The term racism is one, which has raised very controversial issues and is associated with negative events and feelings from both the past and present. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, racism can be defined as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and those racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. The statement ‘The play Othello is racist’, is one which is likely to be a majority view especially from a non-European audience and reader.
In the light of this, there would be an analysis of the both sides of the argument in order to provide a fair justification for a controversial topic such as this. Racism in this play is clearly depicted in the words of the characters. However, there are two groups of characters involved here. The ones who are outright racist such as Brabantio, Iago, and Roderigo. There are others whose racism only becomes evident after a closer look on their words and actions. Without questioning, it is obvious that Othello, the moor of Venice is the only victim of whatever perceived racism there could be.
This makes it even harder because, all insults and discrimination to Africa is carried by him. The main and probably the strongest indication of racism is pioneered by the villain Iago. Through him, we see not just his own racism but also the racism in others. In his first reference to Othello, he is very quick to in associating him with degrading words as he refers to him as a thief and a black ewe to Brabantio in act 1 scene 1. These maybe some of the stereotypes, which have been created for Africans as most of them that were in Europe during the Shakespearean time.
In this scene, there seems to be no sign of misunderstanding from Brabantio and this suggests that he does agree with Iago. This is further emphasised in his conversation to Othello as he calls him again a ‘foul thief’, ‘damned as thou art, thou has enchanted her’, the word damn here anticipates the fact that Othello would be the one to take the life of Desdemona. His reference to ‘enchanted’ also represents the notion that the Africans used ‘foul charms’, black ‘magic’ and other evil ways to achieve whatever they wanted.
In my opinion, it would not be complete to argue if this play is racist without emphasis on Shakespeare’s overall presentation of Othello. At first Shakespeare surprises the audience by presenting an African, as the head of the military army as that was exactly the opposite of what was actually the case during the Shakespearean times. However, as we get towards the close of the plot, it seems like Shakespeare only gave Othello that role as a means of degrading him and bringing out his weaknesses.
And this maybe what Shakespeare considers to be the real attitude of African men. Othello is made a ‘credulous fool’, by Iago as he convinces him with little or no proof that his wife Desdemona has been sleeping with Cassio. The fact that it was a white man who deceived him shows the superiority which Europeans felt they had over the Africans. Othellos weakness is further shown in his physical breakdown in act IV scene 1, which follows a breakdown in his speech ‘It is not words that shakes me thus! Pish! Noses, ears, and lips!
Is’t possible? -confess? Handkerchief! O devil! ‘ Othello is also shown to be weak in character and temper when he strikes his wife and feels no remorse than ‘if the earth could team with woman’s tears, each drop would prove a crocodile-out of my sight! ‘ The audience at this point would have no sympathy for him at all because it was not acceptable for the men to physically maltreat their wives. As we go further, the least people we expect to be racist do make some racist comments. They include the duke, Desdemona, and Emilia.
The way the duke indirectly defends Othello over Brabantio does not show him as understanding and considerate, but rather points out the fact he would accept anything in order to exploit the physical powers of his black officer, which is evidently for his own gain. In concluding his conversation with Brabantio, he tells him ‘your-son-in-law is far more fair than black’. At first one would think he is being rational, but on a second note it becomes clear that he may be implying that being white is better off than being black and that Othello is only black in skin colour but a white man in character.
Desdemona while pleading to her father claims that she ‘saw Othello’s visage in his mind’. This clearly shows that she is very aware of his skin colour but as the duke suggested, she has decided to ignore it and look at his honours and valiant parts’ which may indeed be just like that of a white man. Emilia only comes out as racist when she expresses her grief over the death of Desdemona. Through her we see the first example of the assumption that the devil was black when she tells Othello ‘O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil’.
She even goes further to say that the marriage was ‘a most filthy bargain’. This suggests that right from the start she had and would never perceive a bond between a white and a black person as right. Ultimately, they all seem to be racist in their own ways. For some, like Iago, Brabantio and Roderigo they do not hesitate to make it clear. However, for others such as the Duke, Desdemona and Emilia, just as Freudian would say, these thoughts are all repressed in their unconscious mind and are let out with the right cues.
However, if we are to agree that this play is racist, then we are implying that Shakespeare may have been racist. Although, it would be unfair to jump into such conclusions without considering the non-racist actions in the play. Despite the fact that Othello is stripped of his respect as he is presented as a person who lets passion takeover his reason, Shakespeare gives it back to him at the end of the play in his last speech. In addition, most of the racist actions and comments are from the characters themselves.
Hence, it could be a deliberate intention by Shakespeare to expose some of the wrongs in the society. It is also worth pointing out that each of the three main racist characters loses their lives in unpleasant manners. Brabantio dyeing of a heart attack, Roderigo being brutally murdered by Iago, and Iago being prosecuted. Shakespeare’s presentation of Othello as a jealous person may not necessarily be racist as this is an emotion shared among humanity regardless of their colour.
In addition, the villain in the play whom his endowed with the most evil virtues from deceit, to murder, and jealousy is a white man. Iago also asks for ‘hell and night to bring this monstrous birth to light’. Here Shakespeare does something, which the audience may find hard to accept as he presents the white man as evil. With this in mind, how then can we say that this play is completely racist? Evidently, I am of the opinion that this play is not racist. If we are able to isolate Shakespeare from the characters, then it may become clear that this play is not entirely racist but rather, it is about racism.