An analysis in Race and Gender in Othello by Shakespeare

The play by Shakespeare, “Othello, the Moor of Venice”, is a perfect example of a tragedy. Othello, the main character, becomes a tragic hero and fits the definition of a tragic hero in Aristotle’s poetic, as he is revealed neither a villain nor a virtuous man. Othello, is depicted as a good, just, and dedicated military leader, yet he faces misfortune that was not caused by a vice or depravity, but results from the occurrence of an error or frailty – a situation referred to as hamartia. This description fits the character Othello who ended murdering his wife, Desdemona, only to realize later that the accusations were framed, causing him to take his own life. Othello further fits the character of a tragic hero as outlined by Aristotle in his poetic works, which is evident when he realized his mistakes that brought loses, and makes the reader have pity and be sympathetic to him. Othello, the protagonist, faces his main antagonists, Roderigo and Iago although he does not recognize it until it is too late. 

Iago and Roderigo inform Desdemona’s father, Brabantio that his daughter had been kidnapped for marriage by Othello. When Brabantio verifies that his daughter is missing, he gets some officers to find Othello. This points up to a moment of anagnorisis as extrapolated by Aristotle, who highlights that it is characterized by the recognition of the change that leads to enmity or friendship. Brabantio develops resentment of Othello and accuses Othello of using witchcraft to get his daughter and takes his case to the assembled Senate. The plan does not work and the duke sends Othello to Cyprus to reinforce the defense against the Turks. Iago sees how Cassio greeted Desdemona by clasping her hand, and decides to exploit this, “as a little a web as this” (II.i. 169). 

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Iago informs Roderigo that Desdemona would lose interest in Othello and seek sexual satisfaction from other places, “blood is made dull with the act of sport”. (II.i. 11). Iago proposes that Roderigo initiates a fight with Cassio, to use it as a means of disgracing him. This was an initial step in his plan to destroy Othello. Othello gets the details of the fight from Iago and strips Cassio of his position as a lieutenant. Iago then advises Cassio to use Desdemona to intercede on his behalf. This is part of Iago’s plan to frame Cassio and Desdemona as lovers to stir up the wrath of Othello. 

Iago started making the accusations that Cassio was having an affair with Desdemona “That he would steal away so guilty-like, seeing you coming” (III.iii.37-39). This fits the description by Aristotle on the moment of peripeteia, that described the turning point in a drama where the protagonist’s fortune start turning from good to bad, which rolls the motion in the plot for a tragedy. When Desdemona requests that Othello reinstates Cassio, Othello gets the conviction of the story of the affair. Iago continues to provide proofs of the love affair to Othello thereby, making him burn with jealous. These events match Aristotle’s description of peripeteia, as Othello’s rage builds up from the lies presented by Iago.

Othello is overcome by jealousy and wrath and ends up killing Desdemona. Iago’s wife Emilia discovers what her husband did and explains to Othello, “Moor, she was chaste. She loved the, cruel Moor.” (IV.ii.258). This represents a moment of anagnorisis as defined by Aristotle when Othello realizes that his trusted friend Iago had presented a series of lies that led him to think that his wife Desdemona was having an affair.  Iago kills his wife, Emilia, for exposing him and flees. Othello feels the guilt and requests that he be remembered as a person who, “loved not wisely but too well”. He then kills himself marking the climax of the tragedy. In the play Othello, Shakespeare displays the structural binaries of race and gender as essential elements that influence the structure of the Venetian society that is comprised of both empowered and constrained groups.

Race

Othello is portrayed as a happily married and widely respected military general within the Venetian army despite his African heritage. Initially, he does not experience any form of discrimination. The Venetian culture, as depicted in the play, is entrapped with elements of masculinist and racist ways where characters behave in a manner meant to align to such provisions. Othello is an African prince born in the royal family as he claims, “I fetch my life and being/from men of royal siege” (III. ii. 21-22). Othello chose to leave his native homeplace and to reside within the white European community. His background of royalty seems to make life easy for him. He indicates his commitment to the Venetian government and his wife Desdemona. The racial background for Othello has not denied him the chance of a high-ranking position within the Venetian society. He is able to exercise power and freedom that is associated with the position he holds. Othello is depicted as “Black Moor”, and at some point, his black skin color is associated with the ‘devil’ and as a sign of barbarism that is devoid of “loveliness in favor… and beauties” (I.i.232).

Among the characters portrayed as holding most racist views, are Roderigo and Iago who clearly hate and are jealous of Othello. Roderigo expresses this by making racial slurs against Othello, “What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe/if he can carry thus” (I.i-87-88). They falsely accuse Othello to Brabantio of kidnapping his daughter. To make Brabantio angrier, they use descriptions with racial connotation, “An old black ram? Is tupping your white ewe? (I.i.88). They bring out the idea that his grandchildren would be a half-caste and would become a source of ridicule in the society and cause shame to Brabantio. “You’ll have a daughter covered with Barbary/Horse: you’ll have your nephews neigh to you” (I.i. 110). This agitates Brabantio who confronts Othello and instigates charges against Othello to the Senate and the Duke. Othello defends himself and reveals that Brabantio used to respect him “lov’d me; oft invited me” (I.iii.128). This portrays that Brabantio had not previously held racist ideas until Iago influenced him. The judgment by Duke and advice to Brabantio reveals that Brabantio wanted Othello convicted mainly due to his skin color and not the wrongdoing. “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.289).

Gender

An analysis of the character of Iago and Emilia highlights the strength in gender roles within the Venetian society. Iago is depicted as a masculine individual in this relationship set up. He has the power to describe, define and eventually destroy Emilia who has a feminine persona. Women are portrayed as being subservient to men. Emilia is observed to have been hardened to the cynicism with regard to the male-female relationships through the course of her married life, as indicated in the description that “women are food for all stomach who belch them when full (III.iv.98). Iago makes abusive remarks towards women by calling them “whores’ and “wenches. Iago holds the view that women are only there to supply the desires of men. The subservience of women seems to have been subverted at the final part of the play where Emilia fails to heed the warning from Iago, ‘be wise and get home’. She goes on and reveals how Iago had made her get Desdemona’s handkerchief, ‘he begged me to steal’ (IV.11. 227). This led to the discovery of the deception plot by Iago. Iago reacts by making more abusive remarks ‘villainous whore” (IV.ii.228). Burning with anger, Iago destroys Emilia physically by killing her and fleeing, thereby, asserting the masculine power over the female.

Another form of gender-based conflict is depicted through the relationship of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago, which highlighted instances of gender differences and shifting perception. The relationship between Othello and Desdemona is characterized by a love that made each party to appreciate the differences that each had from the other. Desdemona is noted to regard Othello as a valiant warrior while Othello views Desdemona as a woman full of true feminine grace. Iago is clearly not supportive of this relationship. It can be seen that the hatred held by Iago is fueled by his fear and loathing for feminism as he describes Desdemona as ‘general’s general’. The power struggle between Othello and Iago puts Desdemona at crossfire as Iago makes moves to denigrate Desdemona with an aim of placing himself in a position to ‘poison’ Othello (III.iii.326). Iago uses Desdemona as a weapon to cultivate the hatred and jealousy in Othello. Iago comes up with lies about Desdemona, which causes the build-up of anger within Othello. This anger eventually causes Othello to have an outburst that highlights the violent, and jealous masculinity aspect in him as seen in the description, “O monstrous, monstrous!’ III.iii.428. Iago is able to win over Othello, by taking advantage of the masculinity character that appears to be overbearing.

Conclusion

The paper above is an analysis of the play, Othello, by William Shakespeare. The play is set in Venice, where Othello, a black prince, and military general is the main protagonist. The antagonist in the paper is Iago who harbors hatred towards Othello. The hatred is because of Othello’s black racial background and his action of failing to choose Iago as the military lieutenant, and instead choose Cassio who was less experienced. He is also against the marriage of Othello and Desdemona and makes a plot to separate the two. Initially, Iago uses Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, to achieve his goal by accusing Othello of kidnapping Desdemona. This plot fails as the Senate accepted the version by Othello that he used his stories about his travels wars to win over Desdemona. Iago makes another plan where he accuses Cassio of having an affair with Desdemona. He feeds this information to Othello who becomes jealous and finally kills Desdemona. Iago’s wife, Emilia reveals to him that the stories were a deception plan by Iago. This revelation leads Iago to kill his wife. After realizing that his wife was innocent, Othello kills himself marking the climax of the tragedy.

The discussion above portrays how structural binaries on race and gender have been used to represent the flow of power within the Venetian society with the categorization of groups into empowered and constrained groups. The first depiction of race is seen from the main protagonist, Othello, who despite his African heritage is the general within the Venetian army and has married a white wife. This position offers him an opportunity to exercise power and authority within the community. It appears that his racial background does not auger well with Roderigo, Iago, and Brabantio. They use abusive racial slurs against Othello and the racial background as a mechanism of setting Othello against his father-in-law, Brabantio. However, the Duke describes Othello as a man of virtue stronger than his color, thereby, indicating his support to his general

The relationship between Iago and Emilia has been used to describe how gender leads to different power orientation. Iago is indicated as a masculine individual while Emilia is portrayed as having a feminine persona. This relationship reflects a situation where women are subservient to men. Gender-based conflict is further advanced in the relationship between Othello, Desdemona, and Ioga. In this case, Desdemona is used as the pawn by Iago to settle his scores with Othello and Cassio. The idea of Desdemona having a love affair makes Othello furious and draws from within him the angry and jealous aspect of masculinity, which Othello uses to overcome Desdemona by killing her.

Works CitedShakespeare, William. Othello: The Oxford Shakespeare: The Moor of Venice. OUP Oxford, 2006.

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