Iago, Othello, Shakespeare, racism, racist ideologies, Othello and Desdmona, the racial mythology of Elizabethan England, xenophobia
There is no question that, like any tragically flawed hero, Othello is complicit in his own undoing. However, the nature of his character flaw is somewhat unusual in Shakespearean tragedy in that it is a flaw which the entire audience is tricked into sharing. Shakespeare takes pains to make the opening scenes of the play such that the audience is coaxed out of their most base racist feelings: Iago, the villain, gives voice to Elizabethan racism in rather vulgar language, while Othello, the hero, comes off as far more likeable and honorable despite his blackness.
[...] Rather, he is expecting Iago to actually provide proof, already on the brink of rage. When the rage comes, of course, it unleashes the language which Iago himself couldn't have used better: "Arise, black vengeance, from they hollow cell " Othello cries out, encouraging himself to become exactly what he has, so far in the play, not been: a stereotypically violent and undeserving black Moor (III Othello's anxiety over his relationship to Desdmona builds very slowly. We in the audience are already told, from our own racist ideologies (assuming we are living in London in 1604) and from Iago's and Brabantio's speeches in Act that Othello's marriage to Desdemona is an aberration. [...]
[...] "'Refuge of the Distressed Nations,' Perceptions of Aliens in Elizabethan England." The Journal of Modern History 52 (March 1980): D1001-D1019. Vaughan, Alden T. and Virginia Mason. "Before Othello: Elizabethan Representations of Sub-Saharan Africans." The William and Mary Quarterly 54 (January 1997): 19-44. [...]
[...] English xenophobia had a grand history under Elizabeth, even without the racial underpinnings. As Ronald Pollitt has shown, London was a refuge for many white Europeans, especially those fleeing Catholicism, but English openness turned to "xenophobia" and "suspicion" against all foreigners by the 1570s (Pollitt D1003-D1005). Internal correspondence among the English government during Elizabeth's reign referred to foreigners as "'lewd and evil'" (quoted in Pollitt, D1013). While formal, legal xenophobia in England ended well before Othello was written and performed, the culture by which not only whiteness, but Englishness, was superior, and all other cultures and races other, different, and inferior had been deeply entrenched in England. [...]
[...] The transformation is believable and compelling because, on some level we'd rather not admit to, even as a modern audience, we sense the otherness of the Moor, and harbor the suspicion that our most vile thoughts about race will be proven true. Works Cited Adelman, Janet. "Iago's Alter Ego: Race as Projection in Othello." Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (Summer 1997): 125-144. Little, Jr., Arthur L. Essence that's Not Seen': The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello." Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (Autumn 1993): 304-324. Neill, Michael. "Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello." Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (Winter 1989): 383-412. Pollitt, Ronald. [...]
[...] draws attention to "the black Other whom the audience suspects is hidden within Othello" (Little 304). It would seem that Othello shares the audience's suspicions on this matter. Furthermore, Little argues that "the improper relationship between Othello and Desdemona is in its essence a displacement of the proper relationship between Desdemona and Cassio" that is, that the false relationship which Iago invents is the one that the audience on some level believes should be, is more cosmically correct (Little 315). [...]
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