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Othello was a character created by the famous writer, William Shakespeare in the nineteenth century. This was during a time when Elizabethan England’s citizens praised and worshiped kings, highly found women inferior, and some races were given preferential treatment to others. Shakespeare mostly wrote his plays using characters to explain what was going on in England, and the world at large. At the time when Othello the play was being written, there was scramble and petition for Africa, with North Africa being the main interest of the Elizabethan England. Up to around 1930, the Othello character in the play was always played by people clad in black attires, which was seen as a racist move. Black people and other immigrants were constantly being taken to the Elizabethan England and used as slaves. More labor force was needed that led to the colonization of North Africa. This was seen as a racism effort, and several actions taken by Othello and other characters in the novel were seen as directed towards the ongoing racism. Shakespeare included four characters in the book that were Moorish, emphasizing the fact that Shakespeare himself was not a racist, but tackled racism issues (Shakespeare 5).
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Various characters in the book depict racism in different ways in Othello, the play. Iago, a military officer and Roderigo are characters who in the opening scene exchange racist insults. The insults continue for some times and the conversation is turned to Brabantio, who was the father of Desdemona, who was from a different race from the other two characters. Iago is viewed as among the most extreme racists in the play constantly referring to Othello as ‘The Moorish’. He had several stereotypes he held on racism and some times referred to Othello as ‘the thick lips’, which was viewed as an African trait at the time. Throughout the first scene discrimination against Othello and other non- Europeans is depicted, and the animosity held against them (Shakespeare 11). In the 1550’s, trade routes were formed in almost all continents including Africa which might have led to the creation of the Othello character. In most historical books, African characters are depicted in the way the writer wishes, which is not the case in Shakespeare’s Othello. It depicts a real situation and how visitors in the Elizabethan England were treated.
The happenings in England led to the molding of the characters in Othello the play, including Othello himself. Othello depicts a lot of racial and sometimes gender imbalances with most of the racist comments being targeted to Othello, the main black character. Othello has a late appearance in the story after Iago had made several racist remarks saying that he was an ‘animal hybrid mutation’. This, however, was not the case; Othello was a rational with lots of dignity especially when handling racism issues. In the play, Iago is depicted as the character that sparks racism, especially in his comments. Shakespeare understood that different crowds have different prejudices and at the time of writing the play, many people in England discriminated against black and non-European people. By introduction of Iago at the start of the play, the audience relates to him, but later a surprise character, Othello is introduced. Othello has the complete opposite traits from those held by Iago, and is from the discriminated races (Shakespeare 22).
At the time of writing the play, Africans were viewed as inferior beings to especially the inhabitants of Elizabethan England. Color prejudice was rampant in the earlier days, commonly being used against Africans by Europeans. The Africans were taken from their countries, especially North Africa, and taken to England as slaves. Shakespeare tried to correct this by depicting Othello as a black man who still had a high status in the society. Kings from Europe targeted Africa as a source of labor and other resources and targeted to colonize the continent. This started in Belgium under the rule of Leopold, after learning that the Congo Basin had some minerals that would bring numerous returns. An International African Association was hence created under the rule of Leopold to determine how activities were carried out in the Congo Basin. He then asked for support from Europe in his newly found mineral hub, an idea that led to a Berlin Conference meeting. The topic of discussion was mainly claims made by imperials on how other nations treated them. The issue took various political twists, and finally King Leopold was given the right to implement his interests on the Congo Basin. The conference also decided that incase other imperialist states needed to make any claims, good reasons had to be given. Unlike in previous occasions, planting a flag in a foreign land did not automatically pass on ownership. ‘Effective occupation’ according to the conference was redefined, stating that any state occupying another country had to assist in the economical growth of the land inhabited (Pakenham 82).
Following the notice given by King Leopold to other European countries, a scramble for African land and resources started. Great Britain or Elizabethan England was among the major colonizers invading the northern part of Africa, including Egypt and South Africa. Other countries like France, Germany, and Portugal occupied the remaining parts of Africa. Ethiopia and Liberia were the only countries in Africa that were not colonized. The European countries had decided not to sell or provide Africans with any form of weaponry, which gave them an advantage over Africans. The Europeans had advanced technology, machinery and weapons that made it easy to control Africans. Few European soldiers with machine guns could be used to control thousands of Africans who used crude weapons in only a matter of hours (Pakenham 70).
Colonialism formed a sign of prestige for the countries that were involved. Imperialism also played a role in encouraging colonialism as traditionally, European nations believed on the need for self improvement as opposed to the equality practiced today. The science revolution that was happening at the moment also played a role as Charles Darwin insisted on the need for ‘survival for the fittest. Europeans hence entered Africa, by then ‘the dark continent’ exploiting its habitants and their resources (Pakenham 73).
In the nineteenth century, Othello, the play was common I most parts of the world, and the debate about the play erupted. Many critics found the play to contain racist themes and characters, and the play was bound to increase racism among people. At that time a reasonable number of Africans had been taken to England for various reasons, an issue that caused discomfort to Elizabeth, who was the English Queen at the time. This did not deter Englishmen from invading Africa especially in mid sixteenth century, most of them with an aim of trading. In Shakespeare’s days, color prejudice was evident and a popular phrase was coined, ‘Three Moors to a Portuguese; three Portuguese to an Englishman’. This further shows the height of racism in England at the moment.
In the start of the play Iago, a racist military official makes racist remarks towards Brabantio, terming him as ‘an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe’. He also added that ‘... you'll have your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have coursers for cousins, and Gennets for Germans’ (Shakespeare 10). Iago’s attitude towards other people can be compared to the intrusion of European nations in Africa. They did not have respect for the African citizens and treated them like less humans. They were discriminated against and their resources taken by the colonizers.
Roderigo faces some insults from Iago, but in some parts of the play also plays as a racist himself. He lacks respect for the black man and at a time while conversing with Brabantio and her daughter, he said that the daughter had allowed herself to the ‘gross clasps of a lascivious Moor’ (Shakespeare 66). This was a racist remark considering The Moor statement was aimed at Roderigo and his daughter. During colonisation, English imperialists had the same opinion on Africans. They were seen as less people, and any inhuman acts done to them were not considered to be wrong. Due to the constant racism that Brabantio experienced, he diverts his anger to Othello on a particular visit. He exclaims that Desdemona, who was Othello’s wife was a witch and ‘Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be’. Brabantio still viewed Othello as a slave although he was no longer one, nor a pagan. As the English entered North Africa, they first used religion to control the inhabitants before using them as slaves in England and their own countries. Their attitude is similar to that used by Roderigo in the remark.
Brabantio is especially disturbed by the fact that his daughter, Desdemona was married by a black man, Othello. Brabantio is not amused with the action and takes the matter to the Duke, who termed Othello’s proof as ‘thin habits and poor likelihoods / Of modern seeming’ (Shakespeare 108). This was like the mentality held by English soldiers and rulers at the time of colonization. Africans were viewed as primitive people who needed assistance in both economic and political development. They were also seen as not having their human rights as other Europeans, which led to slave trade and colonization of North Africa.
Iago, who was a white man further expresses his racism character who did not value love for one another in his statement that love was ‘merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will’ (Shakespeare 334). This was the same perception held by the colonizers in Northern Africa. The England administration used imperialism in their colonial ruling, not considering that the Africans too were humans and needed similar rights as other Europeans.
The aspect of racism in Othello is clearly highlighted by Shakespeare by use of various characters and statements. Racism played a major role in African colonization, as the European nations had the aim of exploiting Africans, their resources and labour force. In North Africa, upon invasion by Englishmen, many Africans were sold as slaves to other nations, with England taking over the political and economic sectors of the African nations. The book is mainly about love, and the consequences in case it is absent among people.