Othello Play “If Othello didnt 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 arent 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 fathers permission, which during that time would have been socially unacceptable. This is revealed to us through Brabantios reaction as Shakespeare uses Brabantio as a vehicle for the representation of higher societys 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 grooms 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 hes 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 “youll 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 Shakespeares and his societys 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 Iagos 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 societys 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 Des …