The Lexicon of Othello ? The Subtle Face of Race

July 25, 2016
Hansub Kim North Hollywood Highly Gifted Magnet 11th Grade

Hansub Kim
North Hollywood Highly Gifted Magnet
11th Grade

Among the prevailing themes in Shake- speare’ s Othello is the multifaceted issue of race, particularly the negative racial and cul- tural stigma surrounding Moors. Much literary analysis of Othello has scrutinized many an insult directed towards the foreign protago- nist, offering extensive cultural and historical implications that purportedly lie behind the invective of the Venetians. Amidst this pre- dominant opinion of the clear direction of prejudice in Othello, an important question must be raised: is the racism in Othello as blatant as is depicted by many?

Racism occurs in undertones in Othello, rather than in direct remarks. In the time of William Shakespeare, Moors and foreigners were either slaves, or very infrequently, free men or women in the lowest of social castes. Letters exchanged by Queen Elizabeth I of the Tudor Dynasty with her foreign ambas- sadors frequently mention relatively known Moors such as Catalina de Cardones, an Ibe- rian Moor servant at the court of Catherine of Aragon, and John Blanke, a trumpeter at the court of Henry VII and VIII. However, the identities of these individuals were usually replaced with adjec-tives such as“ Black-amoore” ,“ neyger” , and“barbarian” .

Although many crit-ics use the specificity and variety of terms describing Moors as evidence that the racism in Othello is derived from the in-sults and direct racist actions of the Ve-netians, the cursory consideration that Moors and other Iberian foreigners were given in the Tudor era is rep- resentative of the culturally oblivious mindset of the era. From this, it is sensible to deduce that insults thrown at Othello such as“bar- barian” and“negro” are not slurs attacking his ethnicity, but merely vague, innaccurate jibes. This is especially probable, because words pertaining to“ black” and“ blackness” were common Elizabethan insults that did not have a racist connotation. Additionally, it is impor- tant to note that the Moor Aaron in an earlier Shakespeare work, Titus Andronicus, is given the same cultural disregard. Although he is the central villain behind the plot to murder the protagonist’ s family, not much is revealed about his ethnic background.

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Othello’ s primary racist highlights, how- ever, come from Othello’ s speech through- out the play. Because of Shakespeare’ s likely intentional racial ambiguity, Othello is forced to be known through his words and speech, and is thus presented as a well spoken gener- al. Being an alien character and unassimilated into Venetian society and culture, he relies on the eloquence of his speech to make points clear, and packs as much meaning as possible into his words rather than his actions. In Act I, Scene II of Othello, he is able to pacify the Venetian senate by just his word, after a dis- gruntled Brabantio accuses Othello of using ‘foul charms’ to seduce Desdemona. How- ever, all throughout Brabantio’ s accusations, as well as throughout the play, Othello is only seen exercising his keen tongue. Because we, the audience, are only able to identify Othello’ s inner thoughts and feelings through his proficient speech, It is a likely possibility that the‘ foul charms’ or‘ black magics’ Brabantio references are his uncanny ability to articu- late, and not blatantly racist slurs.

Othello’ s own words also cast heavy in-fluence upon his own decisions. He believes that words must be exact and bear truth, justifying his staunch belief in them. This is exemplified with his trust in the seemingly “honest Iago” throughout the entire play. He believes that since Iago is unshakably honest, the affair between Desdemona and Cassio must be true. However, as the play progress- es, Othello’ s increasing mental instability at Iago’ s worrisome instigations progressively destroys his eloquence, as he finally col- lapses under murderous paranoia. By the time Othello is given purported‘ proof’ of his wife’ s infidelity, he boils over in rage, his declining eloquence reduced to a volatile babble. The fatal misconception of Iago’ s honesty that triggers Othello’ s downfall is ultimately due to his firm faith in the constancy of words. However, Othello’ s heavy reliance on words to get his point across is a liability stemming from his race and foreign background.

The racism in Othello, therefore, is not di- rected so much towards Othello’ s Moorish background itself, but towards the liabilities that Othello is burdened with as a result of both his race, and the era’ s cultural ignorance toward his race. Although it may be a bit much to outright dismiss Othello’ s Moorish heritage as a given, racist connotations in the play are mostly directed towards the adverse effects that Othello experiences from being foreign, rather than specificities within Othello’ s racial back- ground. This is especially convincing, given the fact that both Tudor England of Shakespeare’ s time and Venice at the time of Othello’ s writing had sparse documentation of and a relative disinterest in Moors, and did not dwell upon racial distinctions.

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