Race and religion seem to be very prevalent in Shakespeare’s Othello. From the beginning of the play the reader gets the impression that the protagonist, Othello the Moor, is considered an “other” in the Venetian society. Othello’s high military ranking gives him the respect of the characters in the play, but his race and religion are brought up a lot throughout the play in the speech of the characters in the play.
Despite the characters in the text constant dehumanization of Othello because of his racial and religious differences and the imposition of assimilation, Shakespeare challenged the stereotypes of the Moors and created a hero that was more human than the rest of the characters in the play. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a Moor is a “member of a Northwestern African Muslim of mixed Berber and Arab descent,” (OD). At this point in time, the Moors were viewed as savage-like and monstrous because of their skin color and stature.
In Europe, Moors were seen as the “other” because of their skin color and religion. An early recount of Spain’s view on the Moors was that “their faces were black as pitch, the handsomest among them was black as a cooking pot, and their eyes blazed like fire,” (Brann). The most interesting aspect of the play Othello is how the other characters act around him. They never seem to address him by his name and when they are speaking of him, they refer to him as the Moor. It seems as though they placed a huge importance on his race and religion since the two are so closely connected.
According to Emily C. Bartels in her article Making more of the Moor:Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race, “the term ‘Moor’ was used interchangeably with such similarly ambiguous terms as ‘African,’ ‘Ethiopian,’ ‘Negro,’ and even ‘Indian’ to designate a figure from parts or the whole of Africa (or beyond) who was either black, Moslem, neither or both,” (Bartels 434). Even though Othello is characterized as a Moor, the reader doesn’t know anything about his religious background. All that we know as readers is that he was baptized at the beginning of the play and was now Christian.
There was never any reference to what religion he practiced prior to arriving to Venice. When Brabantio first confronts Othello after hearing that his daughter Desdemona had run off with him, he says, “Ay, to me. She is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks;” (I. III. 61-63). According to The Webster’s New World Dictionary, a mountebank is “ a person who mounted a bench or platform, in a public place and sold quack medicines, usually attracting an audience by tricks, stories, etc. ” Othello told Desdemona many stories of his life and that was the main reason why she fell in love with him.
So comparing Othello to a mountebank seems only fitting. Brabantio then continues on to say, “For nature so preposterously to err, being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, sans witchcraft could not,” (I. III. 64-66). Here Brabantio is saying that Desdemona’s love for Othello is completely unnatural. He claims that the only way that this could be natural is if nature was blind or senseless which could only be caused by witchcraft. By accusing Othello of witchcraft Brabantio is only making him seem like more of an “other” to the rest of the characters in the play.
Witchcraft is considered a sin in Christianity which was the universal religion of Europe at this time. Throughout the play the characters make comments about Othello regarding his race and religion. There seems to be more text on how others view him than how he views himself. In the beginning of the play, Roderigo and Iago are conversing about Othello’s being chosen as the new general for the Venetian army. Iago goes on to say that he had witnessed Othello’s Christening or baptism and that “his Moorship’s ancient,” (I. I. 34).
By reading this, one can infer that Othello’s Moorish background was a problem for the rest of the characters in the play. Whether it was to gain respect outside of the military or to be able to be with Desdemona, Othello converted to Christianity so that he would no longer be seen as the other. Aside from what most of the characters said about Othello, Desdemona never seems to comment on Othello’s Moorship. She is the only character in the play that consistently shows her unconditional love for him without every saying anything about their racial and religious differences.
The fact that this was brought up so early in the play makes it seem important. Before we are even introduced to Othello, we see that he had been baptized and left his Moorish identity behind. This also shows the influence Europe had on the rest of the world. For the protagonist to not be seen as the other, he converts to Christianity. At this time, Europeans were traveling around the world to proselytize. It is interesting to see that to get someone to convert to Christianity, they didn’t have to travel. Othello was brought to Venice to lead the Venetian army but he chose to convert in his own volition.
In Stephen Cohen’s I Am What I Am Not: Identifying with the Other in Othello, Cohen brings up a very interesting point. When a person is baptized, their sins are washed away instantaneously, but even with this, Othello would still be considered an other because of his skin color. There is no way that he could be washed away of his skin pigmentation (Cohen 165). This brings up to question as to which is of more importance in being accepted in the eyes of the characters in the play as well as Europeans in general. A person could easily change their religious identity but they can’t change their race.
This brings up the question why. Why is race and religion so important not only in this play but in the Europe at this time? There was definitely a sense of superiority for Europe at this time. But one could argue that this may have stemmed from a feeling of inferiority. Perhaps the European view of the “others” at this time had a lot to do with fear. The Moors had darker skin and they were a lot bigger than the Europeans. They also had a history of violence. The Moors were best known for their occupying of Spain for many years. In the beginning of the play, Iago says that Othello is “an old black ram,” (I.
I. 90). Rams are a rather intimidating animal because of their physical strength. Rams are “head-strong” and stubborn which makes this comparison very insulting but at the same time very accurate. By not only attaching the color of his skin to the description of the animal, but also comparing him to an animal shows just how Iago truly thought of Othello. Even though he speaks so lowly of him, you can’t help but to think that this is only a defense mechanism because he feels so inferior to Othello. There also aren’t a lot of places in the text that give us insight to how Othello feels about himself.
According to Edward Berry in his article titled Othello’s Alienation, “Othello never defends his blackness; nor does he defend the religion or culture that lies behind him. The most rootless of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, he has no geographical or cultural anchor to his being,” (Berry). The main scene that comes to mind when Othello speaks of his racial identity is at the end of the play when he compares himself to the Turk: “Set you down this; And say besides that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him, thus. ” (V. II. 361-366). Here Othello compares himself to the “other. ” Throughout his time in Venice he did everything as a true Venetian would do. Othello converted to Christianity and fought to protect the Venetians. In this speech he says that he grabbed the Turk and stabbed him in order to protect the Venetian. Just as he did to the Turk, he planned to do the same to himself. By comparing himself to the Turk here, he becomes the “other” once again, someone who was his enemy. Committing suicide went against everything he had recently come to believe.
In Christianity, one of the worse things that you can do is commit suicide. It is considered a mortal sin, meaning if you commit suicide you will be damned to hell. Suicide is a way of showing God that you are more powerful than Him. He is the one that is solely in charge of our life, so taking our own lives goes against the belief that once we are baptized we give God full control of our lives. Once Othello kills himself, Lodovico compares him to a “Spartan dog,” (V. II. 372), which, according to Backpack Literature, “Spartan dogs were noted for their savagery and silence,” (BL 884).
Once again we see the other characters in the play see Othello as nothing more than a savage-like animal. While the other characters in the play view Othello as a savage, Shakespeare shows him in a completely different light. The other characters in the play constantly dehumanize him, while Shakespeare humanizes him. Shakespeare makes Othello a hero and gives him human-like attributes like strengths and weaknesses (Butcher Othello’s Racial Identity 247). Before the reader is introduced to Othello, the other characters in the play begin to speak of him in a negative light.
They make references to his looks by speaking of his “thick-lips” (I. I. 67), calling him “an old black ram” (I. I. 90), and just paint him to be a terrible beast. Once Othello begins to speak the readers are introduced to an eloquent man with a gentle soul. Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio’s reactions to and speech about Othello are similar to what was expected of the Europeans at that time. But having Shakespeare create a character like this seems like he was trying to make a statement about how regardless of a person’s race or religion, they are still human.
Even though Othello is easily manipulated to the point where he kills his wife and then himself, the reader can somewhat sympathize with him. Shakespeare gives Othello strengths and weaknesses that the reader can relate to, which in turn makes the reader see him as one of them instead of the other. Throughout the play the reader sees how many of the characters speak so negatively about Othello because of his racial and religious differences, there are still a few characters that see Othello in a positive light.
The main character that consistently sees Othello in a positive light is, of course, his wife Desdemona. Even before Othello was going to kill her she continued to defend his character. Another character in the play that saw Othello in a positive light was the Duke. In the beginning of the play when Brabantio accuses Othello of witchcraft and tries to keep Desdemona from going through with the marriage, the Duke is the only character, aside from Desdemona, that defended him. At the end of the scene after all of the accusations, the Duke says, “Let it be so. Good night to everyone. To Brabantio. ] And noble signor, if virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black,” (I. III. 288-291). Othello: The Moor of Venice gives importance to race and religion. At the time that the play was written, Europeans were out proselytizing and those who weren’t Christian or had fair skin was seen as the “other. ” Since Moor is a term used to describe someone who is African and or Muslim and most Europeans were Christian at the time, the reader gets a sense that race and religion are intertwined. It seems as though you can’t have one without the other.
Even though Othello had such a high ranking in the military, the other characters in the play still disrespected him with their speech and their actions. From the beginning of the play the reader is torn between how Othello is described by the other characters in the play and how Shakespeare portrays him. As important as military ranking was at this time, race and religion were of greater importance. Othello had to assimilate to the European culture upon arrival to Venice. The one thing that remained constant throughout the play was the negative views the other main characters had of him.
From being compared to animal various times and comments about his physical appearance, it is obvious that Othello’s race and religion foregrounded his interactions with the other characters throughout the play. The way the characters interacted with and treated him can be seen as how the Europeans treated all of the people of the New World while they began to explore and conquer. With their speech and and actions toward him, the characters constantly make Othello seem like he is less than human because of his racial and religious differences. Shakespeare created a character who was a military hero that was completely relatable. Although his flaws went along with the stereotypes of his culture at the time, the reader gets a sense that he is in fact human.
Adelman, Janet. “Iago’s Alter Ego: Race As Projection In Othello. ” Shakespeare Quarterly 48. 2 (1997): 125-144. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2012. Agnes, M. , and D. B. Guralnik. Webster’s New World College dictionary. 4th. Cleveland, Ohio: Wiley Publishing, Inc. , 1998. 942. Print. Bartels, Emily C. “Making more of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race. ” Shakespeare Quarterly 41. 4 (1990): 433-454.
Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 April 2012. Berry, Edward. “Othello’s Alienation. ” Studies In English Literature (Rice) 30. 2 (1990): 315. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2012. Brann, Ross. “The Moors?. ” Medieval Encounters 15. 2-4 (2009): 307-318. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 May 2012. Butcher, Philip. “Othello’s Racial Identity. ” Shakespeare Quarterly 3. 3. (1952): 243-247. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 April 2012. Cohen, Stephen. “I Am What I Am Not: Identifying With The Other In Othello. ” Shakespeare Survey 64. (2011): 163-179. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 April 2012.