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How Othello's Identity Is Shaped

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1777 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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In his play, Shakespeare’s main protagonist is a black man – Othello, is a noble man merely to suit the convention that considered people of noble blood the only proper heroes for the stage or to eliminate disparity of rank as a contributing factor in the tragedy. The play shows how black people are marginalized, racism at its peak, discriminated. When reading the play, we note that racism is visible and ever present among those characters. In this way, we would say that Othello’s identity is shaped by the gaze of the white self rather than by the queer lens. Though the concept of queer theory is present in the play, yet it is minimal as the issues of racism, prejudice as a whole overcome the concept of queer theory. Referring to journal articles, we will explore and evaluate how Othello’s identity is shaped by the gaze of the white self.

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The question of Othello’s identity has become a major focus of critical industry, and the identity narrative Othello constructs for himself around intercultural allusion as highlighted in the article: ‘Venetian Masks: Inter Cultural Allusion, Transcultural Identity and Two Othellos’ by Jonathan P.A. Sell. G.k. Hunter’s historically informed reconstruction of Elizabethan attitudes to race and his conclusion that Shakespeare was on Othello’s side (1978). Critics on the other hand, have wrangled over the playwright and the play’s sympathies. Karen Newman suggests that “Shakespeare’s ideologies of race and gender…” (1991:93). This article also highlights other matter which lies in the disquisitory on the color of Othello’s skin. The white people despise black man and regards Othello as an inferior being. His colored skin is the reason why they marginalize and converts him to a ‘black monster’. It should be noted that Othello is a normal human being like any other people having ‘two eyes, one nose, two hands’ and so forth. Othello represents the African people and stands alone among the white. We are constantly showed how Iago is jealous of Othello’s position – this is quite normal as Iago being a white is nominated and ruled by a black man. For him being under the rule of Othello is intolerable. From the beginning and till the end of the play, Iago shows his profound hatred for Othello.

Othello’s problem of identity starts in Venice, where as a Moor, he can only be an outsider. Emily C. Bartels in her article ‘Othello and Africa: Post colonialism Reconsidered’ points out that “Othello is, as the subtitle announces, “the Moor of Venice” – not say, the Moor of Barbary, a place invoked in the name of Desdemona’s mother’s maid, or the African, a term Shakespeare used a few years later in The Tempest.” From the reference to Othello’s blackness, we can infer that he is of African origin and we note how Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio are anxious to nail that blackness down; to mark a cultural difference and to prove that Othello is not “of Venice”. Moreover, Othello’s identity as a Moor of Venice is further complicated and forged by the whites who do their best to bring the main character to his downfall. Shakespeare, on the other hand, denotes Othello flexibly, particularly along ethnic lines, as a Moor who is simultaneously of Venice. The main protagonist is introduced as the general of Venice who can set the terms of both military and social actions. We take account of how Othello brings the rhetoric of race and the legitimacy of one’s identity to the forefront. In addition to Othello’s identity, Philip Butcher writes in an article titled: ‘Othello’s Racial Identity’ published in the Folger Shakespeare library that the Moors entered Spain in force from Morocco in 711. The Spanish applied the term Moor to people of Arabian, Syrian and African descent without regard for their racial difference. (Butcher 243).

One of the key questions about race functions in Othello, is how has the identity of Othello becomes the image of a “black man”? Shakespeare throughout the play has particular character’s reference to Othello’s physical characteristics as “black” and “thick lipped”. The use of these racialized descriptors to label Othello’s appearance serves to signify his identity as “object”. There is of course, evidence from the play which shows how the characters identify Othello as mere commodities. By the end of scene one, Roderigo and Iago call “the moor” (whom they never name) “the thick- lips” (I.i.66), “an old black ram” (88), the “devil” (9I), “a Barbary horse” (III – 12), “a lascivious Moor” (I 26), and “an extravagant and wheeling stranger” (I36), and have Iago has accused him of “making the beast with two backs” (II6- 17). The mentioned characters position Othello’s character and his identity to that of an “object” with this ‘animal- like’ description within the play. Both Iago and Roderigo shape and name Othello’s racialized identity through language they use to deconstruct his authority within the play. It is to be noted that through language, Othello is subjugated, racialized and outcast to the margins within the play’s framework.

Moreover, Brabantio strongly objects the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Though he has often entertained Othello and had shared a good relationship, yet the discovery that his daughter has married the Moor releases of him violent feelings of fear, hatred and disgust. Shakespeare clearly portrays how Brabantio is racist and how he shares his imagery of blackness for his rage at Othello the same way Iago and Roderigo had expressed their racism towards the Moor. As highlighted by Edward Berry in his article: ‘Othello’s Alienation’, Brabantio accuses Othello of being a “foul thief”, of being “damned”, of arousing Desdemona’s love by witchcraft (I.ii.102), of working against her by “practices of cunning hell” (I.iii.102), of being a bond-slave ad pagan(I.ii.99). At the root of his amazement, Brabantio cannot digest and face the fact that his daughter would “run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/ of such a thing as thou- to fear, not to delight!” (I.ii.70-71). Brabantio’s racism is clear here and he further insists that he wants to arrest and prosecute Othello specifically for the crime of witchcraft. Talking about witchcraft, it was believed in the Elizabethan era that ‘Moors were adept at witchcraft’. It is indeed very unfortunate to see how a black man is being victimized, ridiculed and insulted for nothing. He too like any other human being has the right to fall in love, get married and live an ordinary life.

Othello’s skin color opens way to issues of racism, discrimination and he is badly viewed by those whites who are racist, however while there are some who on the other hand favors him – Desdemona, Montano, the Duke and Cassio. We have seen how many insulting names are associated to Othello’s identity. We can say that Othello gets lost in Venice. He is constantly reminded of his skin color and is out casted from the society by some whites. However, interestingly we should point out those characters without overt racial hostility tend to use Othello’s name more often, and when they call him “the Moor”, as they almost do, they tone down the label’s negative connotations by means of positive adjectives, as in Montano’s “the noble Moor” (II.iii.138). We note that Desdemona is not a racist character as her marriage with Othello portrays that she has nothing against the skin color of Othello. In addition to their bonding, we can say that identity does not matter for Desdemona but what concerns him is a person’s honesty, caring attitude, bravery that matters and she sees these qualities in Othello. Desdemona refers to Othello as:

“the Moor, my Lord”

She respects Othello and succumbs to his obedience. Shakespeare shows how to some extent Othello has control over some white characters in the play. We can also say that Othello has a control over Iago too but the latter secretly with other parties marginalize Othello and poison his life and identity.

The whites keep on challenging Othello’s identity and the latter brave as he is, resists from all insults and injuries exalted on him ‘mentally’. When his marriage is challenged, Othello rests his defense upon his abilities, his rank, his virtue and his service to the state. He is not surprised on seeing Brabantio’s sudden change in behavior and attitudes since he is aware that he’s skin color will cause upheavals. Consequently what is more interesting is that being a black, Othello, lives among the dominated whites and on top of that shows his supremacy being marrying a white woman. He keeps his originality but however his identity is constantly challenged by the white counterparts. It is further important to consider the fact that Othello has never defends his blackness; nor does he defend the religion or culture that lies behind him. Othello’s very lack of a cultural identity becomes a powerful ingredient in his tragedy. As we have mentioned earlier, he is aware of his origin and knows that being a black man he will be despised by the whites. His blackness is the root to every problem: the cause to Brabantio’s opposition to his marriage and it affects the consciousness of everyone around him. Shakespeare shows how his main protagonist’s racial tension and mark of cultural, social identity affect his relationship with the characters of the play. The murder of his wife shaped Othello’s identity as a cruel being, a ‘monster’, a murderer and a devil in person. Moreover, Emilia has never alludes to Othello’s race; nor is her relationship to him in any way remarkable. But when Emilia is told about his lady’s murder she explodes with suppressed racial hatred:

“O, the more angel she,

And you the blacker devil!” (V.ii.129-31)

Othello becomes a “blacker devil”, and from this we can say that Emilia has always forged Othello’s identity as a black devil.


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