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Othello: The Tragedy Of A Black Man In A White World

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Othello: The Tragedy of a Black Man in a White World

When William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Othello around 1603, he was writing from the perspective of an individual living during the historical Elizabethan era. The play was set in Venice, Italy as was a good number of Shakespeare's other works, and later Cyprus became the play's final setting. The characters themselves attested to a Greek system of language, dress, and behavior. However, Othello's several themes and the attitudes of the characters were developed as a reflection of England's golden age of religious reformation and colonial expansion. Shakespeare used Giraldi Cinthio's collection of short stories Hecatommithi (1565) as the inspiration in creating his own tale of war, jealousy, and deception. Yet, Shakespeare drew his underlying themes of race and religion from events that transpired during a period when England's exploration and settling of other lands introduced the nation to cultures and customs different from its own. By intertwining fact and fiction, as William Shakespeare did in his original play, an examination will be made of the way Shakespeare shaped Othello's characters' attitudes based upon Elizabethan notions of race and those who were considered different, specifically Moors, Africans, and/or Muslims.

There are several significant characters in Othello that were integral in the play's tragic outcome. None were more important than the play's title character, though, whose external and internal differences were scrutinized and questioned from the first and final acts of Othello. Othello's exact background was never made explicit, but readers are led to believe that Othello was of African heritage. This is due to several references within the play that Othello was a Moor. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Moors were members of a northwestern African Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent. As its name derives from the Old French More, via Latin from the Greek word Mauros, Moors were inhabitants of Mauretania, which corresponds to parts of Morroco and Algeria. By the 17th century, they were commonly identified as Black. In 1585, historic cosmographer, Pomponius Mela, recorded from his travels that there were in existence "white Moors", but the term "Moor" is most notably used in reference to Negroes.

Othello's character was the leader of the Venetian army, so chosen by the Duke of Venice. It is interesting that William Shakespeare would assign such a prestigious honor to a Negro, given that the society (even the servants) was predominantly White. One could assume that such an assignment was due to Othello's background as a Moor. As Mela described in his works, inhabitants of that region of Africa were "very troublesome both to their neighbor-inhabitants, and also to merchants, for which cause travelers and merchants dare not pass over the African deserts alone." It would only make sense that someone from such a region would be a great fighter and survivor, as Othello was, and would be physically capable of leading a military. In fact, it was Othello's chivalry that won the heart of Desdemona. But it was this same strong-minded temperament that would eventually cause him to think irrationally and cause the death of not only Desdemona, but also himself.

This temperament was what Iago, Othello's ensign, sought to reveal and act upon because of his jealousy towards Othello. Iago mentioned several reasons behind his jealousy, two of which included his envy of Othello's relationship with Desdemona, and the fact that Othello held the highly prestigious honor that Iago felt belonged to him. One could also suggest that Iago's contempt was moreso due to Othello being a Black man leading the Venetian army and married to fair White Desdemona. From the first scene of the play, Iago speaks of race to Desdemona's father by referring to Othello as "an old black ram...topping [Brabantio's] white ewe," and calling Othello "a Barbary horse." Brabantio himself accused Othello of witchcraft, claiming that Desdemona could not have been smitten by Othello by her own faculties, but rather, that charms and potions had been used to influence Desdemona's decision making:

If she in chains of magic were not bound,

Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy,

So opposite to marriage that she shunned

The wealthy curled darlings of out nation,

Would ever have, to incur a general mock,

Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom

Of such a things as thou, to fear, not to delight. (Act 1, Scene 2)

Iago was determined to turn as many individuals against Othello as possible, and even insisted that one violent episode displayed by Othello was common, as if that was characteristic of Moors.

Where Othello was swarthy and capable of violence, Iago used Michael Cassio as a pawn in his scheming because he was viewed as the complete opposite of Othello. Michael Cassio was Othello's lieutenant, and was despised



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