Interracial Relationships between the Characters in Othello
Othello is a tragic play written by William Shakespeare,which focuses on the life of a general in the Venetian army calledOthello. In specific, the play revolves around the character`smarriage to a white woman. As an African man, the play is written ata time when interracial marriages were uncommon. Hence, Othello`smarriage to a white woman causes a strain in how he relates withother characters in the play. In the following discussion, theresearch paper focuses on William Shakespeare and the interracialrelationship between the characters in the play.
It is common for people in interracial relationships to be frownedupon by some societies. In specific, the interracial marriage betweenblacks and whites seems to draw more attention to public scrutiny. Itsurpasses the realm of true love and is characterized as “passionfor the forbidden fruit of the opposite skin color (Shaw 83).” Evenin the contemporary societies where people are more learned, it iscommon for stereotypical names to be used when referring to aninterracial relationship between an African and white couple. Forinstance, such couples are known as “leche y chocolate” meaning“milk and cream” in Spain while in America, an illustration ofthe stereotypical name is “Jungle Fever (Shaw 83).”
The play, Othello is written for an Elizabethan audience.Years ago, in Elizabethan England there were numerous traditionsconcerning marriage and how women were treated. An illustration ofsuch traditions was the taboo associated with interracial marriages(Kaufmann 22). Parents were responsible for choosing marriagepartners for their children. The objective was to ensure that thechildren did not choose marriage partners of different races.Shakespeare goes against such traditions and creates a play thatfocuses on interracial relationships.
Historically, African men were considered to be slaves. They held nosignificant position in society. In Othello, Shakespeare`smain character is an African American man, who contrary to the normis a well established person in society. Shakespeare uses thecharacter to demonstrate that men from an African heritage areequally capable of being faithful, civil as well as literate husbands(Shaw 83). However, such men have to deal with discrimination againstthem, especially when they endeavor to form relationships withwhites.
The first interracial relationship in the play is that of an Africanman and a white woman. The characters are Othello and Desdemonarespectively. Othello is an African because he is described as anative from North Africa (Constantakis 1). He has lived an eventfullife. Othello was a former slave and in the play is depicted as afree man who has traveled and fought during the Ottoman Empire.Shakespeare writes the play at a time when the character hasundergone a procedure defined as defection. This means that hisstatus has changed from that of a slave to a general in Venice.Despite being a general, Venetians continue to consider him anoutsider due to his race. At the same time, he is greatly valued dueto his military prowess. Following his appointment to act as thecommander in Cyprus he falls in love with Desdemona, a Venetianwoman, and marries her.
The play describes Desdemona as an attractive young woman. She iswhite and Venetian. She does not consent to marrying any of thewealthy Venetian men from her race as is expected by society.Instead, she elopes with Othello who is older and considered anoutsider in her society. By doing so, Desdemona goes against herfather’s expectations of marrying a white man. According toVenetian tradition, Desdemona`s father should have chosen a marriagepartner for her. The character`s actions are significant in the playbecause her elopement with Othello makes it possible to analyze theattitudes towards interracial relationships between the othercharacters.
William Shakespeare uses the interracial relationship between Othelloand Desdemona to illustrate sixteenth-century attitudes towardsmarriage. In specific, he focuses on the significance of marryingsomeone from one’s race. It would be expected that everyone wouldreadily accept Othello into the Venetian society regardless of hisrace. This is due to his contributions in the society as a soldier.However, it is apparent that while the society will readilyacknowledge his contributions his interracial relationship isconsidered taboo.
From the onset of the play, Othello is regarded to as the general,the Moor. The phrase Moor was historically used when referring tolight-skinned Africans. Nevertheless, Shakespeare does not make thedistinction amid the light-skinned African and the dark-skinned.Instead, he depicts Othello as a black African (Moss and Wilson 1).The Moors refer to a nomadic group that originates from North Africa.They were Muslims who attacked Spain in 711 and established a kingdomin the country. The Moorish way of life was successful in Spain asthey established cities. However, they failed to create a stronggovernment resulting to their attack and surrender to strongerrulers. As a result, they were pushed from Spain and some were forcedto relocate to different European nations.
Those that relocated to European nations in the sixteenth-centurywere seen as barbaric and mostly treated like slaves. They oftenbecame scapegoats for society’s tribulations. After the terminationof slave trade, such views of Moors slowly faded but the individualswere still regarded as second class civilians. For some Moors it waspossible to escape the negativity and successfully integrate in theVenetian society, like Othello (Moss and Wilson 1). This explainsShakespeare’s reference to Othello as a Moor.
Othello’s successful integration is apparent in the way somecharacters refer to him in the play. As the play begins, we learnabout Othello even before seeing him. The story opens with Iago, whooutwardly expresses his lack of affection towards Othello. However,he does not question Othello’s ability as a commander in Venice bynoting that the Venetian government is incapable of doing away withOthello “another of his fathom they have none to do their business(Mason 154).” In addition, in the play`s first half Montano refersto Othello positively as “noble Othello, brave Othello, the nobleMoor, the war-like Moor, and a worthy Governor (Mason 155).”Montano further explains how he “the man commands like a fullsoldier (Mason 155).” The references used indicate that Othello hasbeen accepted in the Venetian society owing to his military prowess.
Prior to Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, the other characters inthe play highly regard him for his contributions in protecting theircountry. They view him as important in their society. However, theinterracial relationship between Othello and Desdemona brings out thereal attitudes of the Venetian Society towards him. After he marriesDesdemona, even those that previously considered him as noble now usephrases that illustrate their actual feelings and attitudes towardsblacks. This brings out the interracial relationship between Othelloand other characters in the play.
Shakespeare uses the interracial relationships to illustrate howracism was widespread in England, specifically Venetian society atthe time of writing the play. It is depicted through the charactersIago, Roderigo and Brabantio. They verbalize racial insults towardsOthello by referring to him as a “Barbary horse”. Roderigo callshim the “thick lips” while Brabanito refers to him as a “thing(Rose 25).” The frequent use of racial images towards Othello,which are negative, strongly resonates to the Elizabethan audience.Despite the fact that Africans had been accepted in England, theElizabethan world continued to view them as strange people who camefrom an unknown world (Aubrey 222).
Shakespeare uses the interracial relationship to show the widespreadimagination of whites towards blacks as non-human. From the verystart of the play, Othello is isolated from the other characters.Even before the audience sees him, it is already clear that the focusis on his race. For instance, the way Iago describes Othello as theplay begins prepares the audience for something that is not human. Itis evident that Shakespeare is aware of his audience’s reactions toAfricans. Hence, he uses Iago as the audience’s agency of raceapparent in his use of inflammatory words such as “an old black ramis trumping your white ewe (Rose 26)” towards Othello. Thestatement while referring to Othello is a larger representation ofhis race. Shakespeare does this with the objective of arousing theingrained apprehension of miscegenation among the audience. Thephrase miscegenation refers to the inbreeding of individuals thatbelong to different races. The play’s audience at the timecomprised of individuals that were against interrelationships betweenblacks and whites. Hence, Iago enhances society’s contempt towardsOthello’s relationship with a white woman.
It becomes increasingly impossible to ignore Othello’s referencethrough color prejudice as he continues to relate with characters inthe play. In Act One of the third scene, Brabantio continues to referto Othello with a racial attitude. He is Desdemona’s father and isangered by the choice of husband the daughter has made. Brabantioviews his daughter’s love towards a black man as an abnormality andis surprised that she is “in love with what she feared to look on(Rose 27).” According to the character, Othello is something thathis daughter should not even consider accepting to marry, whilerefusing to get married to a white man. Shakespeare uses thecharacter to enhance the seriousness of racial attitudes towardsblacks who are in an interracial relationship with a white person.
Desdemona also appears to have issues with Othello’s blacknessalthough not as intense as that of the other characters. She claimsto have seen Othello’s visage in her mind. This could beinterpreted to imply that she is not attracted to him due to who heis, as a black man. Instead, she is attracted to Othello due to hisqualities of mind. From the play, we learn that she is entertained bythe stories that he narrates to her. According to Singh (321) suchstatements from Desdemona could be interpreted to mean that she isnot physically attracted to Othello. This means that her interracialrelationship with him is based on the exotic narratives he narratesto her.
Shakespeare uses the interracial relationship between characters tobring out the differential treatment between blacks and whites at thetime. Iago uses appalling animal imagery to describe Othello as "abeast and old black ram" just because he is black. These termscreate the illusion that Othello being black means he is a pervert,immoral and has no control having married the young white girl. Atsome point, the bitterness is expressed in the story when the secretmarriage of Othello and Desdemona is said to be as "an old ramtapping a white ewe." This scene shows hate, disgust and furyfor interracial marriages. The use of "an old black ram" torefer to Othello "tupping your white ewe" referring tomarrying Desdemona is a strong metaphor that degrades Othello andterms him evil for marrying the white woman. Obviously, it is notacceptable for a black man to marry a white virgin as it evokes manyemotions and verbal abuse from other people in the play.
Black and white imagery in the story makes it evident thatinterracial relationships are an issue in this story. Othello is theonly black character that we come across in the play. Due to his darkcomplexion which stands out from the other actors, he is viewed as anoutsider and intruder. Due to Othello`s blackness Iago gets anopportunity to insult him by comparing him to animals andmanipulating his reputation in the society. To him, Othello is amindless animal that is full of lust and unable to contain his lustas earlier stated (Orkin 87). The description paired with Othello’shard mind as compared to being ruled by his heart gives a ratherdramatic deterioration of Othello the black character.
Shakespeare additionally uses interracial relationships to depict theassociation of blacks with violence. Othello the African man isidentified with qualities like aggression, physical masculinity andjealousy. As marriage partners, they are termed as unfaithful and notcapable of keeping one wife. The stereotypes and misjudgments fromhistorical references for black people greatly affect Othello’sinterracial marriage (Orkin 88). Many people relate with his racialqualities rather than seeing the love he has for Desdemona.
The association of blacks with violence is further enhanced by theimagery comparing black Othello and white Desdemona. This is a deeperanalysis of the view of interracial relationships in the society theyare living. According to Alexander and Stanley (2), black and whitewas used to historize race in Shakespeare`s time. In this play, blackand white marriages signify good versus evil. Because Othello isblack, he is considered evil while Desdemona is considered as a goodperson because she is white. Iago tries to evoke emotions on Othellowhen he uses his color to describe him as evil and old. The way hedescribes Desdemona’s pure whiteness versus Othello’s blacknessgives the reader a disgusting view of Othello as an old black anddirty minded character. This makes Othello susceptible tomanipulation and becomes a source of insecurity.
According to Mason (156), Iago has a grudge against Othello. He doesnot stop being mean to him and certainly expresses his bitternessdaily. While in Cyprus waiting for Othello’s ship to arrive, onceagain he gets a chance to express what he feels for the blacks.Desdemona challenges Iago who seems drawn to amusing some banter forwomen to say something about her. At first, he is reluctant but asDesdemona keeps insisting on him, he breaks the silence saying howthe black are witty.
Black in his statement-meaning brunette as one would refer the wordfair to mean blonde. In this case, though Desdemona is asking about asmart and ugly woman. In his statement, hit is used as a sexualconnotation to refer to phrases of pursuing or showing interest insomeone (Mason 156). In simple terms, Iago implies that a woman nomatter how ugly can be able to attract a handsome man unlikeDesdemona who attracts a black old man. For Iago, black is simplyugly.
While Iago uses black to cast negative views of Othello and pureopinions on Desdemona, the Duke thinks otherwise. After Othello andDesdemona are able to prove that their love is real, a match andgenuine before the Senate, the Duke convinces Brabanito to accept themarriage (Shakespeare 12). The last thing that the Duke says is thatBrabanito`s son in law "is far fairer than his black color."Fair, in this case means, white and beautiful means good. When hesays is "far more…" the Duke implies that Othello is notjust a black person, he has much more than his color shows and shouldnot be misjudged on the basis of his color asserts Carlson (3). Whatthe Duke tries to point to Desdemona’s father is that, he shouldsee beyond race and color. He would be wiser if he startsappreciating his son in law for his virtues and not skin color.
As the scenes conclude, we see Desdemona’s real love and respectfor her interracial marriage. According to Vanita (343) womenregardless of their race become victims to their protective andjealous husbands. Desdemona for example and Emilia are accused ofbeing unfaithful by their husbands. Desdemona still protects Othellowith her last words before dying by telling Emilia that she hascommitted suicide. After the long silent pretence of innocenceOthello talks lowly of Desdemona calling her a liar who is going toburn in hell as he claims to have killed her. Emilia responds byshooting back and calling Desdemona an angel and Othello the blackdevil. For Emilia Othello has turned his morality and thinks thatblack is white and vice versa. According to Pechter (12) traditionshave tied women and make them subjects to men to the point of death.
In conclusion, Shakespeare remarkably manages to bring outinterracial relationship and the attitudes towards such relationshipsby Venetians. He illustrates to the reader the challenges that peoplein interracial relationships faced. This is due to society traditionsthat support hatred between people of different races. The first partof the story is an exciting depiction of a black man from NorthAfrica who manages to travel around the world after escaping fromslavery to become a military commander of the Venetian military. Hefalls in love with a young white lady Desdemona who loves him backnot for his color but for what is in his mind as noted by Rose (26).According to Brabanito he must have enchanted her with foul charms.Brabanito is against the interracial relationship and insists thathis daughter would not have eloped with the old black man.
Throughout the play one cannot help to notice, the vile and harshwords used to describe Othello and his act of marrying Desdemona allbecause he is black and she is white. Iago for example, cannotcontrol his bitterness and terms Othello as an "old ram, evil,ugly, uncontrolled with hyper-sexual qualities." Others likeEmilia refer to him as the devil. Race and patriachy are evidentthroughout the story and despite the story, staring out as that oftwo love birds it ends tragically because the difference in thecharacters races makes it impossible for them to relate well.Othello’s blackness seems to affect his behavior towards the end ofthe play as he becomes obsessed with jealous thoughts. The playillustrates the lack of acceptance for interracial relationships bysociety.
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