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Gender and Race in Othello

 


In many of his works, William Shakespeare explores ideas of gender differences and racial tensions. Othello, a play whose characters are judged again and again based on appearances and outward characteristics, is one such work. The protagonist's different ethnic background provides a platform for probing ideas of racial conflict. Similarly, the presence of well-developed yet opposing female characters adds a dimension of gender conflict and feminist views. These seemingly separate themes of Othello-sexual difference and racial conflict-are closely connected because of similar ties of prejudgment and stereotype. The play's treatment of sexual difference and gender roles strengthens Othello's racist tones and complicates ethnic tensions.

Women are an integral part of Othello. The chastity of a woman is highly valued, and Desdemona's perceived infidelity helps drive the action of the play, ultimately leading to the deaths of many characters, including herself and her husband Othello. Iago's hatred of women is evident throughout the play and could be part of his motivation to lead Othello to such jealousy. Desdemona and Emilia, her waiting lady, provide the central conflict for feminist and gender ideas. Women in Othello are portrayed with complexity and an obvious tension between feminist and anti-feminist ideals.

Desdemona, Othello's wife and Brabantio's daughter, is portrayed as the ideal woman. She is beautiful, chaste, and virtuous. Cassio describes her as "divine" (2.1.74) and tells Iago that "she is indeed perfection" (2.3.25). When her father questions her about her love for Othello, she gives the acceptable answer and professes loyalty to both Brabantio and Othello, claiming that the Moor is now her lord (1.3.183-191). Desdemona is eloquent and independent. She asserts herself and boldly professes her love for Othello to her father and the duke. She is honest in her love for her husband, wishing that "our loves and comforts should increase even as our days do grow" (2.1.193-194). Desdemona does not profess any feminist ideals or notions about love or relationships. She claims she would never cheat on her husband, not even "for the whole world" (4.3.82). She also appears to be submissive and passive in her marriage. She even identifies her own "simpleness" (1.3.249). On many occasions, Desdemona obeys her husband unfalteringly and calls herself obedient (3.3.97). Even after Othello hits her, she does is bidding and leaves because she "will not stay to offend" him (4.1.250). Later after she has been abused, she asks Iago, "What shall I do to win my lord again?" (4.2.155). Desdemona remains subject to her husband even until he murders her, going so far as to tell Emilia that she killed herself (5.2.128), an admission of guilt for a crime she clearly did not commit. Desdemona is ideal in the sense that she is chaste and virtuous throughout the entire play. She also appears to be intelligent and is willing to stick up for herself to her father and defend her love for Othello. In her relationship with Othello, however, she is passive and submissive, the stereotypical meek wife.

Emilia, Iago's wife, is a stark contrast to Desdemona. In some respects, she too seems to be obedient to her husband. She picks up the handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona because Iago "hath a hundred times wooed [her] to steal it" (3.3.308-309), also saying that she does "nothing but to please his fantasy" (3.3.315). In the same speech, however, Emilia also calls her husband "wayward" (3.3.308). After she gives him the handkerchief, she asks Iago why he wants it and threatens to take it back if it is not for some good purpose (3.3. 333.335). Earlier in the play, Emilia talks back to Iago, asserting her independence when she says to him, "You shall not write my praise" (2.1.118). In her conversation with Desdemona about infidelity, Emilia informs her friend that she would commit adultery, giving the tongue-in-cheek response of "Nor I neither by this heavenly light; I might do 't as well i' the dark" (4.3.68-69). She professes her opinion that if the wife falls, it is her husband's fault (4.3.89) and asserts her belief that women have "some revenge" (4.3.96-97). Emilia provides the feminist voice of Othello, asserting her independence from her husband and even admitting that she would commit adultery if the price were right. Her attitude towards men is somewhat cynical, as she says "They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; They eat us hungerly, and when they are full They belch us" (3.4.106-108).

The male characters of the play view women in varied ways. Cassio often idealizes Desdemona, praising her positive characteristics, even believing that she is "perfection" (2.3.25). Iago's attitude towards women is largely critical and negative. He tells Emilia that women are "pictures out of doors, Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens, Saints in your injuries, devils being offended, Players in your huswifery, and huswives in your beds" (2.1.111-114), meaning that women are often deceptive. He later says, "She never yet was foolish that was fair, For even her folly helped her to an heir" (2.1.137-138). Iago's cynical attitude towards women continues throughout the play, as he talks of women as being foolish and unfaithful creatures. Othello's views on women are more complex than Iago's. Othello loves and praises Desdemona often in the play. He tells Iago, "But that I love the gentle Desdemona, I would not my unhoused free condition Put into circumscription and confine for the sea's worth" (1.2.25-28). Othello tells his wife that he "cannot speak enough of this content…it is too much of joy" (2.1.196-197). After he believes that Desdemona is being unfaithful, however, his attitude changes dramatically. He becomes cynical and hostile, even hitting his wife (4.1.243). He accuses her, calls her a strumpet, and murders her because of her perceived infidelity (5.2). Othello's attitudes towards women transform from idealization into hatred.

There is a conflict in Othello between traditional views of women and more feminist views, as well as a conflict between the idealization of women and the resentment of women. Emilia is a feminist, assertive, independent model of womanhood, while Desdemona plays the ideal and passive female character. Women are portrayed in a varied and complex way in Othello.

The racial tension in the play is similar to the gender role tension because of opposing views. While Othello's specific ethnic background is not clear, he is obviously an outsider to Venetian society, of Northern African or African descent. His portrayal in the play is complicated, with evidence supporting both a racist view of the text and a non-racist view.

While Othello is the protagonist of the play, he is also responsible for Desdemona's murder. Iago holds strongly racist views towards him. He describes Othello and Desdemona's consummation as "an old black ram…tupping…a white ewe" (1.1.90-91) and "making the beast with two backs" (1.1.119-120). Iago calls him "an erring barbarian" (1.3.358) and claims that he is lacking in "a fresh appetite, loveliness in favor, sympathy in years, manners, and beauties" (2.1.230-231). He also describes Othello as "rash and very sudden in choler" (2.1.273). Iago is not the only character who holds racist attitudes towards Othello. Roderigo refers to him as "thick-lips" (1.1.68) and calls him "lascivious" (1.1.129). Brabantio cannot believe that his daughter could be happy with this outsider (1.1.167), and he thinks that the only way Othello could have wooed Desdemona is with charms (1.1.175-177). He accuses Othello, calling out, "O thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter?" (1.2.63). Brabantio claims that now Desdemona is "abused, stol'n…and corrupted By spells and medicines" (1.3.62-63). Othello himself says that he is "black and [has] not those soft parts of conversation" (3.3.279-280). When Othello believes that his wife has been unfaithful he claims that he will "tear her all to pieces" (3.3.446). In Act 4, he hits Desdemona, evidence of his violent temper and proneness to abuse (4.2.242). Othello could easily be read as a racist play. Its hero is often described in racist, degrading tones, and he is portrayed as abusive, jealous, and even murderous.

This play, however, also provides a contrasting view. While Othello is portrayed as violent in some scenes, he is the victim of the evil manipulation of Iago. Many characters in the play deeply respect Othello. Cassio entreats the "heavens [to] Give him defense against the elements" (2.1.46-47) and asks Jove to guard him (2.1.79). Iago himself admits that Othello is "of a constant loving, noble nature [and] will prove to Desdemona A most dear husband" (2.1.290-292). Montano describes him as "noble," (2.3.132) and many of his subordinates admire him. Othello is eloquent, as evident in his many speeches, such as the one in Act 1, Scene 3 (l.78-96). He claims that he won Desdemona's heart through his stories and words. He is confident, professing that his "parts, [his] title, and [his] perfect soul Shall manifest [him] rightly" (1.2.31-32). Othello asserts that he has "done the state some service" (5.2.349). While Othello is an outsider to this society in many ways, he is not completely excluded. He is a Christian, meaning he has accepted the religion of his society. He is a general in the army, so he has a respectable social status, and the majority of the population likes and admires Othello, even Brabantio, until he discovers the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. He is portrayed as courageous and honorable, and his love for his wife seems to be genuine. It is obvious throughout the play that Othello's jealousy and even his violence are a result of Iago's evil.

Racial tension in Othello is complicated because there are both racist and non-racist strains in the play. Iago is the most vocal racist character, but his racism and judgments are not portrayed positively. Other characters, however, also voice negative attitudes towards Othello because of his ethnicity. Although the protagonist is thought of as a brave and noble character, he is also portrayed as rash and violent, a common stereotype of "Moors." Othello's sexual relationship with Desdemona is described in carnal, beastial terms. The negative language used to describe Othello is far stronger than the positive language used, and the images of Othello hitting and even murdering Desdemona are highly powerful. This language portrays Othello as animalistic and not
as highly civilized because he cannot control his passions. These associations serve to perpetuate stereotypes of Africans and others of different ethnic identity. While Othello is certainly a victim of Iago's evil in this play, he is not a primarily sympathetic character. His deeds and his rage are not the result of any noble motivation, but simply mad jealousy. The racist tones of Othello are overpowering and outweigh the non-racist tones of the play.

Sexual difference and racial difference are both at the center of conflicts in this play. Women are judged by some characters as unfaithful and deceptive, simply because they are women. Othello is judged harshly simply because he is black. There is tension between the traditional ideal of woman and a more progressive view, just as there is tension between a racist society and an accepting society. The play's treatment of feminist tension and gender difference only serves to add to the racial overtones.

Women are treated as harshly as Othello is by Iago and other characters in the play. Women are assumed to be unfaithful, even by Othello himself, who has no real proof with which to accuse Desdemona of infidelity. Both Desdemona and Emilia are abused, either verbally or physically or both, by their husbands and other male characters in the play. Women are prejudged as guilty and wanton in Othello. These quick conclusions add to the overall tone of stereotyping, thereby strengthening the racist strains in the play.

Feminist and anti-feminist ideas are presented very clearly, with Desdemona representing one extreme, the passive ideal wife, and Emilia representing the other extreme, a progressive, independent, assertive woman. It is Desdemona, however, who is Othello's wife. It is Desdemona who is unfairly accused, abused, and strangled. While Emilia is also murdered by her husband, Desdemona is smothered (5.2.87), which suggests that she is controlled and manipulated to a greater degree than Emilia, whose murder is more rash and passionate. The portrayal of Desdemona's and Othello's marriage plays up the stereotype of the violent Moor and the passive wife. This adds to the racial tones of the play and strengthens the racist view that Othello takes.

Gender differences and the tension between Emilia's feminist viewpoints and Desdemona's traditional ones serve to reinforce racism against Othello in this play. These tensions strengthen the view of Othello as a violent, even animalistic outsider. While Othello presents conflicting views on racism and stereotypes, the overall picture is one in which the play's protagonist is treated with an edge of racist overtones.