Racial Othering in Shakespeare’s “Othello”

By Allyson H.
In Othello, Shakespeare uses the titular character to explore the Othering that dark-skinned people would have faced in Elizabethan England. Through the story of Othello, Shakespeare simultaneously reinforces and tears down racial Othering. Othello himself is a man of color in a powerful position: a general in the Venetian army. Othello has control over other soldiers, and his men trust him and treat him with respect. By putting the character of Othello into a position of power, and by making him kind and respected, Shakespeare calls to mind the idea that racial Others may not be as bad as the general population believed. By the end of the play, however, Othello has been reduced back into a stereotype. He has fallen from power and is now considered a monster for having killed his wife. In an act of stereotypically violent rage, Othello is reduced back to the dark-skinned Other that Elizabethan audiences had expected to see all along. In the end, Othello has lost the respect of those around him and has been reduced to his “proper” place at the bottom of society. But, by calling those thoughts into question in the first place, Shakespeare questions the validity of stereotypes. His play brings to attention the idea that racial Others were not as inhuman as they appeared; but in an effort keep his audience in a comfortable place, he returns to the stereotypical view of those Others at the end of the play.
A person of color in a position of power was something almost unheard of in Elizabethan England, due to the way in which the general population treated those viewed as racially Other. Those who came from racial backgrounds other than English were seen as lesser than the English people, based mostly on a religious views. People’s “hostility would be encouraged by the widespread belief in the legend that blacks were descendants of Ham in the Genesis story, punished for sexual excess by their blackness” (Cowhig). Racial Others typically had religions that were unfamiliar, causing the Christian public to believe that those Others were from barbaric societies. By calling them heathens, English imposed an image of wildness and inhumanness that justified the poor the treatment of dark skinned people and linked them back to animals.
The stereotype of a violent dark-skinned Other is played up even by the men who played Othello on the stage. It must be remembered that during Elizabethan times, Othello would have been played by a white man. The audience would have been painfully aware of the fact that the actor was white. The actor would have used many techniques to show the audience that he was meant to be playing a dark-skinned Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 11.02.32 AMperson, one of which being “the covering of the actor’s body with black cloth, its function being to materialize the imagined black bodies of real Africans existing in the world outside” (Smith 4). The men who played the part of Othello frequently spoke of feeling that “Othello’s tremendous passion overtakes and even overwhelms the actor who plays him, and ‘swells’ or ‘surges’ out” (Marks 101).
The men who played the role of Othello fully believed in the stereotype of the angry, passionate, dark-skinned Other to the point where they themselves felt overwhelmed by those feelings while on the stage. This creates an odd juxtaposition of the actors who fully believe the stereotypes against the content of the play that implies that Shakespeare himself felt as though those stereotypes were unbiased and untrue.
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Allyson is a graduating senior at Ball State University. She is majoring in Literature, with a minor in Theatrical Studies.
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Image: Small, William. Othello, Mr. Irving and Miss Bateman performing at the Lyceum, act IV, scene 2. 1876. Folger Shakespeare Library. luna.folger.edu. Web. 28 April 2014.
Cowhig, Ruth. “Blacks in English Renaissance Drama and the Role of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’.” Shakespeare for StudentsCritical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays and Poetry. Detroit: Gale, 1992. Student Resources in Context. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Marks, Elise. “”Othello/me”: Racial Drag and the Pleasures of Boundary-Crossing with Othello.” Comparative Drama 35.1 (2001): 101-23. Project Muse. Web.
Smith, Ian. “Othello’s Black Handkerchief.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 64.1 (2013): 1-25. Project MUSE. 26 Feb 2014. Web.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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