Monday, December 19, 2011

race and gender in othello

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Issues of race and gender are not separate issues in othello but rather ideas that intersect and are of central focus in the text. Such issues are portrayed through significant employment of symbolism, imagery, characterisation- of desdemona, o and iago and dramatic techniques. The construction of intersecting issues of race and gender work to give the play unity and to endorse the traditional beliefs of the Elizabethans thus privileging the male gender and white Europeans.


Othello is initially set in the City of Venice a culturally refined and affluent region that emanates safety and ‘social concord’. Famous for it’s typically beautiful women ‘it was home to the most remarkable flourishing of Western art and culture and yet it held the threat of the most dangerous human vices (lust, jealousy)’. We are introduced to othello through Iago and Rodereigo’s resentful comments in particular Roderigo’s reference to his ‘thick lips’. The emphasis on Othello’s physiological attributes establishes the idea that he is an outsider in the Venetian society and is thus a ‘victim of prejudice’. Iago’s vulgar descriptions of the sexual relationship between othello and desdemona ‘an old black ram is tupping your white ewe’, promotes the notion that ‘miscegentation if not unnatural is at least deviant. Barbantio’s reaction to this ‘o treason of blood’ reinforces this attitude. In the text Barbantio functions as a representation of higher society’s beliefs in regard on certain issues. Therefore his reaction serves to display the xenophobic racial attitudes of the society of the text and in doing so establishes the idea that although Othello has integrated into the Venetian society he still remains an outsider.


In the play, othello secures a position in the Venetian society through his military capabilities-the ‘brave’ and ‘valiant moor’. However Elizabethan stereotypes relating to foreigners are still inherent in the text. For instance Barbantio’s acceptance of othello as a military leader equates to respect of his professional accomplishments as opposed to an acceptance of his character, this notion in validated through Barbantio’s response to the marriage between his daughter ‘the gentle mistress’ and othello the ‘foul thief’. This hypocrisy in Barbantio’s behaviour ‘concentrates on the cultural anxieties’ of the play and therefore reinforces the idea that othello is othered in the society of the text.


The notion that white Europeans are privileged in the text in contrast to Turkish moors can be examined through the characters of Othello and Iago. Othello is continually identified through negative symbolism in the play, as inferior in the Venetian society. ‘Blackness has been associated with sin and death in a tradition extending back to Greek and Roman times’. In the play, Othello is continually affiliated with evil and is seen as the ‘black devil’. This reflects the Elizabethan notion that the devil’s favoured human form was in a black man. Thus the supposed connection between Othello and all things sinister is established through the use of black imagery and the connotations that ensue as a result. Othello is referred to as the ‘black moor’ by Iago which ‘hints at something other than his colour’, this statement reinforces the idea that blackness was a punishment for sexual excess therefore Othello’s colour is in part the foundation for the Elizabethan anxieties towards foreigners. Conversely Iago’s privileged position in the text is ironic considering his true nature, this error of judgement is a basis for the idea one of the themes of the play ‘appearance versus reality’. The success of Iago as the villain is in part due to the position he holds in society as a white Venetian male whose credibility is never questioned until the resolution of the play. Iago is a representation of a white European male and the confidence other characters have in his nature ‘an honest man he is’ contrasts the continual allegations concerning Othello ‘theif’ ‘black devil’ and therefore reveal the fact that the white male is privileged above the black. Therefore this reinforces the idea that White Europeans were the accepted norm in contrast to the Turkish moors.


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The idea that Othello is an outsider in his adopted society is reinforces by his own statement and the contradiction between desdemona and himself. Othello’s acceptance in the Venice is based on his value as a military leader to the Venetian society as well as his


In addition to the effects of race, gender construction plays a large part in furthering the tragedy of the play. Desdemona epitomises the traditional patriarchal female stereotype she is the ‘sweetest innocent’ whose love for her master is incessant. Through the use of religious symbolism ‘o more the angel she’ desdemona is constructed as superior being who should be revered. The villainous Iago exploits othello’s insecurities in his adopted society due to his race, which ultimately leads to his downfall.





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