Racism in Othello
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
In my review of the production at the Globe Theatre in the autumn of 2018, I posited the theory that Othello is not essentially about Race, per se, despite the fact that Shakespeare sets the eponymous figure apart as a black man in an otherwise exclusively white dramatis personae. And yet there is so much one can draw from the play and Shakespeare’s rendering of society at the time that it seems churlish to deny the presence, the emphasis even, on race and racism in Othello. My revised view is that the story is not essentially about race, but the context and the setting clearly were, with racial themes rather than action or even the majority of the language.
Iago (Mark Rylance) and Othello (Andre Holland), at the Globe in 2018
Image: Simon Annand
There is never only one theme or one context in Shakespeare’s plays. Othello is also about male dominance and the persecution or women, ultimately the destruction of women. But even this is too simple. The play is essentially about man’s inhumanity to man. Or rather, man’s inhumanity to fellow humans. No harm is deliberately inflicted on others by women. And about how male evil is exhibited and conveyed through a range of vices and character flaws; greed, jealousy, bitterness, dispensing with the truth for the sake of personal gain, hatred, and an apparent compulsion to bring everyone down into a state of anarchy and misery.
All in all, then, a power play. Men over women and well as men over men. But this study is about Race. The theme, the dominance of white men over black men in Shakespeare’s drama. The perceived natural order in society in Elizabethan society. The inability to realise equality. And why would this be surprising? Society was built on mercantile success reliant on the empire, built on the slave trade in its early stages at this point.
Given this scenario in the drama and in reality, two unavoidable questions spring to mind:
Was Shakespeare racist?
Was Elizabethan society inherently racist?
Answering the second question seems simple. Hell yes!
The first is interlinked with the second, and requires much more probing and unravelling.
I’m indebted here to the academic brilliance of Farah Karim-Cooper and Ian Smith, along with insightful and authoritative contributions from the play’s director Claire van Kampen, via their respective articles in the Globe Theatre’s programme and the exhibition in the basement of the theatre, where I learnt a great deal on Sonnet Sunday a few weeks before seeing the play.
Two characters stand out: Othello and Iago. But first, the playwright. It feels wrong to ask, but was Shakespeare racist?
Or was he merely presenting the views of others who were racist, in dramatic form? Creating characters who were living their racist lives, spouting their language of hatred, and making other people miserable? It seems barely credible that Shakespeare would be voicing racist beliefs in his writing. His craft is way too sophisticated. His appreciation of humanity too vast. His values too worthy. But still, his presentation of the subject is open to question.
Subtitled The Moor of Venice, the play immediately describes Othello as something other, in racial terms. Not just a man, not a general or a conqueror, but specifically a North African Arab. Shakespeare also gives us Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. Was this a term that he knew would appeal to his playgoers, or did he think that this was how these characters were most appropriately described, in one word? What did Shakespeare make this play about, really?
Othello the Moor: an artist's impression via Owlcation.com
According to the director of the 2018 production at the Globe, Claire van Kampen:
“The play is about race, and also jealousy, and insecurity, and status. People wanting betterment; people anxious that they’re not getting it”
Race, then, but more than race. Othello is an outsider who has excelled within his sphere and is invaluable to the state – except he’s not. As with Coriolanus, there is always a limit to how much people are wanted and tolerated, however much they have contributed. Especially when they look and sound different.
Ultimately, Shakespeare created a monster in the role of the murderous, black Othello. But the white Iago was worse, at heart and in his words if not in his actions. In this, Shakespeare was appealing to the worst aspects of human nature of theatre-goers, and mischievously presenting an inclusive and diverse scheme of offences. White-on-black hate crime leading to black-on-white homicidal crime.
It would be easy to think that Iago is racist to the core, but his motives, or so he tells us, arise out of jealousy and ambition. Early on he tells us
“I know my price, I am worth no worse a place”
So, clearly he has a strong sense of his own importance. He is equally sure who he is not.
“Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago”
But how would he be different, exactly? Does his thinking stretch to physical characteristics, or just to other qualities as a man or as a soldier?
Shakespeare, on his part, is calling out an evil, scheming, treacherous bully, but not taking the easy option of playing the race card. Nb ‘calling out’ by the strokes of his quill. A far cry from today’s soundbites on Twitter and Facebook.
Iago (Mark Rylance) - playing it his way
We need to delve deeper into the language of Elizabethan society.
Farah Karim-Cooper, academic (and Globe Education Lecturer) points out that
“The play opens with extraordinary racist language”, by Brabantio.
I would add by Iago too. Iago tells Brabantio, Desdemona’s father:
“Even now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”
“you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse”
(Nb Barbary as a horse colour can be brown, black or grey).
And, finally, completing the animalistic imagery, as well as stressing Othello’s title and status as a human,
“your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”
(All lines from Act 1, scene i)
In the following scene, stressing the perceived unnatural nature and ugliness of the relationship, Brabantio demands to know
“O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow’d my daughter?
Damn’d as thou art, thou hast enchanted her”
Claiming that his daughter has
“Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou”
All powerful lines revealing racial hatred. There is no getting away from “sooty”. But are these characters representing Venice at the time. Or England? Or just himself?
Othello, on trial for loving Desdemona, in a painting by Jack Leigh Wardleworth
But, hereafter, the racist language in the play almost disappears, which suggests that Shakespeare was keen to represent an isolated case of prejudice. Though this seems too simple. Cooper adds:
“Shakespeare stages an insidious fear of ‘otherness’ and dark complexions that he may have witnessed in his own culture”.
Here we start to see a mixed vision of a multi-cultural Venice, and a multi-cultural London, in Elizabethan times:
“a diverse and globalised city full of exciting opportunities as well as a racially turbulent history”.
In the case of London, at least, a racially turbulent future too.
The Venice in Othello’s time relied on the trading of goods, cultural exchanges, immigration and all round cosmopolitanism. A mixture of Venetians, Cypriots, Greeks, Jews and Arabs which Cooper describes as a “confluence of strangers in Venice”.
This was simultaneously a “quite integrated and racially diverse society”, and civil up to a point, but one which “ghettoised its ethnic minorities” and was shocked by interracial mixing (ibid). A Venice that abhorred Shylock for being both a usurer and a Jew in The Merchant of Venice.
Ghetto Vecchio: image via the New Yorker
In Othello the play, despite a general sense of welcoming, “devilish xenophobia” overrides tolerance and contributes to the tragic outcome. This xenophobia was ubiquitous in Shakespeare’s England, too. And so here we have two cities at a time of great conflict and social unrest, and a playwright who was willing, determined, even, to present such a world on stage. People will argue the extent to which these times, and the need to recreate them in dramatic form, have ever gone away.
Ian Smith, in his feature article Re-Discovering Blackness, goes deeper and darker. Here he quotes Richard Hakluyt from his travel writing in 1589:
“Encounters with non-Europeans, especially Africans, were defined by demarcations of difference, black skin, registering indelibly on the English mind”.
Smith then quotes Robert Gainsh, the Elizabethan slave trader who wrote of “unbearable blackness” and of
“Moores, Moores or Negroes, a people of beastly living…monstrous, uncivilised, black persons”.
In contrast, Gainsh referred to a “heightened alertness to English whiteness”
This prevalence of colour consciousness was an inevitable response to global travelling and economic ambition, fuelled by the slave trade. On the stage, a “communal cultural space”, Smith informs us that
“Africans were consistently decried as devils and deemed ugly because of their blackness”.
'Exploration and Trade' in Elizabethan England
(image via the British Library)
And yet, in my recollection of the performance at the Globe and in other productions, this was not so much the case in Othello. And from the text, beyond the first two scenes, I am convinced that in Othello, and in his extensive folio of plays, Shakespeare was much more concerned about human evil in many of its forms, and not so specifically about racial intolerance / racism. On this wider level, I am far more comfortable agreeing with Smith that
“Shakespeare elicits a range of racial and gender responses that speaks to the active, participatory theatrical experience the play demands”.
First performed in 1604, Othello quickly became one of the Bard’s most popular plays. I’d like to think not on grounds of racial conflict but due to a natural human tendency to delight in tales of suffering. Other people’s misery. Heartbreak caused by mistakes and lies. Unlucky timing. Universal woes, perhaps. And yet I fear I’m an underestimating the age-old capacity of audiences and nations to see things in racial terms. Who do we blame really? The white man who was bitter and told lies? Or the black man who listened to these lies, became obsessed, and committed murder? Together they ruined everything. There is scope for conflicting responses, some more racist than others. It seems only fair to ask: Who did Shakespeare want us to jeer at most?
We always have a choice when interpreting literary works. How far was Othello a commentary on the attitudes of society? And how far a playwright presenting his own views within such a context? Was he reflecting the views of others, most notably his audience, or leading the way? There is perhaps a symbiosis. Giving the audience what they wanted, but criticising them at the same time, exposing their hatred through representation in his fictional characters. The story that develops is so awful in so many ways. Which writer would expose themselves that way in such a narrative?
Where is the focus then, if not blurred? What does Othello the play tell us about Shakespeare and about humanity?
We don’t have to see Shakespeare as perfect. In Othello, he presents us with a play that deals with racial issues, racial tension. But the extent to which his own preferences and opinions emerge continues to be open to vast interpretation. To me, after the opening scenes, it seems that Shakespeare went out of his way to make this play not about race. Which is a racial position, still, though not necessarily a racist statement by the playwright. Regardless, there doesn’t seem to be much value in trying to pin any one label on Shakespeare.
Shakespeare. Image via the RSC
If that sounds a bit like sitting on the fence on Shakespeare, I’m clearer in my own mind about Elizabethan times, and the similarities that exist in society today.
We see a society that was, like both lead characters, seeking advancement. For some through hard work and good service, for others through scheming and villainy. All within a multi-cultural, money-generating environment, never far away from the battlefield. Success, here, frequently involved obsession with personal and national aggrandisement, which relied heavily on exploitation of others in the cruellest and most shameful way imaginable. Again, slavery.
The tragedy of Othello, the individual, is that in listening to the lies of a lesser man, he forgets everything that brought him success. Worst of all, Othello destroys the very source of his greatest joy, the woman he loved. Not wisely but too well. Ha! I have never been persuaded by this line of self-assessment. There is nothing to cling on to. No redemption.
About to put out the light.
Othello (Willard White) with Desdemona (Imogen Stubbs) in 1989
In creating a character of such obvious otherness, physically, was Shakespeare also suggesting some inescapable human condition in terms of attitudes and beliefs: a relentless perception of difference and social standing? Collectively forming a corrupt, inequitable and intolerable society? The female characters who could have persuaded us otherwise were largely not allow to speak. Even when Emilia did get her chance, it was too late. I really want to think that Shakespeare had the vision to see it could be different. That times would change. I think he saw women leading the way forward too. But here, the men could not be stopped.
In his tragedies, invariably revolving around patriarchal crimes, foolishness and poor judgement, there is always hope until none remains. Offstage, even if society will not see this immediately, there is a chance. The world can and must be a different place. A wiser and more loving place.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
See the Connected Cultures review of Othello at the Globe Theatre here