How important is it that Othello is black?
Othello’s race and colour are explored in the play, especially in terms of his interracial marriage with Desdemona and therefore are very important and significant.The play ‘Othello’ generates dichotomy views on the issue of race at that time and the different confrontations of it allow us to acquire a perspective on Elizabethan attitudes as well as to consider our own argument.
One could argue against the importance of Othello’s colour like A.C.Bradley who introduced a contention, which acquaints us with such an argument.
However, even though Bradley’s aspiration to respond to race in a humane manner is hesitant, it is reasoned as he focuses on character and motivation.
Bradley fails to observe the racial issue a very significant one and considers it to be: ‘unimportant in regard to the essentials of Othello’s character.’ He does not find Othello’s colour damaging to his dignity either: ‘He comes before us, dark and grand, with a light upon him from the sun where he was born’ and recalls that in his view an Englishman would have been as much a victim as this Moor in these circumstances.
An interesting issue that many critics debate about is Othello’s precise ethnic origins, taking great pains to prove that Othello would have been Arabic in appearance. What Bradley explains on this issue is: “Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood…would overpower our imagination”. He most probably had in mind a very dark skinned African Othello, which he argues would be inappropriate for the play.
A further argument against the importance of Othello’s race could be seen from Jane Adamson who recalls nothing on the debate about the exact shade of Othello’s skin, apart from the fact that it is absurd. She assumes that the significance of race in the play: “has usually been over-emphasised by 20th century critics and producers”. I too agree with her acuity of the matter and furthermore stress to highlight the unsuitable overemphasis on the aspect of Othello’s skin colour because other elements in the play such as the tragedy of the play are being isolated.
On the basis of being against the importance of Othello’s colour and race, it could be argued that Shakespeare presented a black hero instead of a white one to introduce the idea of difference or simply included it as a stage decoration, and from Bradley’s point of view if anyone congratulated Shakespeare on the “accuracy of his racial psychology” – he would have laughed!
It is also fair to argue that Othello’s race is a very important and crucial issue that many would say interferes with the ethics of the Elizabethan principles at that time, but some chose to find justifications in order to come to terms with Othello, his race and his presence in the play. In his criticism Calderwood focuses on Othello as an extreme outsider amongst the Venetians: “Moors were simply outsiders, the other who is not like us” however he concludes by awarding Othello his acceptance due to Othello’s Christianity.
Throughout his criticism Calderwood does not stop supporting the idea of Othello being an outsider, by calling him a ‘sub-human’ and emphasising his Moorish and demonic qualities by stating that the Venetian people were ‘honest citizens’ and Othello was a ‘deceitful infidel’ who was more closely related to animals and the ‘Prince of Darkness’.
Nevertheless Calderwood contradicts himself as he jumps from criticising Othello about his race to excusing his dislocation in Venice by accepting the Moor based on his Christianity and his similarity with the Venetians in religion and affirmative actions. Calderwood goes on to reinforce his viewpoint by saying that with his new Christian attitude and lifestyle Othello essentially belongs in Venice “because he is newly washed in the Blood of the Lamb” and he is not actually an evil enemy amongst honest citizens. He also insists that although Othello is from a different race that comes with many negative associations as well as that he was a former ‘infidel’, he should be accepted based on his positive Christian characteristics.
Bearing in mind the argument put forward by Calderwood, it is necessary to consider the subsequent viewpoint: Could it be argued that perhaps due to the criticisms, needless and false comments from different characters like Iago on the subject of Othello’s race and his marriage to Desdemona a negative transition occurs from a noble Christian to a traditional black Moor? The pressures of Othello’s marriage and the negative reactions of those around him do add to his downfall, all of which race is a major factor of, and that underlines the importance of Othello’s race in the play.
Calderwood set up Othello as a terrific monster, and attempted to renovate him as a Christian, who was worthy of being accepted into his surroundings, however in my opinion, in attempt to explain why he feels Othello deserved the acceptance because of his Christianity, Calderwood’s contention is unconvincing but interesting as its an intriguing justification for such a important question of matter in the play as ‘race’.
It is difficult to settle on one aspect of the dispute as the contentions introduced by Bradley, Adamson and Calderwood seem to evolve into an assumption against the importance of Othello’s colour and race. I must however stress to extend the argument in favour of the importance of Othello’s race and colour.
All criticism of the marriage is based solely on ‘racial considerations’ and this provokes characters to turn against Othello. At the beginning of the play Othello sees himself as worthy of Desdemona’s love and his self-perception is that of equality with Desdemona. He accentuates this when he says: ‘She had eyes and chose me’ (III.3.192). Othello begins as a respectable Christian general, however, with extensive criticism such as Brabantio’s, Othello loses confidence and becomes easily persuaded by Iago who views Othello as a ‘violently jealous fool like all Africans’ and ‘a lascivious moor’ (I.1.125).
With his insight on the nature of Othello, Iago’s menacing and insidious racism deteriorates throughout the play and causes the obliteration of the black and white harmony that existed before and causes Othello to behave in an artificial way setting him into an utterly destructive fury that destroys himself and his marriage.
When Iago annihilates Othello’s positive perception of Desdemona, Othello starts to feel the threat towards his honour and articulates his anger by speaking of his colour in a cynical way: “Her name, that was as fresh as Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face” (III.3.389-91). It is a good example to show how Othello’s unawareness of the significance of his race changed by Iago’s racism and cruel intentions, turned him into a completely different person, conscious of his displacement and Desdemona’s infidelity.
Desdemona alone has always acknowledged Othello’s inner worth: ‘I saw Othello’s visage in his mind’ (I.3.252), and even when his morality was concealed she preserved her vision: ‘…his unkindness may defeat my life, but never taint my love’ (IV.2.162). She is unswervingly loyal to Othello and even when she dies, she declares her love for the inner, obscured Othello, saying: ‘Commend me to my kind lord’ (V.2.126). Desdemona identifies her husband’s jealousy as ignorable and continues to give him her love to the fullest extent: ‘…my love doth so approve him, that his stubbornness, his checks and frowns …have grace in them’ (IV.3.19).
Considering the controversial notions, it is also crucial to analyse attitudes to race in the Elizabethan era, as historicist or Elizabethan attitudes to race in the 16th century were very different to the attitudes now. One could argue that Othello’s race, being black in colour, had a shock value effect on Shakespeare’s audience.
To the Elizabethans Othello’s skin colour would not only have displayed a ‘visual ugliness’, but moral inequalities. His interracial marriage with Desdemona – a white female, also added to the antipathy of the audience, but also to their interest and excitement as it could be seen that the contrast in their skin colours would in fact provide the exciting theme of forbidden love, but it is the subplot which indicates the threatening atmosphere of hate and distrust in the play.
In Vaughn’s argument, the critic’s focus is on the reaction of the Elizabethan audience towards Othello. She states that Othello’s dark race proved to be “visually significant to the reaction of the audience” and that his physical nature gives visual evidence of him not belonging to his Venetian surroundings.
Vaughn reveals that Elizabethans were fascinated by Othello’s experiences and related his black colour with “negation, dirt, sin and death”. His explorations and adventures also contributed to his ‘otherness’ and his ‘foreignness’ with the connections to ‘nakedness, savagery, and general immorality’. It is true to say that at that period of time the Elizabethans would recognize having black skin as having satanic qualities and perversion, and would link the vilest qualities to African and Moorish people.
I believe that the Elizabethan audience could have been appalled by the joining of such ‘contrasting figures’ and probably viewed Othello’s blackness as being associated with dirt, filth, and the devil as in the Elizabethan mind Othello’s race proved him inferior and unworthy of Desdemona and all her positive Venetian qualities. Whereas in modern day criticisms, such a matter would not be concerned as an issue worthy debating about, because ethnic groups became very accepted in England and the different approaches to the issue of race help us acquire different interpretations.
Elizabethan environment at the time of the play was tense and the generalizations that were made during that time. Her observation on these generalizations helped to clarify and explain the stereotypes made during the play. Despite the insight into the reaction and thoughts of the Shakespearean audience, the article tended to be repetitive by restating the negative qualities that were associated with Othello’s race instead of explaining why they were associated with one another.
Concluding could it be argued that Shakespeare made Othello black in order to explore dislocation along with opposition and the consequences of such issues? It would be inconsiderate to ignore the importance of Othello’s race in the play because it is most definitely a significant matter. In order to slightly captivate his audience, Shakespeare could have easily added a slight feature in Othello’s complexion to add the foreign affect that would be enough, or he could have even made him completely white, nonetheless Shakespeare insisted upon the blackness of Othello as otherwise there wouldn’t be the mention to intentionally repellent imagery.