Thesis: Ethics Shakespeare's Othello: A Tragedy of Race

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Shakespeare's Othello: A tragedy of race or character?

Perhaps no other Shakespearean play is more difficult for contemporary observers to appreciate in an unbiased fashion than the tragedy of Othello. "Readings that find seeds of racial prejudice in Othello's Venetian society are not necessarily wrong, but the subject is deeply complicated both by the competing and slippery meanings of race" and the degree to which race is seen as natural or as social construction, in Shakespeare's time vs. our own (Bartels 46). Our own contemporary obsession with race inevitably clouds our interpretations of Othello's character and the degree to which Shakespeare portrays him as a victim of a racist society, or as a character whose natural savageness eventually is revealed by events machinated by Iago.

Shakespeare is, as always, ambiguous, in the ways that he portrays all of his characters, black and white. But "critics impressed by the importance of Othello's Moorishness have tended to respond in two quite different ways" (Berry 315). For some, "Othello's negroid [sic] physiognomy is simply the emblem of a difference that reaches down to the deepest levels of personality. . . . [In other words] Othello is, in actual fact, what Iago says he is, a 'barbarian' while other critics "have argued that Shakespeare invokes the negative Elizabethan stereotypes of Africans only to discredit them," stressing the foolish racism of both Iago and Brabantio, especially in the early scenes of the play before the handkerchief plot begins to fall into place (Berry 316). These scenes draw a distinction between an "external appearance of devilishness and the inner reality" as Othello looks black but behaves nobly, while Iago looks honest but behaves devilishly (Berry 315-316).

In support of the latter thesis, the play does seem to suggest the idea that Othello is best defined as a tragic character, and a tragedy is said to be a play about a great man who becomes 'fallen.' Othello is clearly a formidable general, as admitted even by the white men of the play who are predisposed to be prejudiced against him because of his race. Othello points out that Brabantio invited him to his house, to speak with his daughter, and only invoked racist ideas after Desdemona married him. When Othello is accused of witchcraft in his wooing of the white Desdemona, his impassioned story of his life and how his words enabled him to win Desdemona's heart and hand brings forth this comment from the Duke of Venice: "I think this tale would win my daughter too" (I.3). When Othello begins to behave cruelly to Desdemona, this is seen as uncharacteristic, not just of him as a lover, but as a man: "Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate/Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature / Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue/The shot of accident, nor dart of chance, / Could neither graze nor pierce... / Are his wits safe? is he not light of brain?" says Lodovico (4.1).

It is Iago who shows crude racism when he says: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is topping your white ewe" (I.1). He says this to Brabantio, after explaining to the foolish, credulous Rodrigo that he is intent upon inciting violence against the Moor, not because he believes Othello to be an incompetent general, but because he hates Othello for not giving him a supposedly deserved promotion. Those who hate Othello, this suggests, do so out of spite, rather than any real problems that originate with Othello's race. Othello shows himself to be a level-headed and courageous general, going forth to fight once again for Venice, even on his wedding-night. Shakespeare's Moor is a great man, worthy of a tragedy, yet he is also a non-white alien who sinks to barbarism, who descends into what may be his 'natural' character in the eyes of most of the white residents of Venice.

The play's language regarding race seems as ambiguous about the central nature of Othello, as ambiguous as the play and Othello is about blackness itself. For example, there is ambiguity in the Duke of Venice's phrase: "I think this tale would win my daughter too" (I.3) which suggests an implied 'threat' to white women, should Othello be fully integrated into Venetian society. And of course, the final tragedy seems to suggest that Othello should not,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Ethics Shakespeare's Othello: A Tragedy of Race.  (2009, August 3).  Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

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"Ethics Shakespeare's Othello: A Tragedy of Race."  3 August 2009.  Web.  18 August 2019. <>.

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"Ethics Shakespeare's Othello: A Tragedy of Race."  August 3, 2009.  Accessed August 18, 2019.