What do you think Shakespeares suggesting about race in Act 1 (AO1), as well as how you think hes suggesting it (AO2), and why you think hes suggesting it (AO3)?
(35 Marks – 1.5 hrs)
Shakespeares infamous tragedy Othello was written and performed during the Renaissance particularly for King James V and his wife who had a fascination with people of colour; she found them exotic and captivating. This is one of the reasons Shakespeare chooses to have a black protagonist.
Race is not at the core of this compelling tragedy, but it is an overarching theme throughout Act 1 of Othello, even if it is not considered a key theme by many, without the incorporation of race, Shakespeares Othello would not be the complex, twisted tragedy is has come to be. The theme of race is crucial in shaping the plot of the drama as Shakespeare communicates to his audience how race can seamlessly cloud peoples judgement of others which unfortunately almost always ends in tragedy.
Many characters in Othello are also presented as being xenophobic for example Brabantio which is closely linked to a sense of patriarchy as losing Desdemona would mean losing his most prized possession. Shakespeare also employs race as a tool for discrimination with motives such as revenge to back it up as it is an innate trait that cannot be altered. Finally, race is a vital element in Othello as it overpowers love during A1S3 when Brabantio forbids the love between his daughter and Othello on the basis that Othello is a black man.
Shakespeare teaches his audience how race can undermine something as powerful as love and divert people causing them to disregard character, therefore making the wrong decisions.
We first see how race can seamlessly cloud peoples judgement in A1S1 when Iago uses racist slurs to characterise Othello as an old black ram and the idea of Othello sleeping with Desdemona is accounted to as tupping your white ewe. Iago acts as a racial bigot and manages to condense Othellos character down to racist, animalistic vocabulary just because of the colour of his skin. Shakespeare aims to demonstrate to his audience just how easy it was for the colour of someones skin to cloud the judgement of others. This was common in England at the time as during the Elizabethan era other races were often ignored and later black people were seen as exotic creatures and were brought into England without any rights. Overtime black people slowly gained some rights and were known as Moors but tension still existed between the races as the English believed they were the superior race. Throughout the beginning of Act 1 Othello is referred to as the Moor and impersonal pronouns are used when Iago speaks about him, this further alludes to the fact that extreme racism existed in Elizabethan England as the people did not even value him enough to use his own name when talking about him. Another message Shakespeare strongly reinforces is that one persons clouded judgement can heavily influence other peoples judgement of a person as people were very impressionable during that time. A prime example of this in the play is Roderigo who does not know Othello on a personal level like Iago does however his views of Othello are very similar to Iagos. He aimlessly proceeds to steal Othellos wife and this action is justified because inter racial marriages are forbidden and frowned upon. This idea also reinforces the idea of the wealthy completely disregarding people of colour as a result of ignorance and arrogance as we see Roderigo much more worried about not having Desdemona than, how his actions may affect Othello. We also witness Roderigo mimicking Iagos behaviour towards Othello when he uses the racial slur in A1S1 (line-66) What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe If he can carryt thus!. This is further emphasised as Iago then finishes Roderigos line, exhibiting how Iagos judgement of Othello has cast a veil over Roderigos views on Othello heavily influencing them. Through this Shakespeare moralises the importance of forming your own thoughts and opinions on people and justifying the with valid evidence before proceeding to take action against anyone else as it will result in a cataclysmic ending which Roderigo suffers from later in the play as he gets killed by Iago.
One of the most major themes explored in almost all of Shakespeares tragedies is love. In Act 1 of Othello Shakespeare intertwines the key theme of love with race. This complicates the plot however it makes the story more riveting. Shakespeares technique of closely linking love with race would produce an atypical response from the contemporary audience compared to the response of a modern audience who would not be too affected by race if love existed. During Act 1 we see multiple tries from characters to undermine Othello and Desdemonas relationship. In A1S1 (line-112) Iago refers to their relationship as Desdemona being covered with a Barbary horse he then commands Roderigo to warn Brabantio, Youll have your nephews neigh to you. The absolute dismissal of Othello and Desdemonas relationship is then carried on by Brabantio when he meets with Othello in A1S2 and then again in A1S3. When Brabantio finds out he calls Othello a foul thief! in A1S2 and questions him Where hast thou stowed my daughter?. The fact that the first thing Brabantio says to Othello is thief suggests that from the very beginning race is significant as Brabantio thinks of himself as being superior to Othello as he is stealing from Brabantio. This would have been common during the Renaissance as even though England was a metropolis of diversity, people of colour were still seen as inferior as they were often brought into the country as slaves. Another noticeable feature Brabantios speech is that he refers to Desdemona often as an object as he uses the verb stowed to question her whereabouts. The objectification of women was common during the Elizabethan era as patriarchy was a key element of life in this period and most Early Modern literature reflects this misogynistic society. The reason why women were so valuable to their fathers was because marriage at the time was like a business transaction and in return for the daughter the wealthy Englishman would gift her household land and other valuable goods making the father and the rest of the family richer. In Act 1 of Othello Brabantio may have had reservations about giving his daughter away to Othello because as he was black he may have been unable to offer Brabantio what a wealthy white man could have given him. This may also allude to the fact that marrying his only daughter to a black man would have a negative impact on his reputation as he was the senator; very high up in the social hierarchy in Venice at the time. However, once again the stereotypical, prejudice-based opinions led Brabantio to make a false judgement for which he suffers the consequences later in the play. Miscegenation was also frowned upon in the context of Othello because despite Brabantios cautiousness not to marry his daughter below status, he is wrong and misses out on the wealth as Othello is a tragic hero who does possess a high status and title even though he later falls from grace. Shakespeare also conveys the extent of Brabantios hate and disbelief for Othello when he makes Brabantio convince himself that Othello made Desdemona fall in love with him through use of witchcraft. In A1S2 he employs the metaphor chains of magic to justify how Desdemona fell in love with Othello. He goes to further accuse Othello, thou hast practiced on her with foul charms and calls him an abuser of the world. In A1S3 this is further exacerbated when Brabantio concludes that Desdemona has been falsely corrupted through spells and medicines bought of mountebanks. The repeated reference to the theme of the occult epitomises Shakespeares message of false assumptions based on race as during the golden age many people were susceptible to glorifying their assumptions and opinions of people through linking them to ideas such as the occult, for example people of colour were often called the devil or referred to as creatures. This is also exemplified in the play when Brabantio refers to Othello as having a sooty bosom, a dig at his skin colour.
Race is also employed as tool for discrimination in Othello, mainly by Iago. Although we know that the main reason for his hatred for Othello is not his race but the fact that he did not get promoted, the overarching theme throughout Iagos language used to describe Othello is racially discriminative. Critics such as Andrew Dickson describe Iagos character as the vortex of all evil and Kiernan Ryan also goes as far as to say that Iagos actions and scheme is just motiveless malignity. The words used by these critics give us a clear idea of what type of person Iago is and how he uses race to manipulate others into thinking he is right. From the very beginning in A1S1 Iago is presented as a Machiavellian villain as the play begins with him plotting against Othello. In A1S1 (line-43) he reveals, I follow him to serve my turn upon him. This unveils to the audience his plans for the rest of the play however the contemporary audience must be shocked when they see Othello is played by a black man and that the antagonist is a typical white English man. Through this Shakespeare demonstrates how race can make people overlook anything and so he purposefully picks a black man to be his protagonist to teach the people of the Renaissance era how things are not always how they may seem. Shakespeare tenaciously picks a white English man and vilifies him to moralise the idea of the real vortex of evil being among us. He consciously decides to make the villain a more stereotypical English man even though the play is set in Venice. This is because at the time England had a rapidly growing population meaning the people needed someone to blame for the economic strains and so the Muslim converts, and the Pagan Africans were scapegoated resulting in England being more racist than Venice. Iagos racist nature can be noticed through the vocabulary he chooses to speak with. In A1S1, (line-72) Iago uses graphic language such as plague him with flies, devil, poison his delight and hell all when talking about Othello which alludes to the sheer hatred, he has for him. As well as this as he describes his abhorrence for Othello, he employs iambic pentameter which portrays him as a cold and calculated villain. Shakespeare also makes Iago contradict himself as he displays more devilish signs than Othello himself. This is partly done through stagecraft as during A1S1 he is positioned under the balcony where Brabantio is unable to see him, and his position also symbolises hell. He then also goes on to misquote the Bible in A1S1 I am not what I am which again insinuates his ties to hell. Shakespeare further exacerbates this by using satanic and blasphemous imagery such as sblood which refers to Gods blood. Another way Shakespeare adverts to Iago being the villain is through his name which originates from the name Saint Eaigo who was a Muslim killer and crusader. Therefore, Iagos character is vital to the sto ry of Othello because Shakespeare incorporates hidden meanings throughout to warn and spark fear in a comtemporary audience as they would not expect to have a villain sitting amongst the superior white race. He does this to reveal to all his audiences that first of all race can be the basis to express any form of hatred; in this case Iago wanting revenge and secondly he wanted people to be aware of who they made friends with and enemies with because it could be the person closest to you to stab you in the back on the basis of something as simple as the colour of your skin.
Finally, Shakespeare employs race to convey a moral message that race does not define your character, this was extremely important during the renaissance as people were purely basing their judgements off stereotypes and peoples appearances and not their mannerism and personality which it builds a person. A prime example of this is Othello, the protagonist of the play, who is judged multiple times throughout the play by almost every character. Even though Othello is referred to as the devil, an old black ram and many other racial slurs. However, when it comes to Othello speaking for himself, we see the complete opposite. He is a pacifist, he condemns violence when he says keep up your bright swords in A1S3. He is also clever in the way he deals with situations, for example in A1S3 he uses the Duke against Brabantio as he questions, What if I do obey?. He is also very well spoken, employs the extended metaphor Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it without a prompter, reinforcing his pacifism. Shakespeare also manages to create the perfect Aristotelian hero who consists of a high ranking and can form his sentences poetically, contradicting everything that has already been said about Othello in the play so far. Shakespeare also cleverly adds a sub-plot to the main plot which consists to the war between the Turks and Cyprus. This creates a sense of urgency as a dozen sequent messengers have been sent for Othello and he is hotly called for. This powerfully increases the priority of Othello and doubles the sense of conflict as a black man has stolen a white daughter within a household which parallels with the Turks coming for the Venetians and the sense that the conflict is about to happen on a much larger scale. Through this Shakespeare aims to show his audience how above all being rational can help you succeed like Othello as he always verifies stories and thinks with a cool head which has gotten him to the highly respected status he has now. Secondly, Shakespeare aims to convey to his audience the importance of whats inside, not what everyone is able to see and how if you have been subjected to prejudice, you should have the confidence and the ability to prove yourself to the actual person you are inside and that can only be done by rational thinking and an ability to form your words so they hold significance just like in Act 1 of Othello which all comes down to Othello being more fair than black in his words.
To conclude, Shakespeare uses race as a key theme in Othellos Act 1 as it forms the basis of everything else that happens in this tragedy. He explores the idea of race casting a veil over your judgement and causing you to make the wrong decisions as a result of false assumptions like Iago does as he discusses his plans to bring Othello down in A1S1. As well as this he links the theme of race to love as they go hand-in-hand in this tragedy as the plot is triggered by Othello and Desdemonas elopement, however in the end race does outweigh love as there are constant pressures frowning upon this miscegenation. As well as this more than anything race is used a tool and a basis for discrimination to justify ulterior motives such as revenge for Iago as he was not made Lieutenant. Finally, one of the biggest moral messages Shakespeare conveys is that you should not let the judgement of others change who you are and if people form an opinion on you solely form the way you look you should prove them wrong with your character just like Othello does. Shakespeare wrote this tragedy at a time when views were very conservative and reserved and there was not much mobility of opinions or stereotypes and so he took a risk making a black man the protagonist however even today we can learn something from his work as his ideas were very forward. Shakespeare manages to give us an overview and an idea of his messages just from the very first Act and he presents race as very versatile element of society as it can either make or break you depending on the views others hold but most importantly the views you hold about yourself.