By: Rhonda Nelson
LIT 319-X1511 Shakespeare
The very important key thematic issue in William Shakespeare’s Othello would have to be Identity. The ambivalence and inconsistency in Othello’s awareness of his nature and identity in his effort of training and making himself into a unrelated culture whereas he seeks to integrate himself into mainstream Venetian society as a “Moor” eventually leads to his path of destruction. Phillip Butcher wrote an article called “Othello’s Racial Identity” where he talks about the Moors entering Spain in force in roughly 711. ‘The Spanish applied the term Moor to people of Arabian, Syrian and African descent without regard for their racial differences’ (Butcher 243). The one question we must ask though is how does race function in this famous play by William Shakespeare where the identity of Othello became the appearance of a black man?
Othello’s awareness of identity differs greatly from Iago’s in that he saw everyone differently, also he had a completely different identity to that of his friend. Othello is a combination of impressiveness and weakness, which could be taken as being an oxymoron but through research and conjecture can be proven. In the play Othello says ‘I am an honorable murderer’(Act V.2, 299). To a certain extent, he was a great man in that he was a illustrious warrior having earned the title of General. To attain such a commendation was a great feat to be sure, but was even more impressive due to the fact that Othello was originally a slave from Africa. His perception of the public was that of an outsider because of his insecurities in himself, and as accepted as he was, he was also cut off in a way from the people in his life.
His uncertain entry into the white Venetian world, which was supposed to be secured with his marriage to Desdemona, is in fact ruptured by that same relationship. It is the main catalyst in contradictions to his self-conception. With that being said, instead of a unified hero, we get a broken hero with paranoid schizophrenic tendancies.
Not only was Othello different in origin, his skin color served as a constant reminder to others that he did not originate where they did. We can see this in the way people spoke about Othello and the way he was treated while amongst them. Iago, one of the most memorable characters of the play said ‘an old black ram … tupping your white ewe’(I. i. 88-89). By saying this, Iago has successfully objectified Othello likeing him to having no more than animal instinct. Iago and Rodrigo begin shaping Othello’s racialized identity with those words, and they do it throughout the play by their language used.
However, despite racism being used against him, other people see him as a great and honorable man. ‘Here comes Barbantino and the valiant Moor’(Act I.3, 47). He not only posseses great character and dignity when he is being accused of witchcraft by the senators, but also when Barbantino confronts him about the engagement to Desdemona. ‘Most potent, grave, and reverend signors, My very noble and approved good masters; That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter, It is most true; true I have married her. The very head and front of my offending Hath the extent, no more. Rude I am in my speech, And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace’(Act I.3, 76-82).
Through social semiotics, Othello is not only subjugated, but objectified, racialized and outcast throughout the play. “All aspects of culture possess a semiotic value … it is these perceived-accepted suffered cultural objects which semiotics sets out to interrogate and decipher” (Hebdige1993), writes Dick Hebdige in his article “From Culture to Hegemony”. So he is not only a black man or Moor; his identity is shaped by the fact he is a black man involved with nobility and that he is joining a space already occupied by different divisions of class.
However as Brecht states, ‘he doesn’t only possess