“‘Othello Is Not about Race’”
- Michael L. Hays (see profile)
- Medieval English Literature, Renaissance / Early Modern Studies, Shakespeare
- Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616, Race
- Item Type:
- Othello, Shakespeare, Critical race studies
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- Received opinion based on scanty evidence and skimpy arguments holds that race and racism operate in important ways in Othello and Othello’s jealousy. Few specifically race-referential words and only one specifically racist image occur in the play, almost all in the first four scenes. Brabantio’s, Roderigo’s, and Iago’s views are mistaken as representative of Venetian racism; the Duke’s and the other Senators’ views are ignored. The trial shows the Duke and the Senators, with Brabantio the sole exception, indifferent to or enlightened on the matter of race. Nothing relevant to race or racism causes Othello’s jealousy. No race or racist language or imagery clusters about the pivotal moments preceding the onset of Othello’s jealousy. In fact, race, a factor diminished by association with social graces and age, arises afterwards as a rationalization. Even then, Othello dismisses his blackness when he ponders Desdemona’s presumed infidelity. Othello’s jealousy results from Iago’s exploiting the ambiguous role of intermediaries in courtly love relationships. The literary history of intermediaries who are engaged to woo on behalf of another but who fail or betray their intended purpose is part of the disposition of chivalric knights. Iago, who has schemed to make Cassio’s “courtship” the basis of revenge, seizes on and exploits the fact of Cassio’s role in the courtship the moment when Desdemona reveals it. He persuades Othello to see himself, no longer as an accomplished chivalric knight whose deeds have won a beautiful lady with the aid of an intermediary telling his story, but as an ill-matched husband cuckolded by an intermediary more suitable than himself. Literary history explains Othello’s jealousy and its sudden onset in terms familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Imposing modern views of race and racism in Othello reduces the play to a prooftext and teaches little or nothing about race or racism in Shakespeare’s day or in ours.
- This paper is a revised and data-enriched version of a presentation to the Race in Early Modern Literature Panel of the South Central Renaissance Conference in Atlanta, GA, in 2017.
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- 5 years ago
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