Essay on Othello – Racism Expressed in Words

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Othello – Racism Expressed in Words

The Bard of Avon’s tragic play Othello expresses racism; there is no doubt about this among most critics. However, to what degree – to a vulgar extent? Or to an excusable level?

In her book, Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack comments on the audience’s reaction to the black-white union in the play:

That a beautiful Venetian girl should fall in love with “a veritable negro” seemed to many implausible, in fact “monstrous.” The words are Coleridge’s, but the sentiment was widely shared and, on the nineteenth-century stage, was increasingly taken into account by “orientalizing” the hero, making him appear to be what one of the
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From the ugly start of the play, Othello and Desdemona have to prove the worth of their love in the face of preset attitudes against miscegenation. (218)

When, by loud shouting, Brabantio is awakened, Iago commences with a series of racial epithets:

[. . .]

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;

Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,

Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:

Arise, I say. (1.1)

The phrase old black ram and the word devil both make reference in an offensive manner to dark skin color. The allusion to white ewe has the effect of putting Othello’s darkness into sharp contrast. A few lines later Iago once again turns his invective fully on Othello with three stinging racial epithets:

'Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not

serve God, if the devil bid you. Because we come to

do you service and you think we are ruffians, you'll

have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;

you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have

coursers for cousins and gennets for germans. (1.1)

The words devil, Barbary horse, and gennet (a dark-colored Spanish horse) all use race at the expense of the hero of the drama. And then Roderigo chimes in, stating that Desdemona has gone “To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” and “made a gross revolt.” The repeated
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