Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello
In Shakespeare’s time black people were classed as second-class citizens.They were often looked at as devil-like and evil.This was, however, a stereotypical view, often accepted by the people of Shakespeare’s day.
People looked at the Bible to show that black people were devil-like and evil.
The Bible tells the story of Noah and the Ark. In the Ark it was forbidden to have children, as there would not be enough food. However, Ham, one of Noah’s sons, decided to disobey these rules, as he wanted to have the son who would be ruler of the world. When Noah found out and they returned to land, Noah banished Ham to Africa. Ham had committed sin and was evil and devil-like because he had disobeyed his father for his own self-interest, risking the lives of others in the Ark. As black people were said to have originated form Africa, where Ham was banished, they could be descendants of Ham, who was evil, and therefore black people were evil and devil-like too.
Black people were also said to be over-sexed, unstable, irrational, suffer from fits, and be devil-like. In the prejudiced mind, Shakespeare presents Othello to match all of these stereotypical categories that black people were said to be. People with an open mind, however, can simply see that Othello is a man in love.
In Act 4, Scene 1, line 40, Othello has a fit. This matches with the stereotypical view that back people have fits. However, Othello has a fit because he was in a rage. The reason being that he had become so disturbed by the stories of his beloved wife having been unfaithful. It is possible for anyone, white or black, to have a fit if they were as distressed as Othello was.
Othello may be seen as over-sexed. He talks in a very passionate manner. Shakespeare presents Othello to have a glorified situation of his and Desdemona’s affection for each other. It is more likely; therefore, that Othello is infatuated in their love than over-sexed. The depth of his passionate language, in which you can see that his love is more than a hallucination, is shown throughout the beginning of the play. “Amen to that, sweet powers/ cannot speak enough of this content/ it stops me here: it is too much joy”(II i 188). Othello declares this after he and Desdemona are reunited after their journey to Cyprus. Othello is talking passionately to Desdemona, however, this does not immediately prove him of being over-sexed, it shows the love he is sharing with Desdemona.
Othello could be seen as irrational when he kills Desdemona by smothering her, Act 5, Scene 2, and Line 85. Iago, however, is far more irrational then Othello ever could have be seen to be and Iago is white. Iago’s irrationality can be seen in one of his soliloquies. ” I’ll have our Michael Cassio on the hip, / Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb-/ For I fear Cassio with my night cap too-“(II i 286-288). Here Iago is saying how he believes his wife has been sleeping with Cassio, of which he has no verification. He says in effect that he wants Cassio dead. This shows Iago’s irrationality because he has no reason to have Cassio dead, or to even contemplate that he has slept with his wife. Iago provokes many deaths, without remorse, which shows that he has extreme irrationality.
Being devil-like was another typical view people had of blacks. Othello while he is in a rage could be seen as devil-like. ” Therefore confess thee freely of thy sin;/ For to deny each article with oath/ Cannot remove nor choke the strong conception/ That I do groan withal. Thou art to die” (V ii 54-56). Othello speaks these words to Desdemona before he murders her. Othello has no prove of her infidelity, except from what Iago has told him. Othello is in a huge rage as he is about to kill her and therefore could be seen as devil-like.
Iago is also very devil-like, more than Othello and he is white. This contradicts the stereotypical view of black people in Shakespeare’s’ time. Act 5 Scene 2 Line 235 Iago kills his wife Emilia for speaking of Desdemona’s faithfulness, therefore showing Iago’s deceitfulness.
Shakespeare cleverly presents Othello stereotypically, but also as a normal person. He could have done this to suit the different audiences, but he may have used these contradictions as a way of making people less prejudiced. Shakespeare thought carefully about the presentation of Othello’s character as it shows two sides of a black man.
Othello is a great general who has also won the affections of a white woman. Shakespeare was not the first to have presented a black man on stage. But he was the first to have not presented that black character as beastly and ferocious. He presents a warrior with great passion.
Othello’s language throughout the play is full of great passion. “All’s well now, sweeting; come away to bed”(II i 234). This is one example of Othello’s passion. At this point in Othello his passion is only towards Desdemona in a loving way. As Othello develops, Othello’s passion changes as he becomes wrapped in a passion of jealousy. Othello then becomes an uncontrollable, violent man. Othello never stops his passionate loving for Desdemona but feels it his duty to kill her before she breaks more men’s hearts. “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men”(V ii 6). Othello says these words to himself while Desdemona is sleeping, before he is about to smother her.
At the beginning of Othello you would never have thought that anything could ever come between a couple bearing so much love for each other. However, all that was needed to break this loving couple apart was Iago, gently introducing ideas, mentioning, just little things like Cassio’s quick departures from Desdemona. “Cassio, my lord; No sure I cannot think it/ That he would steal away so guilty-like, / Seeing you coming.”(III iii 38-40). Iago keeps slipping in comments about Desdemona, until Othello becomes so caught up with jealousy that he is convinced of his wife’s unfaithfulness. As Othello has so much passion, his anger is brewed into a huge mental tornado, which takes time to build up, but when at full strength can destroy even what seem like the strongest things, Othello and Desdemona’s marriage, and resulting in the death of Desdemona.