Shakespeare's Portrayal Of Othello

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Shakespeare's portrayal of Othello


Othello's intended ethnicity is in some dispute. 'Moor' is a name applied to the Arab and Berber peoples of North Africa who inhabited medieval Spain. Thus, Othello may be connected with the Moors who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492 until a later expulsion in 1609, or with the people of 'Barbary' in North Africa. Iago calls Othello a 'Barbary horse' , referring to the famous horses of the Arab world, but also playing on the associations of 'barbarian' with paganism and savagery. One contact with Moors of which Shakespeare could have known came in 1600, when an ambassador from Barbary came to London with his colleagues to discuss a possible alliance against Spain: it was observed that the delegation followed their own religious rituals, and they were called 'barbarians' and 'infidels'. The Moor, like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Barabas in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, was a religious outsider, and could be associated with unbelief and vice rather than with Christian virtue. However, Othello does not seem to be a Muslim, speaking insultingly of a circumcised Turk (5.2.353). The term 'Moor' could also indicate a nonwhite person who was not necessarily a Spanish or North African Muslim; black Africans could be referred to as 'blackamoors'. Yet when Queen Elizabeth desired the removal of 'negars and blackamoors' from Britain in 1601, she seemed to be referring to Moorish refugees from Spain.

Whichever of these categories Othello fits into, it is clear that Shakespeare portrays Othello's race as setting him apart in some respects from the predominantly white European society in which he lives. Although Othello is respected for his military prowess and nobility of character, he inhabits a culture in which underlying racial tensions, in particular anxieties about the mixing of races through intermarriage, can be exploited. In Othello, racial stereotypes are both evoked and problematised. The racial divide between Othello and Desdemona is portrayed in intentionally shocking language: Iago tells Brabantio that 'an old black ram/ is tupping your white ewe' (1.1.87-8). In calling Othello 'Barbary horse' and 'black ram', Iago associates carnality and animality with Othello and blackness. Yet as much as Iago's rhetoric, and Othello's own later self-construction, makes Othello carnal, exotic or monstrous, he is also human and sympathetic, vulnerable to Iago's machinations partly because his difference makes him an easy target.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare explores a rhetoric ...
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