"The Beast with Two Backs". Race and Racism in Shakespeare's "Othello"

Term Paper, 2015

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


2.Iago: a most sinister villain?

3.Othello: “the beast with two backs”

4.Desdemona: not quite “the sweetest innocent that e’er did lift up eye”?


List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

In 1994, Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography that “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion” and that, consequently, “people must learn to hate” (856). By itself, this is a simple statement but it is also egregious in the way it makes us understand. There is nothing it could not explain, no dispute it could not illuminate. And even though Mr. Mandela had originally formulated his statement with regard to Apartheid, it fits extraordinarily well to racism in Shakespeare’sOthello.

Judging from Michael Neill’s investigations into the subject of notions of human difference in early modern societies, 16th century Venice had had a considerably open attitude towards foreigners of any kind, with a great deal of cultural exchange taking place between people of every colour and every religion. He even assumes that, during the Elizabethan era, “boundaries of otherness” had been based almost exclusively on behaviour and civility rather than physical appearance (366). Hence, an immigrant would most likely have been accepted regardless of nationality or ethnicity as long as he adapted to their customs and practices and did not breach with moral standards; especially so if he—like Othello—associated “with the two dominant sociopolitical institutions of the period: Church (“Christendom”) and State (the government and military)” (Reynolds 204).

By the beginning of the 17th century, however, this started to change: as the number of encounters with foreign cultures increased, “color emerg[ed] as the most important criterion for defining otherness” (Neill 366-67). As Mandela would have put it, Venetians started to learn hating others in behalf of their skin colour. And precisely this kind of development is illustrated inOthello: the Moor, who is actually a prime example for successful integration, has to endure an increasing degree of enmities and discriminations as racist sentiments begin to emerge in Venetian society—sentiments even Othello himself cannot resist.

This term paper seeks to dislocate these traces of racism within the characters of Iago, Othello, and Desdemona and to explain the play’s tragic ending by reference to issues of race, culture, and social standing.

2. Iago: a most sinister villain?

Iago is undoubtedly the most racist character in the play. His duplicitous manipulations clearly aim at Othello’s self-alienation and eventual downfall. Nevertheless, we would do him wrong if we dealt with him as a white-supremacist only: for one, there is also considerable praise for Othello to be found in his soliloquies and, secondly, his victimization is not entirely racially motivated but partly determined by his disappointment at his missing success.

In Act 1Scene 1, when Iago first tells Roderigo of his plans to take his revenge on Othello, his racist resentments are not yet discernible. Rather, he is outraged that Othello has disregarded him, the experienced soldier, and chosen Cassio, a man of (allegedly) mere theoretical learning, for his officer instead (I.i.32). Hurt in his pride—“I know my price, I am worth no worse a place” (I.i.10)—he launches a coup against Othello’s reputation and standing (Orkin 169), saying that he will place himself further into the Moor‘s trust just in order to provoke his military misdemeanour (I.i.57-64).

In actual fact, Iago only learns to employ racist remarks from Roderigo: initially he referred to Othello as either ‘the Moor’ (I.i.39) or even ‘his Moorship’ (I.i.32), but following Roderigo’s ‘thicklips’ in I.i.65 he, too, starts to portray Othello in xenophobic colours, calling him inter alia an ‘old black ram’ (I.i.87) and a ‘Barbary horse’ (I.i.110). Along these lines, Emily Bartels pointed out that “the language of what we might call high racism emerges within a cacophony of impromptu activity, improvised in the face of uncertain success and having only questionable effect” (164). While I agree that Iago’s attacks against Othello’s ethnicity were not planned a priori, I nevertheless contradict her on one point: Iago immediately saw how racial prejudice could contribute to his primary objective of discrediting Othello and made it an essential part of his retaliation campaign against him. “He could never have poisoned Othello’s mind if Othello had not all his life struggled with this prejudice and overcome it by building up a persona, a mask to front the world, of the calm, resolute and modest commander, unaware of prejudice. But once the crack is made, it is clear that—deepest tragedy of all—he has himself been infected by the thing he fought.” (Mason 158)

From now on, Iago “pour[s] pestilence into [Othello’s] ear” (II.iii.351), infiltrating him with the essence of his own blackness, mortifying Othello’s soul with his own literal interpretation of Black Death. He achieves this by continuously linking Desdemona’s supposed infidelity to his colour. In Act 3 Scene 3, for instance, Iago implies that their marriage is so unnatural (i.e. based on great differences in “clime, complexion, and degree) that it was inevitable that one of them would act out of term rather sooner than later (III.iii.232-37). Shortly thereafter, Othello talks about his skin colour for the very first time saying that Desdemona must loathe his conversation (III.iii.267-272). Iago’s attempt to “push [him] towards the (re)discovery of his blackness” (Little 316) thus proves effective and confirms his strategy.

This strategy aims to make Othello “a stranger of here and everywhere” (I.i.150), to deprive him of the roots that hold him by taking up measures on four fronts. Firstly, he disrupts the relationship between the married couple and “turns the delicate balance of opposites in Othello and Desdemona’s marriage into mere incompatibility, bound to end in disaster.” (Leggatt 121) Secondly, he misuses Desdemona in order to make Othello “renounce his baptism, all seals and symbols of redeemed sin” (II.iii.338-39). In doing so, he not only withdraws from Othello the support and encouragement of his faith but also tries to “kill [his] soul” (V.ii.32). Thirdly, Iago alienates Othello from the military sphere (Bartels 159) by poisoning the relationship to Cassio (II.i.300-05) and by coaxing Desdemona into challenging her husband’s decision-making powers (“Our general’s wife is now the general”: II.iii.309-10). And last but not least, he sets official Venetian state society against Othello, who thus becomes an outcast at all levels: domestic, military, religious, as well as societal.

Notwithstanding the above-mentioned invasions, we have to notice that Iago does not solely “evoke, in a few choice epithets, the reigning stereotype of the African . . . [as] black [connoted with] ugliness, treachery, lust, bestiality, and the demonic”, as claimed by Edward Berry (319), but also lays great emphasis on Othello’s goodness when reflecting about his plans. “To Roderigo, Iago always contemptuously denies the goodness of Othello and Desdemona . . .; but in soliloquy he specifically affirms their goodness . . .” (Adelman 137). In Act 2 Scene 1, for example, he praises Othello as a “constant, loving, noble nature” and adds that “he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband” (II.i. 286 and 288-89). Even though Iago portrays Othello in an often undignified manner, at the same time he expresses his respect in regard to his qualities.

3. Othello: “the beast with two backs”

If Iago is not a pristine personification of racism and the evil, then Othello is not an innocent, helpless victim either. When we encounter him for the first time, he seems to be feeling well in his skin, so much so, in fact, that he is not even conscious about the vast array of potential negative consequences his furtive wedding to Desdemona might have: when Iago suggests that he should hide from Brabantio and his pack of agitated Venetians, Othello asseverates that he has nothing to fear because his qualities, legal rights, and pure soul “shall manifest [him] rightly” (I.ii.33). This confidence and trustfulness is characteristic of the Othello of the early stages. He “sees himself . . . as an exotic Venetian, a convert in the fullest sense, capable of complete assimilation” (Berry 323) and puts his lifestyle on show in a permanent self-representation as being integrated and exceptional at the same time. In Act 2, Scene 3, for instance, he does not only act as a perfectly naturalized citizen but—even more than that—as a defender of Christianity (II.iii.168), a guardian of Venetian virtues; when, just a few lines earlier, in Act 2, Scene 1, he had boasted that he “prattle[d] out of fashion, and dote[d] in [his] own comforts” (II.i.197).

These two notions of self do not last. Maybe they were never real. Maybe Othello did only wear them as masks under which he could hide “the anxiety of the convert, who struggles to see himself as a member of a community from which he has been alienated” (Berry 326). What is certain, however, is that he slowly loses these established identities when exposed to Iago’s repeated denunciations.

On the one hand, we become witnesses of how Othello abandons and renounces his religious beliefs. From the conversation between Othello and Desdemona in Act 4, Scene 2 it is revealed that Othello has not merely lost trust in God but actually holds him responsible for all the suffering that had been inflicted upon him. Like Job, Othello laments that a just God would not have treated him so harshly, that now there has come a time when all patience is impossible and when he can no longer inactively endure the tenterhooks that keep him (IV.ii.48-61). Having broken with his former personal dogmas, he takes the following vow:

Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell,

Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne

To tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy fraught,

For ‘tis of aspics tongues! (III.iii.48-61)

Thus, Othello rises up against Christian principles and values such as leniency, love of one’s enemies, nonviolence, and self-discipline and “breaks out to savage madness.” (IV.i.58)

At the same time, Othello becomes estranged from Venetian lifestyle and from behaviours that “would be believed in Venice” (IV.i.245): the title of the play suggests that Othello is “The Moor of Venice”—in other words, an integral part and established member of Venetian society. On closer inspection, however, we have to notice that he has only seemingly “adopted the proper Venetian ideology” (Reynolds 206). Even though he feels both accepted and supported in his new environment—“I have found great love amongst them” (II.i.204)—he certainly has misinterpreted essential elements of Venetian culture: in Act 1, Scene 2, for example, he makes the resolve to “promulgate” his marriage to Desdemona because he “know[s] that boating is an honour” and feels that he could “speak unbonneted”—that is without removing his headdress out of due respect—about it (I.ii.20-24). But it is precisely this proud attitude that causes Iago to take actions against Othello (I.i.11-15). He sets himself the task of showing Othello quite plainly that he precisely does not belong to them. This strategy allows him—in theory—to make Othello appear in a negative light while he increases in favour with the Venetians as the one who protected them against a cunning intruder. In this manner, he makes him feel insecure, labels him an ignoramus who does not even know how to behave properly (III.iii.202-06) and, consequently, can only be described as a “civil monster” (IV.i.639). And Othello does not resist. In fact, he receives it with docility: accepts it because it is a possible cause of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity.

“Iago’s subversion of Othello’s Christianity” (Reynolds 208) and Othello’s separation from society, then, are linked to his sense of his own blackness. To the extent that Othello loses faith in God and society he also loses his belief in himself or rather his goodness. “As his sense of betrayal intensifies, [he] intermittently refers to the racism that, present in his world, must lurk at the edges of his consciousness or identity.” (Orkin 174) In the first instance, Othello starts to adopt Iago’s language of racism: he accuses Iago of echoing him as if he was a hideous monster (III.iii.111-12), and of treating him like a “stranger to [his] thoughts” (III.iii.147); speaks of a raven that has infected his house (IV.i.21); calls Desdemona a “fair devil” (III.iii.480); and finally he impugns his own fortitude and bows himself in humility under the mental flogging by “ every puny whipster” (V.ii.242), that is by Gratiano, Montano, and Emilia in particular and all Venetian citizens in general.

These differences in expression best exemplify how “Othello learns to understand the difference as a liability and to read himself categorically and derogatorily as Moor.” (Bartels 181). Following the initial impetus provided by Iago, he begins to discover problematic qualities within himself and slowly develops a new, revised version of his own character: an ignorant Barbarian who is unworthy of keeping a relationship with a girl as honourable as Desdemona (V.ii.342-46); a “foul thing—the old black ram—intruding into the palace of Venetian civilization or the palace of Desdemona’s body…” (Adelman 143).

Othello’s self-loathing even reaches such dimensions that he “experience[s] his own blackness as a contamination that contaminates Desdemona” (Adelman 144). Even going into Act 3, he finds that Desdemona’s “name that was as fresh As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as [his] own face” (III.iii.389-91). He projects all his negative feelings—all the self-depreciation, shame, and early inklings of social isolation—onto his wife. “In his diseased imagination she becomes, paradoxically, the stereotype of the Moor: cunning, „black," sexually depraved, and diabolic. “ (Berry 328)

So how are we to understand Othello’s tragic ending? Many critics—among them Edward Berry—have argued that he seeks to defend the Venetian state; that he tries to make up for the harm done to Venetian civilization by killing himself, the polluter. For my part, I believe, that his disengagement from Venetian society has already progressed too far for any attempts from his side to repair the lesions and re-bridge the gaps. I rather believe that Othello’s suicide is a direct result of his self-hatred or, more precisely, of the notion that he himself is worthy of destruction. He intends both killings to be ethnic cleansings: at first he purifies his wife from all contamination—I can again thy former light restore (V.ii.9)—and then he delivers his own body to the “steep-down gulfs of liquid fire” (V.ii.278) so that he may be washed free of sin and all his blackness might be swilled down.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


"The Beast with Two Backs". Race and Racism in Shakespeare's "Othello"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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Othello, Shakespeare, racism
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Ann-Kathrin Latter (Author), 2015, "The Beast with Two Backs". Race and Racism in Shakespeare's "Othello", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/354525


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