Othello’s Arabic Character and Racism in Othello Essay Example

Othello’s Arabic Character and Racism in Othello Essay

Othello’s Arabic Character and Racism in Othello

Shakespeare does not provide any clear hint about the specific ethnicity of Othello. Indeed Othello is mostly referred as “Moor” in the play. There are several other plays by Shakespeare where he refers to “Moor” and distinguishes them as a Berber Moor (in “The Merchant of Venice”) and a black Moor (in “Titus Andronicus”). But Shakespeare does not disclose the physical features of Othello so there is no idea whether he was Black Moor or Arab with comparatively fair complexion. So it is confirmed from Shakespeare’s textual evidence that Othello was a Moor and this paper will analyze whether he was an Arab or not.

Against general presumption, Ethnologists are of the view that “Moors” were of swarthy complexion but they were not essentially Negroes. (Silverblatt 2004, 257 & Birmingham 1971, 32) Elizabethans used the word “Moor” generally and thus it is associated with various connotations that refer to Berbers of Arab descent belonging to Al-Maghreb or Muslim in general. It also referred to black people of Al-Maghreb but this term was solely reserved for them as it is generally considered now. Emily Bartels also illustrates in her in-depth study of Shakespeare’s “Moorish” characters that word “Moor” in its frequent and customary usage, is identical with “similarly ambiguous terms as ‘African,’ ‘Ethiopian,’ ‘Negro,’ and even ‘Indian’” (434). So Shakespeare usage can not be confined to “black” only.

It must be kept in mind that being Arab does not only mean fair or dark complexion but it means the various traits and qualities that were hallmark of a contemporary renaissance conception of Arab. Arabs of Elizabethans era were considered brave soldiers whose prowess in the art of generalship was matchless. As they were men of action, so they were simple in their reasoning and thinking. They were not reflective as reflection and contemplation are not helpful traits in battlefield. As mostly Arab moors of Elizabethan era were nomads in their essence and hail from the Bedouin life, so they are not aware of the intricacies of civilized life. All these Arabic characteristics are true of Othello. A.C. Bradley rightly ponders over this Arabic trait of Othello in this way;

“The sources of danger in this character are revealed but too clearly by the story. In the first place, Othello’s mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect. On this side he is the very opposite of Hamlet, with whom, however, he shares a great openness and trustfulness of nature. In addition, he has little experience of the corrupt products of civilised life, and is ignorant of European women.” (p. 217)

Furthermore, like Arabs he had a trustful nature and he is thorough in his trust of Iago. (Bradley 1965. 213).

Othello’s being an alien in Venice and the gulf of culture, race, and complexion-that exists between him and the Venetians-is an important factor in his tragedy. Othello presents, in extreme form, the situation of the alien (including the class-alien) in a hierarchical, predatory and therefore not yet fully human society. Othello’s race is thus representative of a much wider human protest than concerns race alone. Furthermore, there existed a dichotomy of characterization about Moors as they were considered and portrayed in Elizabethan era as being dignified or hideous, civilized and urbane or savage and unrefined concurrently. Although Shakespeare positively portrayed Othello but his critics manifests this dichotomy.  To Swinburne, Othello was “the noblest man of man’s making”. (Swinburne) But T.S. Eliot, on the other hand spoke unfavorably of his “cheering himself up”, (153) and came out with a celebrated critical term “Bovarysme”. Robert H. Heilman comes very close to restating the Eliot position when he says; “Othello is the least heroic of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes.” (166)

Whatever the case, Othello hailed from a different race and that was his dilemma as Venetian society was unable to accept him as their own and he was regarded as “Other”. Braxton put this racial discrimination in this way that mainly, being a dissimilar racial origin and identity meant being an “Other”. (8). In another way, however, the race is of crucial importance in focusing the irrational feelings associated with that difference. Shakespeare forced his audience to see Othello first with the ‘bodily eye’ of Iago. This hero is a great human being who, differing physically as well as culturally from the community he has entered, recognizes (within the limits of his social role) only universal humane values of love and loyalty; but when in his equalitarian innocence he assumes full human rights in a society where other values are dominant, he makes himself and his personal relationships vulnerable to irrational, inhuman forces, embodied in Iago, that try to reduce him to a level as irrational as themselves and almost- but not quite-succeed.

Although race-prejudice and discrimination, in our sense of these terms-were unknown to the Elizabethan, it may be noted that the imagery of the play among other things emphasizes the contrast between light and dark. Othello is far more fair than black, because his visage is in his mind’ Iago will make the blonde Desdemona begrimed and black by turning her virtue into pitch: Iago’s business is thus to confuse the opposites. The first and last Acts are set in darkness, broken in one case by torches and in the other by Othello’s fatal candle as he speaks the soliloquy “Put out the light, and then put out the light”(5. 2. 7). While Iago is trying to bring darkness into the happy light of Othello’s life, there is an opposing force which tries to bring light into the surrounding darkness. The bearing of this symbolism on the moral opposition between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is obvious, but Shakespeare does not’ start with symbols and then attach complexions to them, and the inevitable effect of this opposition is to stress the racial contrast between Othello and his associates.

‘Colour-prejudice’ could not possibly have been a current problem in Shakespeare’s day in the modern sense of economic, political, and sexual rivalry within a competitive society, conditioned by the hangover from slavery and by movements for African independence. Elizabethans would, however, have and first hand contact with Moors. Trade with North Africa had long flourished; and on two occasions when there was an expulsion of Moors from Spain, in 1958 and 1609, they were carried back to Africa in English ships, apparently with much sympathy from the crews. As England backed the Moors against a common enemy, Spain, it is perhaps significant that the form of Iago’s name is Spanish. In 1600, only four years before the first recorded performance of Othello, many theatergoers would have seen “noble Moors” lodging in London, members of an embassy from the Barbary Coast to Queen Elizabeth. There is little doubt that Moors were generally credited with savagery as well as splendor. Elizabethan processions might be lent magnificence by a ‘King of the Moors’, but many of the words associated with’ Barbary’ (1596) are also Elizabethan: for instance, barbarity, barbarism, barbarous. Shakespeare’s earlier Moor, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, had been in atheist and an “inhuman dog”. (5.3. 16)

Aliens were held in suspicion even where they satisfied the criteria of ‘order and degree’. Although the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice is eligible to marry Portia, she is glad to get rid of him and “all of his complexion” (2. 7. 72-73); and the King of Naples in The Tempest is bitterly reproached for marrying his daughter to the King of Tunis after the whole court had begged him not to “loose her to an African”(2.1. 119). Again, the force of Hamlet’s pun when he is making his mother compare her first husband with her second;

Could you on this faire mountaine leave to feede,/ And batten on this Moore; ha, have you eyes? (3.4)

All these are reasonable tests of audiences’ response. The unfamiliarity of the race ­problem would even tend to increase its impact; marriage between Othello and Desdemona must have been very startling to an audience that had never even seen a colored boy walking out with a white girl. Dover Wilson goes further and says: “If anyone imagines that England at that date was unconscious of the “color-bar” they cannot have read Othello with any care.”(114) Tension, it is clear, could quickly be generated by confronting white with black under certain conditions, although Othello cannot be a product of existing tension in Elizabethan society.

The personal qualities of Othello make his social position seem much higher than what is really is. He is employed by the Venetian republic as a professional soldier, a mercenary, and has become its most reliable and popular general. In his own country, he was descended “from men of-royal siege”(1.2.22), and he can say without boasting that he merits the position he has reached. Yet in Roderigo’s words he is “an extravagant and wheeling stranger”(1.1.136) [where extravagant means “straying outside his proper place”(1.1.137)], who has lived in Venice, as distinct from the camp, for less than a year. The precarious anomaly of Othello’s status is vividly dramatized in the opening scenes. In the second scene two parties of men are searching for him independently through the streets of Venice: one from the Duke’s senate to require his urgent service against the “enemy Ottoman”, the other to imprison him for marrying a senator’s daughter. Ironically, one party is at first mistaken for the other in the darkness. Othello himself, not without irony, comments on the paradox; if I obey the prison party, he says, “How may the duke be therewith satisfied?”(1.2.88) Othello’s prestige rests on his indispensability, but being indispensable does not make him socially acceptable in governing circles. Brabantio invited him home and ‘loved’ him whole he recounted his past adventures, but as a future son-in-law he is decidedly undesirable, a ‘thing’ that no Venetian girl could possibly look at with affection except by some preposterous error of nature. Brabantio never does reconcile himself to the match, the grief of which kills him.

Both Desdemona and lago completely ignore these considerations of native and alien, and base their relationship on a purely human basis. Their secret union, in contempt of the “many noble matches”(4.2.125) available to Desdemona, is to make it quite clear that no material interests were involved in what was a free love-match. Othello gets nothing from it, while as Desdemona says;

“That I did love the Moor to live with him/ My downright violence and storm of fortunes/ May trumpet to the world.”(1.3. 248-250)

Desdemona affirms her choice in public and with devastating simplicity. She makes no distinction whatever, that is, between her parents’ marriage and her own. Brabantio retorts in effect that in that case he is no longer related to her: “I had rather to adopt a child than get it.”(1.3.191) And Desdemona finds, without dismay, that her act has isolated her with Othello, for her father will not admit her into his house, even alone. Desdemona’s childlike simplicity, dramatically so effective at the end of the play in heightening the pathos of her helpless isolation, has the effect in this scene of positing the spontaneous, instinctive naturalness of her love for Othello. Unlike her father, Desdemona entertains no consideration “of years, of country, and of credit”(1.3.97), only of direct human relationships: parents, lover, husband, and friend.

These sentiments are fully reciprocated by Othello. This is the first relationship he has experienced since childhood (Casio’s friendship apart) that was not based on military or political expediency but purely on human feeling. Yet in staking his emotional life on Desdemona he has put his free condition into a “circumscription and confine” which makes him vulnerable, and that is why the supposed loss of her love exhausts his capacity for suffering. There is nothing egotistical in this attitude; on the contrary, disease, poverty, slavery, even public disgrace, the loss of all he has valued up to now, ­he could bear ‘well, very well’,

“But there, where I have garner’d up my heart/ Where either I must live or bear no life, / The fountain from the which my current runs,/ Or else dries up-to be discarded thence”(4.2. 57-60)

Thus both lovers assert ‘human’ values against the conventions that debase them; but ‘humaneness’, so isolated, is itself an abstraction and reliance on it leaves them fatally vulnerable. The emotional innocence of the hero and heroine reflects both their protest against the social environment and their ultimate helplessness before it.

Although criticism will perhaps never be Able to suggest an adequate motivation for 1ago’s hatred of and malice towards Othello, one striking element of it that Othello is a Moor and an alien in Venice, and a man of outlandish race and complexion who has sought to be par with Venetians by embracing Christianity, and by making himself militarily indispensable. Cinthio’s equivalent of lago did not hate the Moor at all, but deceived him in order to revenge himself on his wife for her refusal to commit adultery. It was only after having her murdered that the Moor, regretting the deed, turned on its instrigator and demoted him, and they then began to hate each other. In Shakespeare, lago’s hatred, which fills the entire play from line seven to the end, is one-sided, obsessive, and single-minded. Yet Othello, like all the other characters, has no reason to suspect its existence, Cassia and Roderigo are of, marginal importance to lago. Desdemona is simply the best means of getting at Othello; and Roderigo, like Cassia, a means of getting at Desdemona. To Cassia, Othello’s only friend, lago extends the same fantastic suspicion of adultery with Emilia: “For I fear Cassia with my night-cap, too.” Othello’s basic dilemma was that he was in a totally new socio-cultural milieu that was different from his own.  Racial difference was obvious and Othello was aware of it but he was unable to locate and comprehend the implicit and expolicit racial discrimination. He was in a new city with a new bride who was graceful and young. Furthermore, Othello was in deep love with her does not know her well. He was uncertain about Desdemona decision to select him as her husband, and can only comprehend one clarification, “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d.” (I,iii,167) He was unaware of the prevailing environment of prejudice and bias in Venice and without doubt must inquire why Desdemona would against her own norms and values and associate white Venetians by marrying an outsider.

All these added suspicion in his minds before Iago begins his conniving plot. Iago takes advantage of simplicity and trustfulness of Othello (Bradley has labeled these characteristic as hallmark and noble traits of his personality). Although Desdemona was an epitome of love and care for her, but his preconceived notions, his different race and upbringing and socialization in a totally different socio-cultural milieu could not enable him to believe in her love unreservedly. His response to his skeptic mind is to put Desdemona on a pedestal, making her an “emblem of purity and trustworthiness”

“Tis not to make me jealous/ To say my wife Is fair, feeds well, loves company, /

Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well. / Where virtue Is, these are more virtuous./

Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw/ The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt,/ For she had eyes, and chose me.” (3.3. 183-189)

Othello arrived at the conclusion that Desdemona’s consideration and virtue only capacitated her to feel affection for the unlovable — an unstable culmination originating from his low self-worth. When Iago cast away this fictitious idealism with his evil designs, he is merely strengthening what Othello considers profoundly to be thoroughly possible i.e. that Desdemona could love another man. Iago is on hand to verify Othello’s primary doubts:

“Ay, there’s the point! as (to be bold with you)/ Not to affect many proposed matches/ Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, / Whereto we see in all things nature tends” (3.3. 228-231)

and

“Her will, recoiling to her better judgment,/ May fall to match you with her country forms, / And happily repent.” (3. 3. 236-238)

In the second scene of act, this suspicion turns into use of abusive language that is more harsh and it seems that royal fabrications of mannerism and etiquettes has been replaced by original social patterns of the Arabic world where Othello was brought up. Now the real Moor of sub-Saharan Arab society display his real nature and that is manifested by the language he uses for women. Othello condemn Desdemona in this way;

“This is a subtile whore/ A closet lock and key of villainous secrets (4.2.21-22).”

and

“Was this fair paper [i.e., Desdemona], this most goodly book/Made to write ‘whore’ upon? What committed?/ Committed? O thou public commoner,/ I should make very forges of my cheeks (4.2.71-74).”

This utterance is not only a reaction of the resentment that Iago has planted in the mind of Othello but it has deep roots too. The overall Arabic social pattern has contributed toward a psychological being that becomes skeptic of a woman’s fidelity without any reason. The offense of Iago – to conspire the demise of the Moor – is worse since it is embedded in a shrewd mind with organized attempt whereas the wrongdoing of Othello was the result of his naiveté. He was blindfolded by a thorn in the heart and mind. But his sin can not be justified only on this ground as there were various methods to check the blameworthiness. However, it can be illustrated that Othello permitted himself to be influenced by Iago’s proposition of the unfaithfulness of Desdemona due to different racial experiences and socio-cultural milieu where he was brought up. Iago only provides a justification that was needed by Othello.

It can be argued that his tragic downfall was product of weak mental faculties and some inherent flaws in his character. Bur above-mentioned arguments and textual and extra textual evidences clearly manifest that his racism was a main factor that brought his tragedy. His action of murdering Desdemona was also not due to deficiency of confidence as he was a strong leader as manifested by his ability to command military and various other states affairs. But his leadership does not mean that he was forfeited against his personal fantasies and whims of imagination that were based on his past experiences as an Arab. It was further enhanced by the manipulation of Iago instead of his pride. So it was his Arabic descent and Moorish socialization that contributes chiefly toward his tragic downfall together with other external forces and some flaws in his personality.

 

Work Cited

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