Anissa Sboui‘s essay: Othello: The Black ‘Other’ within a White Venetian Society


There are Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominate; the latter must be dominated, which usually means having their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another Western power. (Said, Orientalism 36)

Abstract

During the Elizabethan era, European nations have realised “the potential of overseas trade and colonisation” (Loomba “Race” 6). The contact with other cultures has turned to be a deplorable experience for Europeans who relegated these foreigners to the level of “otherness” and “never considered [them] insiders” (Loomba “Race” 6). The cultural frame has its implication in the realm of literature. Shakespearean play Othello implies how the protagonist Othello is constructed as the “other.” The main male figure is reduced to the position of the ‘other’ through the lens of the Venetian society. The aim of this paper is to analyse how Othello is portrayed through linguistic devices as well as through the striking depiction of racial stereotypes. 


Key Words: Black / drama / Venetian / Death / Pipe dreams


The recurrent use of the personal pronoun “him” by both Roderigo and Iago abounds the play. In the play, they keep referring to Othello by name to belittle him:

                 I would not follow him then.

                 Oh sir content you.

                 I follow him, to serve my turn upon him.

                 ………………………………………….

In following, I follow but myself. (1.1. 46-66)

The use of the indefinite article reinforces the “self/other” dichotomy. Roderigo refers to Othello as “a lascivious Moor” (1.1. 145). Opting for an indefinite article is a case in point, for it reflects the position of the object of the speech through the lens of the speaker. Roderigo aims to deprive Othello of his essence by reducing him to a mere ‘thing’. The process of destabilising the position of the protagonist from the centre to the peripheries is further illustrated in the statement of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father and one of the acclaimed members of the Venetian society, directs his speech to Othello: “Such a thing as thou …” (1.2. 87). 

The description of Othello as the ‘other’ is not constructed through a deliberate overuse of object pronouns or indefinite articles; it also finds its expression through racial stereotypes. Throughout the play, Othello is referred to as “the Moor” which implies a whole vision of this creature as “deviant [and] strange” (Loomba “Race” 9). It seems evident to provide a definition of the word “Moor”. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the term “Moor” designates “a member of a Muslim people living in NW Africa” (754). It also means those “who belonged to ‘Mahomet’s sect” (Loomba “Religion” 46). These definitions reinforce the sense of denigration, degradation and blackness imposed on Muslims and black people. These stereotypes and attributes aggravate how “[i]slam and blackness [have been] regarded as overlapping categories for Christians from the Crusades onwards” (Loomba “Religion” 46). 

The portrayal of Othello fits the assumption that he is immersed in blackness and evil. The “black, phlegmatic [and] lax” ‘Moor’ not only incarnates blackness, but also delineates that he is an epitome of the devil (Said 119). A deep analysis of the play mirrors instances where the black character is an evil devil. The best example, in the play, is when Iago wonders how Desdamona can live with a person who is akin to a “devil: … And what delight shall she have to / look on the devil? …” (2.1. 255-256). Besides, Othello himself unravels devilish attitudes, for he expresses his aggressive rage in such a way that brings to the fore an image of Satan: “Arise black vengeance, from the hollow hell, / yield up (O love) thy crown, and hearted throne / to Tyrannous hate” (3.3. 246-248). Add to that, the image of Othello as a devil is repeated throughout the play. After killing Desdemona, he becomes a real devil in human form through the lenses of Emilia: “Oh the more Angel she and you the blacker Devil / … / thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil (5.2. 131-133).

It is worth adding that Othello’s “otherness” is constructed through the representation of blacks as “lecherous” and sexually aggressive. In the opening scene, Iago warns Brabantio that Desdamona’s affair with Othello can be ravaging. He believes that Brabantio has to wake up from deep torpor, for this in-congruent and heterogeneous relationship poses sound danger: “Even, now, very now an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise” (1.1. 100-101). In this respect, Iago denigrates Othello by making use of animal imagery to intensify the savagery and barbarity of the latter, and emphasise the sexual violence of blacks. 

The link between blackness and “lecherous” desire lays bare in the opening scene of the play where Othello is depicted as an “other.” He is a “barbary horse” i.e., a savage that is driven by sexual desire: 

                     … 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. (1.1. 128-129)

Equally important, the association of blacks with sexual violence dates back to earlier periods. Following the same stream of thought, Ania Loomba argues that there is similarity between the violence of the sexual desire of the black people and the heat of the furnaces: 

                  [The] extraordinary Roman mosaic dating back to the second century AD,

                 found at entrance to the public baths in Tigmad (in present-day Algeria), 

                 depicts a bath attendant or person who shovelled coal into the furnaces 

                 for heating the baths as a black man with an enormous erect and dripping 

                 penis. (“Religion” 49)

It is clear-cut that the depiction of the black “Moor” Othello underlines the debasing racial stereotypes which render him to a mere “other” and “devil.” Yet, Othello strives to carve an ostensible high rank by standing still against any invasion from foreign enemies. He also “[affirms] his sameness in Venice by designating those he has encountered in warfare as other” (Kelly 5). He actually “disavows” his “otherness” and considers himself an ardent defender of the white society. Eventually, his efforts seem in vain, for he avows that he cannot “be accepted into Venetian society” (qtd. in Loomba “Race” 1). 

Throughout Shakespeare’s play, the character of Othello seems to incarnate “otherness” and savagery par excellence. His fervent call for safeguarding Venice and his indisputable courage may allow him to be respected but never recognised as a member of the White Venetian community even though he is fully aware of the gulf between races. The abyss between black and white communities is also well illustrated in Dutchman and the Slave. In this play, Lula, the white character, expresses to the black protagonist, Clay the eternal incongruity between black and white societies:

                    LULA: And you’ll pretend the people cannot see you. That is, the citizens. 

                    And that you are free of your own history. And I am free of my history. 

                    We’ll pretend that we are both anonymous beauties smashing along through 

                    the city’s entrails. (Jones 1.1. 21)


References:

Primary Source:

Shakespeare, William. Othello. London: The Penguin Group, 2001.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Jones, LeRoi. Dutchman and the Slave. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1964.
  2. Kelly, Philippa. “The Cannibals That Eat Each Other: Othello and Post Colonial Appropriation.” www. sshemurdoch.edu.au /google, Accessed 27 Aug. 2017.
  3. Loomba, Ania. “Race and Colonialism in the Study of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  4. —. “Religion, Colour, and Racial Difference.” Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  5. Said, Edward. W. Orientalism. London: The Penguin Group, 1995.

Dr. Anissa Sboui is a professor and reseracher in the English Department, Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Sousse, Tunisia

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