Throughout ‘Othello’, William Shakespeare unquestionably places a great deal of emphasis on the exploration of the nature of social prejudice; one should not be surprised by this thematic focus as most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays are used as vehicles to convey his socio-political views. However, in early 17th Century England the concept of having a ‘Moor’ as the hero of a play was almost unthinkable, due to the inherent prejudice of the society at that time.
In fact, it is a commonly held belief that Othello was the first black (or North African) character to have a lead role in Western literature, though there is a Moorish character in Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ – the villain, Aaron. Shakespeare’s examination of social prejudice in ‘Othello’ is broad in scope as it analyses the issue from an objective point of view, highlighting both the inescapable stigma of a different colour skin whilst postulating that everyone is capable of achieving greatness, regardless of ethnicity.
In the case of Othello, though it is true that he is able to ascend to the rank of general in the Venetian army, it could be argued that he is ultimately doomed not by his honour or his jealousy, but by the provenance of his blood. Whilst the eponymous hero of ‘Othello’ is undoubtedly a major character, both in terms of plot and in the delivery of socio-political commentary, Iago is arguably more important; he is the orchestrator of the conflict that forms the basis of the play’s narrative and he facilitates the circumstances which expose the innate prejudice and weakness of his victims.
Shakespeare utilises Iago’s Machiavellian character to reveal how the inherent flaws of humanity, particularly the social prejudice which pervaded Shakespearian society, can be manipulated to devastating effect. By Act 1 Scene 2, the theme of prejudice has already been established by the vocabulary Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio use to describe Othello; his name is never spoken, with insulting racist terms such as ‘thick-lips’, ‘black ram’ and simply ‘the Moor’, used in its place.
Furthermore, Iago utilises strong imagery to manipulate Brabantio’s hidden prejudice towards Othello, his claim that “an old black ram is tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” the genesis of an extended metaphor of animalistic mating which highlights the possibility of Brabantio’s bloodline being sullied by Moorish blood – an issue of both discrimination and social protocol.
This theme is further embellished by Iago’s assertion that if Brabantio does not heed his warning, “[he’ll] have [his] daughter covered with a Barbary horse; [he’ll] have [his] nephews neigh to [him], [he’ll] have coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans [sic]”, here Iago is further illustrating the possibility of interbreeding, should he allow their relationship to continue.
The phrase he uses to describe Othello and Desdemona’s sexual intercourse, “making the beast with two backs”, is also coloured with the suggestion their offspring may be deformed, and simultaneously forces the Senator to contemplate his daughter to be engaging in sexual activity – a particularly controversial statement to make at a time when virginity was a woman’s most valuable asset.
It is important to note that Brabantio’s outrage at these accusations stems not only from the fact that his daughter may be engaging in an inter-racial relationship, but also from the betrayal of a marriage without his consent – an insult to his dignity regardless of ethnicity. In Act 1 Scene 2, Brabantio’s anger at Othello’s lack of respect manifests itself in the unfortunate guise of prejudice; rather than confront Othello about his failure to ask for Desdemona’s hand in marriage, the pragmatic course of action, he instead accuses him of using ‘black magic’ to seduce his daughter, “thou hast enchanted her”, “chains of magic”, “foul charms”.
It is difficult to tell whether Brabantio is indeed prejudiced, as he has been influenced by Iago’s foul racist slurs and is in a wild temper at the thought of his daughter eloping. Furthermore, Othello later reveals that Brabantio had enjoyed his company and frequently requested his presence in his house, “her father loved me, oft invited me” which suggests that Brabantio may be acting in a prejudiced manner only because he has been wronged.
This interpretation is corroborated by Shakespeare’s presentation of Othello in Act 1 Scene 2, the first time the audience meets him; far from ‘the devil’ described in Act 1 Scene 1, he is articulate, peaceful and reasonable, refusing to fight, “Keep up your bright swords”, and freely allowing Brabantio to bring him before the Duke. However, Othello is not without fault, as evidenced by his attitude in Act 1 Scene 2 which demonstrates the arrogance which has led some critics, such as F.
R. Leavis, to place him as an “egotistical fool”. Whilst it is true that Othello refuses to fight Brabantio, he does so in a manner which highlights him own military prowess and the relative weakness of Brabantio, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them”, “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it without a prompter”.
This hubris is further illustrated by the way he conveys his defence to the Duke and Senators; he opens by stating “Rude am I in my speech”, before communicating his courtship of Desdemona in a fashion so eloquent that the Duke asserts “I think this tale would win my daughter too”. Moreover, Othello subtly undermines Brabantio by describing him as “old man”, infers a sense of victory by stating that he has “won his daughter” and implies that the aforementioned account of Brabantio’s frequent invitations instigated his relationship with Desdemona.
In order to fully comprehend the controversial nature of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona and the subsequent nonchalance with which the Duke addresses it, one must consider the context of both parties’ position in the social hierarchy: Brabantio is a Senator, and should therefore be treated with the utmost respect, yet the Duke and the remainder of the Senators decide to defend Othello, a Moor, despite the fact that he has without doubt wronged Brabantio.
The simple reason for their decision is that Othello is an exceptional General, and the Senate need him to defend Cyprus from the Ottomites – as evidenced by the Senate’s respective greetings of Othello, “Valiant Othello”, and Brabantio , “I did not see you: welcome, gentle signor”. Shakespeare’s exploration of social prejudice here postulates a question of great importance, would the Senate have treated the issue with the same indifference had Othello not been of direct use to them?
If Othello was an individual of lower rank than Brabantio, it is highly likely that he would have been severely punished, and his ethnicity leveraged as evidence for the ‘black magic’ Brabantio described. This question raises two major issues of social prejudice: Firstly, it demonstrates the importance of social hierarchy, and highlights the fact that governing bodies will generally favour those of higher standing, as evidenced by the Senate’s dismissal of Brabantio’s problem, primarily because he is of less importance to them – both in terms of social hierarchy and the current military climate.
Secondly, the situation indicates that whilst the origin of one’s blood may be overlooked when one is of use, such as the Senate’s need for Othello’s military prowess, its stigma is inescapable, as confirmed by the way Iago uses Othello’s race to manipulate Brabantio – and crucially, his success in doing so. These two issues are at the crux of Shakespeare’s exploration of social prejudice, but they are by no means the only subjects of his analysis.
By investigating the nature of social prejudice objectively, a difficult thing to do in Shakespearian times; Shakespeare seems to have concluded that social prejudice can be overcome, but generally only in times when one is of direct use to he who would otherwise be an oppressor. In Act 1 of ‘Othello’, Shakespeare conveys the dual aspects of this issue: the way Iago is able to leverage Othello’s race to instil rage in Brabantio is indicative of the way social prejudice can be utilised as a weapon, whilst the Senate’s biased defence of Othello illuminates how higher social standing can be used as a shield.
The duality of the matter is further exemplified by the character of Othello himself; whilst one can sympathise with the racist abuse he suffers, he is also presented as an arrogant individual who demonstrates a lack of respect for Brabantio, a respected Senator. In conclusion, Shakespeare unquestionably places great emphasis on the exploration of the nature of social prejudice in ‘Othello’, developing characters and situations with the primary purpose of conveying his opinion on this deeply contentious subject.