Just how serious is the problem of racial prejudice in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello? Is it pervasive or incidental? This essay intends to answer questions on this subject.
Blanche Coles in Shakespeare’s Four Giants maintains that the racial discrimination in the play may be overstated by critics:
In the first scene, Roderigo has referred to Othello as “thick lips.” No other character in the play attributes any such negroid features to Othello, and it should be remembered that Roderigo has a half-insane prejudice against and hatred for Othello. Brabantio refers to his “sooty bosom,” but may he not have meant his hairy chest? Some rather fair men have black hair on their chests. The word “sooty” seems to apply more aptly to this interpretation than it does to a mere black body. All other characters refer to Othello respectfully as “the Moor” or “the valiant Moor.” (80)
In the opening scene, while Iago is expressing his dislike, or rather hatred, for the general Othello for his having chosen Michael Cassio for the lieutenancy, he contrives a plan to partially avenge himself (“I follow him to serve my turn upon him”), with Roderigo’s assistance, by alerting Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, to the fact of his daughter’s elopement with Othello. Roderigo shares Iago’s prejudiced attitude toward Othello: “What a full fortune does the thicklips owe / If he can carry't thus!” The word thicklips is a disparaging reference to a facial characteristic of many members of the dark-skinned race. When, by loud shouting, Brabantio is awakened, Iago commences with a series of racial epithets:
Zounds, sir, you're robb'd; for shame, put on
Your heart is burst, you have lo...
... middle of paper ...
EMILIA. Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil! (5.2)
Following Iago’s murder of Emilia, he is captured; Lodovico addresses Othello, who is so dejected at having been deceived by his ancient:
O thou Othello, thou wert once so good,
Fall'n in the practise of a damned slave,
What shall be said to thee? (5.2)
Needless to say, damned slave has racial overtones. Shortly thereafter, the hero, in remorse for the tragic mistake he has made, stabs himself and dies on the bed next to his wife, his sorrow being as deep as his love.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare’s Four Giants. Rindge, New Hampshire: Richard Smith Publisher, 1957.
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