckold-a man who has been cheated on by his wife-because Elizabethan society at that time believed all women deceived their husbands. However, the audience knows that Desdemona has not cheated on Othello and Shakespeare uses this knowledge to satirize their patriarchal beliefs: though men may assume that their wife has cheated on them, as it is a way of life, society pulls back to the position of the audience and sees that the assumptions men make are untrue. Their expectations of women to be sexual beasts that cheat on their husbands with every opportunity is seen as false for Desdemona has been completely faithful to Othello, and his proclamation that she is a “whore” is seen as unjustifiable and idiotic to those watching the play.
The date of the play also commands recognition. It was first performed in 1604 and written around the same time. Dominic Shellard, a historical Shakespeare analyst, isolates the other major event of the year as “James I ends war with Spain – King’s Men preform for Spanish Ambassador at Somerset House” (Shellard 111). Because the word “Moor” indicates a Spanish Muslim, it is not a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote the play after the ending of the war. First of all, England could have been worried that, since they were not fighting anymore, some Spaniards may infect the Christian community with their Muslim beliefs. Second of all, if Spaniards came in and “mixed-races” like Desdemona and Othello did, then their religion and society would be corrupt according to their beliefs or patriarchy and prejudice.
As mentioned earlier, the word “Moor” means a Spanish Muslim and is often used to describe Othello. While the term Moor does not denote a racist prespective, Elizibetian society used it so colloquially that it soon meant a dark-skinned, foreign devil. The transformation of the term did not stop there, though. “Israel Burshatin states that the Moors in North Africa were seen as ‘deadly bretherin’ of the Ottoman Turks, and it was not difficult to expand this feeling to the Spanish Moriscos. (99)” (ReoCities) Since Shakespeare uses the word Moor to describe only some of his Black characters throughout his plays, he was intentionally instilling a racist hatred into Othello that would contradict the poised and graceful man he truly is. Once the audience saw Othello as the man Iago describes him to be- an animal, a savage beast that would corrupt Desdemona- the true Othello is presented and the audience deciphers that their view of all Black men as devils, labeling them as Moors, is not an accurate assumption.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked tensions between Italy and the Ottoman Empire, characterized by the trade that made both areas rich. Before 1580, England had been using the Italians as a middle man for trade with the Ottoman Empire, but in 1581 they cut ties with Italian merchants and cut their costs significantly. (Blackwood 9-10) While Europe was getting richer now they did not have to pay the Italians, Venice got angry because the trade that had made them so rich and attempted to get back into Ottoman trade. In January 1592, the Levant Company was created, a merger between the Turkey and Venice Companies. After the merger, the Levant Company “monopolized English trade in the eastern Mediterranean.” (Blackwood, Inalcik 14-15) However, this nostalgia did not last very long for Venice. The company was doing so well with the resale of Ottoman Empire silk that they dumped the Venice Company, leading to rising tensions between the two. The hatred of Othello, a former Ottoman Prince, is not just because of his former religion or his skin color, but it is also influenced by where he lived before left the Ottomans.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare satirizes the paranoia of the Elizabethan society. It is afraid of political demotion as Brabantio was when he discovered that Desdemona had truly run away with a Moor, terrified of the mixed-race children Desdemona and Othello could possibly produce, wives committing adultery as Othello believes, and a paranoia of Black people in general. Like Merchant of Venice satirizes the deals men made for money, Othello satirizes societal views.
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