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Iago's victory over Othello

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  1. Some signs of self-doubt
  2. Othello's anxiety over his relationship to Desdmona
  3. English xenophobia under Elizabeth
  4. Iago giving voice to the audience's racist tendencies
  5. Othello, the black monster painted by Iago

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. [...]


[...] Iago is the one who is undeserving and cruel and, we hope, someone whom we can feel is Other. However, I think it is important to see the racism inherent in both the audience and Othello as far more than passive ideas ready for Iago to manipulate. Adelman herself draws out how "the play makes us complicit in the process" by which Iago forces Othello to become exactly what Iago would have a black man be: an unreasoning, uncivilized murderer, "Iago's monstrous creation" (Adelman 141-142). [...]

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