Essay, Research Paper: Othello Play

Shakespeare: Othello

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“If Othello didn’t begin as a play about race, history has made it one.”
The Venetian society that Othello is set in is representative of the writers
context. The attitudes and values that Shakespeare reveals through the text are
those same attitudes and values of Elizabethan society in England in the
sixteenth-century. Although Othello is set in Venice and Cyprus, the attitudes
and values shared in the text are probably reflective of the attitudes and
values of Shakespeare's own society. It is difficult to assess the attitudes and
values of people in sixteenth-century Britain to the relatively few blacks
living amongst them. We are given an insight into those attitudes and values
through the representation of race and gender in the text of Othello.These
attitudes and values are indicative of what a culture believes in and supports.
By the time Othello was written the English were becoming more and more aware of
the existence of other races in the world besides themselves. There had been a
lot of travelling and blacks were beginning to be used in Europe for the slave
trade. During the time the play was written, the Queen of England had banned all
blacks from entering the city. She spoke of them as “Negars and Moors which
are crept into the realm, of which kind of people there are already here too
many”. It seems that Shakespeare is almost mocking the Queen by characterising
Othello as a black man who has a high ranking position in the Army and who
marries a white aristocratic women, against her fathers will. Ruth Cowlig
suggests that the presentation of Othello as the hero must have been startling
for Elizabethan audiences. This may have been the case, but through the
representation of Othello we are able to see that some members of society such
as the Duke, looked over his colour to assign him his position whereas, others
such as Iago, look on his colour as a way to mock him. Hostility is shown to
Othello by characters such as Iago and Roderigo. This attitude may have been
encouraged by the widespread belief in the legend that blacks were descendants
of Ham in the Genesis story, punished for sexual excess by their blackness. The
Elizabethan's discussed at length whether this skin colour was due to life in a
hot climate or whether it was a punishment for sin. To the Elizabethan's, who
thought hierarchically, fair skin was the epitome of beauty and therefore dark
skin ranked below it. The term "black" was used in a variety of texts
to stand for sin, filth, ugliness, evil, and the Devil. This value is ascribed
to Iago when he describes Othello as the “black moor” hinting at something
other than just colour. Attitudes to race aren’t the only attitudes revealed
in the text though. Attitudes and values about gender are also revealed in the
portrayal of women and their actions in the text. A prime example of this is
when Desdemona elopes with Othello without her father’s permission, which
during that time would have been socially unacceptable. This is revealed to us
through Brabantio’s reaction as Shakespeare uses Brabantio as a vehicle for
the representation of higher society’s views on matters. Another value
revealed in the text is that of marriage. In the Elizabethan era marriage was
not just a spiritual union but also a property transaction; the bride brought a
dowry from her father and the groom’s father (or the groom if he had already
inherited his estate) had to settle lands on her in return, as a
"jointure." Therefore, to marry without the bride's father's
permission could be seen as an act of theft. This may explain why Brabantio
reacted so strongly to the union of Othello and Desdemona.These attitudes and
values contrast quite drastically to those ascribed to society today. Nowadays
coloured skin is a common occurrence and a character such as Othello would be
quite socially accepted. Race is both more accepted and more abused than in
Shakespeare's time. With the feminist movement values given to women have also
changed quite drastically. This is because women are now seen less as property
and more of an equal. Marriage has also changed. In the sixteenth century girls
tended to be married off rather young in their teens and to have their husbands
chosen for them by their fathers. Now girls tend to get married in their late
twenties and are free to choose their own partner. These attitudes and values
that are revealed in the text are done so through the representation of race and
gender. Race and gender are revealed in the text by the uses of imagery,
characterisation, plot, stylistic techniques, and language. Race is represented
in many different ways to allow the attitudes and values of Elizabethan society
to be revealed through it. The way race is portrayed allows us to have access to
these attitudes and values. Race is portrayed by the character Othello, who is a
moor, and by what is said about him, and how he’s reacted to. Othello is
presented initially as a dangerous beast by Iago, before he reveals himself to
be of noble, human, status, only to degenerate later to the condition of a
bloodthirsty and irrational animal. He is the hero of the play and this is
achieved by his last speech(V. ii. 340-356) where he rights himself at the end
of the play. “I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this, Killing
myself, to die upon a kiss” (V. ii. 359). By showing us these contrasting
images of the moor, Shakespeare is revealing the two different attitudes to
race. The one of acceptance, as shown through characters such as Montano. And
the one of hatred, as shown through characters such as Iago. Iago and Roderigo
are full of racial antipathy in the first scene. The animal images “you’ll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse” (I. i. 112) convey the ideas
of someone less than human. The way race is portrayed reflects Shakespeare’s
and his society’s attitudes to race. Earlier Shakespeare created two other
moors. Aaron in “Titus Andronicus”, and Marocco in “The Merchant in
Venice”. The most negative way, and the main way race is portrayed is through
Iago’s references to Othello and what he says about him, such as; “old black
ram,” and “Barbary horse.”(I. i. 89-112) A more positive way that race is
portrayed is through the character of Othello himself. He is described as
“noble Othello”, and Valiant Othello”. He has secured the love of an
aristocratic women, he has a high position and is regarded well in society. Even
after his degeneration he is still able to right himself in the eyes of the
people, and dies as the hero of the play. Perhaps the most reflective view of
race in Elizabethan society is demonstrated in the character of Brabantio who,
as I said before is a vehicle for the representation of higher society’s views
on matters. Brabantio accepted Othello as a member of society......., and he
respected his position. He even invited him to dinner....... But to have him
marry his daughter was getting a little too much. To Brabantio the union between
Desdemona and Othello is “a treason of the blood” (I..i.160) and he feels
that society’s acceptance of Othello will reduce Venetian statesman to “bond
slaves and pagans” (I.ii.99). He also believes that Desdemona could not love
“the sooty bosom of such a thing” (I.ii.70). One who she feared “To fall
in love with what she feared to look on”(I.iii.98). The idea of race developed
as a way to explain social divisions in a society that thought it believed in
equality. And what constitutes race has changed quite dramatically since then.
Othello is neither a racist text or a non-racist text but is merely showing the
representation of race in a sixteenth-century society. I suppose one could argue
that Iago isn't racist, as the plot would no doubt stand the same if you remove
all the racist remarks, but I can't imagine approaching the play or the role
from that perspective. For one thing, the Venetian world is somewhat racist, and
Othello is widely considered the token "exception to the rule." More
specifically , Iago knows how to fuel the racist fires in both Brabantio and
Roderigo showing that those racist views were existent. This indicates to me
that he has a pretty personal knowledge of those feelings. With Brabantio, he
uses the imagery of a "black ram tupping your white ewe"(I.i.90) - not
just that Desdemona has run off with anyone, but with a BLACK anyone. And Iago,
as usual, reduces the romance and love in the situation into blatant sexual
terms. Roderigo maintains that Desdemona's infatuation with Othello cannot
possibly last very long because it defies nature for her to be attracted to a
man of Othello's complexion. And Roderigo has his share of racist remarks
(calling Othello "the thick-lips", etc.). Even more, there is no
evidence in the play that Othello and Emilia have had an affair, yet Iago
suspects it.But the attitudes and values of Elizabethan society are not only
revealed in how race is represented, but also in how gender is represented. The
way the attitudes and values of Elizabethan England are represented through
gender is based on the portrayal of women in the text.The three women in the
text are Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. And together they construct a well
rounded view of women in society. From Angel through realist to whore. The other
way women are portrayed is through the portrayal of them by other characters.
The characters who offer the most notable portrayals are Iago, Brabantio, and
Emilia. Act II scene i shows Iago’s strongest views on women. Iago makes
generalisations of women, when he says “you are pictures out of doors, bells
in your parlours, wildcats in your kitchens; saints in your injuries, devils
being offended; players in your housewifery, and hussies in your beds.”
(II.i.109-112). He also presents a common view of that era when he says “You
rise to play, and go to bed to work”. (II.i.115) This presents the
sixteenth-century view of women being held to be unstable, potentially or
actually unchaste, and morally frail. Their sexual desires were represented as
unnatural appetites. They were also thought to be “unstable sexual creatures,
likely to betray men” with “Appetites never satisfied” . The history of
the handkerchief also suggests the power of female sexuality over men: “That
handkerchief Did an Egyptian to my mother give; She was a charmer, and could
almost read The thoughts of people: she told her, while she kept it, 'Twould
make her amiable and subdue my father Entirely to her love....”(III. iv.
55-60) . Brabantio who represents higher society’s views of women has an
idealised view of them. To him daughters have to be subservient, and obedient,
by making her own decisions in marriage, Desdemona represents betrayal in his
eyes. To the people of Elizabethan times it would probably seem that Desdemona
undermines her position in society and changes gender politics by marrying
without her father’s consent. Emilia is a dramatic contrast to Desdemona, and
she is the only character who seems to offer a different view of women. She
herself is quite a strong character as a woman as she is realistic, pragmatic,
capable of courage, loyal and self sacrificing. In act IV scene iii she delivers
a feminist speech that questions society. “But I do think it is their husbands
faults if wives do fall”(IV.iii. 87) . She is a realist and accepts humans by
seeing their faults but still accepting them. She also has a feminist view of
men “They are all but stomachs and we all but food; They eat us hungerly, and
when they are full they belch us” (III.iv. 108-110). How society felt about
women is shown by their influences on Othello's behaviour and who he believes
about Desdemona’s infidelity. Othello believes Iago over Desdemona, who is his
wife. The women in this play don't seem to possess very much power, but in fact
they have much more power and control than most people think. They hold the play
together like glue to paper. If Desdemona never had the power to commit adultery
then it would never have been thought of and Othello would never have fallen.
Each of the women in the play are abused by men and a victim of "the green
eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on"(III. iii. 168-169).
Othello is a perfect example of where the women are made to seem inferior to the
men through the use of stylistic techniques, plot, and use of language. But why
is this so important? It is important because women in "Othello" make
up the backbone of the play. Without them there to antagonise the men and
generate intense feelings of love, hatred and jealousy, the play could not and
would not exist. The supposed inferiority of women follows from the fact that
human societies have been dominated by men. This may not be so true now, but in
Elizabethan times which is the “particular time and place” that the
attitudes and values are revealed from it was especially true. How these
representations reflect the attitudes and values of Elizabethan society is
through the way that women are portrayed in the text as I have discussed
earlier. In Elizabethan society there was a myth of women's insatiable
lustfulness and women were seen as voracious monsters. It was thought that
female sexuality was a threat to the patriarchal society, and must be safely
contained. In the Encyclopaedia of World Mythology it says “Women in male
eyes, are supposed to be contrary and mysterious creatures, bewilderingly
combining all sorts of characteristics, as changeable as chameleons, and yet
somehow vexingly in touch with reality through intuition.” Brabantio is a
vehicle for society’s views on gender and he shows how society at the time of
Othello would have thought of women. In conclusion, values and attitudes of a
particular time and place are revealed in Othello through the representation of
race and gender. How these attitudes and values are revealed is through the the
way they are portrayed, the character construction, the stylistic techniques,
the language, the content of speech and the symbolism.
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