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Shakespeare's Othello: "Racism in Othello?"

Essay 2009 7 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Racism in Othello ?

Shakespeare’s Othello has caught people’s attention for more than four hundred years now. This is may be true for many other Shakespearean plays as well, but Othello was exceptionally popular at its time of origin and is not less so today. Reasons for this are probably manifold, but the notions of gender, sexuality, status and race which are still very current issues might contribute to this timeless and universal appreciation.[1] The latter theme shall be at the focus of this essay.

Othello’s reasonably late appearance – at least that we are aware of – in the first quarto 1622 must be taken as an evidence for its great popularity and demand. In this very quarto and in the Folio one year later the notion of race was put on the front cover with its subtitle: “The Moor of Venice”.[2] Without doubt the subtitle must have been a deliberate choice which implicitly reflects the exceptionality of the play which centres on a black[3] general. The protagonist of the play is non-European, a respected military leader of the Venetians, marries a white noble Venetian woman, but eventually loses everything as he believes the deceitful and omniscient Iago who triggers Othello’s jealousy until he kills his beloved wife Desdemona. Within this highly sophisticated and complex plot which is mainly controlled by Iago, we encounter various incidences of xenophobia and opaque hatred towards Othello.

As Hall has pointed out quite clearly, a modern reader is very tempted to associate any offending statement against a coloured person with conceptions of racism.[4] However, it is crucial to question oneself for a moment whether or not this notion is applicable at all to Shakespeare’s play. The task above suggests that Shakespeare represented racialism in Othello. But, racism is a conceptual term and did not emerge before the beginning of the 20th century at dawn of strong national states. In so far, it would be anachronistic to assume that Shakespeare wrote his play with a fairly modern concept in mind. Nevertheless, if one takes a general definition of racism and takes it part, it is possible to imagine that a notion of “unfair treatment [prejudice, violence, discrimination] of people who belong to a different race; the belief that some people are better than others”[5] could have been shared by Elizabethans on a personal level as well.[6]


[1] See Hadfield, p.1.

[2] Sanders, p.10, p.203.

[3] In the following I will refer to Othello as of black colour. The scholarly debate of Othello’s real colour has been contested several times. The evidence we have does not seem to suggest a straight forward answer. Thus, I think, it is the most obvious and prototypical to picture Othello as a “black negro”.

[4] Hall, p.370.

[5] Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

[6] Hall provides a similar approach and avoids the term “racism” at all. See, conclusion.


ISBN (eBook)
470 KB
Institution / Hochschule
University of Cambridge – English
Racism Othello Shakespeare Renaissance Drama Moor Venedig Venice Tragedies Dramen Tragödien Rassismus Xenophobie Xenophobia



Titel: Shakespeare's Othello: "Racism in Othello?"