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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.
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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.