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Lee Jamieson

Is Othello Really a Racist Play?

By January 31, 2013

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I often hear Othello described as a racist play - certainly, race is a strong theme throughout - but can you really tag this play "racist"?

This is, afterall, the "dark moor" who has made it in a white man's society. I know ... this is a fairly banal statement today, but in its historical context Shakespeare was taking a huge risk.

At a time when non-whites were often thought of as "savage" by the general populace, Shakespeare's presentation of Othello was revolutionary.

Othello is well-spoken, highly regarded and about to marry an aristocratic woman - characteristics that would have cut against popular conceptions. If you were standing in the Globe Theatre some four centuries ago, there must have been an unease amongst the spectators watching this play.

I think for this reason alone, Othello is ground-breaking - the "racist" label is an ill-thought out modernism ... surely?

Also this month

More King Lear scenes: (Act 3 Scene 1, 2, 3, 4 (part 1 & 2), 5, 6, 7; Act 4 Scene 1 and 2)

Comments

February 6, 2013 at 11:41 am
(1) Mohsen Qassemi says:

Indeed, the labelling of the play as “racist” is something made up by the modernists and critics who have nothing more to say about the play! and it’s an unfair one as well.

It’s more of a “racial” play than “racist.” Maybe the only MOORISH characteristic I would ascribe to Othello the mna would be “jealusy to the extent of killing your wife.” In Abraic and Moslem regions, killing your wife in flagrante delicto is quite sanctioned; if a wife is killed out of jealousy or suspicion, as in this case, the case might be treated with alleviation.

The question that always comes to my mind is “what would a white guy do if he were presented instead of Othello the man in OTHELLO? Would he kill the wife? Would his suspicion be roused at all?”

February 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm
(2) frances c says:

This is a play about jealousy and religious bigotry. Othello is a Moor – the name used at the time for a Muslim. He is by birth a prince who is trying to make his fortune in the world. He marries a good Christian girl in secret and she takes on his religion. He is a brilliant strategist who is promoted to a senior position within the govt of the day but doesn’t promote Iago, his batman – instead he relegates him sideways to a lesser position where he can no longer take bribes for favours. Iago is also jealous of Othello because there are a lot of rumours that Iago’s wife and Othello are lovers – and the rumours humiliate him. Iago uses the religious bigotry of the day to get even with Othello by bringing him down to his level – the jealous, humiliated male unable to think of loving his wife without seeing her with someone else. Othello’s own actions result in him loosing everything just as Iago has – no position, no wealth, no estate and no one to love him.

February 21, 2013 at 8:10 am
(3) Richard Goffman says:

Othello is not a racist play. It actually comments on racism in a surprisingly enlightened way.
The Merchant of Venice is a racist play.

February 22, 2013 at 10:58 am
(4) susanne says:

I grew up in Padova, than a province of Vence. The Universities in both cities were always full of all nationalities, you can see it in the registrations at the university library. No one gave a “fig” about color, but brain was the only requirement.The thought of race had not entered to anyone’s mind at that level. Venice was always an equal opportunity employer.

March 2, 2013 at 7:03 am
(5) Elissa says:

I certainly don’t think the play itself is racist, but it does reflect racist attitudes that were prevalent at the time. I think Shakespeare was very calculated in his characterisation of Othello (and the other characters in the play), and I think he used the play to challenge society’s belief in the superiority of the white races. Shakespeare quite cleverly leads his audience to respect Othello and feel upset by his destruction. He is a tragic hero, in some ways, even though his transformation occurs after he has killed Desdemona. His realisation and honourable reaction (in terms of context) makes the audience despise Iago even more and question the attitudes he personifies. I think it’s a brilliant play, and not at all racist.

I started writing a post about this here: http://www.LearningandWriting.com/1/post/2013/03/race-in-othello.html

I’ll be adding more to it in the future, but if you’re interested, please check it out :)

March 6, 2013 at 5:30 pm
(6) BARTSANZ says:

Everyone is so well-spoken in Shakespeare. Even gardeners! Just let me know of a single character who speaks badly in Shakespeare.

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