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Aug 11, 2012

Race and Gender in Othello

Shakespeare’s Othello supports many critical readings, however the most obvious of the readings displayed through Othello are the Feminist reading and the Race reading. Through the Feminist readings, the audience/readers can be informed of the inequality between the sexes; oppressed women and dominant males; in the seventeenth century Venetian era. When viewing Othello in a feminist’s perspective, the audience can also observe the treatments of the three main female characters in the play; Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca.

Although the oppressive treatment of women may be generally accepted in a seventeenth century Venetian society, but modern day feminists believe in the equality between women and men, thus the seventeenth century Venetian society would appear extraordinarily flawed.

Through a race reading, the audience/readers can witness the discrimination that a character (in this case, Othello) receives due to his non-aristotlean background. In the modern day context, In both readings, the setting can be viewed as flawed. Feminists would agree that the victims of prejudice in the society are women whilst race critics would agree that the victim of the play is Othello.

A race reading would establish Iago, Roderigo and Barbantio as the major racists of the play. It would also establish the Venetian society as one of power loving and prejudice.

For the first few scenes, Othello’s position was clearly that of an outsider. Iago, Roderigo and Barbantio excluded him through their mentioning of him as “the Moor”, “his Moorship”. Via this, the audience can unmistakably observe their racism towards Othello as they notify clearly his background of non-aristocracy.
When Iago and Roderigo informs Barbantio of Desdemona’s marriage with Othello, Iago constantly refers to Othello in terms of animals; “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.97) and “your daughter covered with a Barbary horse”(1.1.125); this undoubtedly illustrate their regard towards Othello as they obviously cannot see the “man” inside Othello, but rather regarded Othello as a “talking animal”.

Barbantio’s is more subtle when prejudicing Othello, the cause of this may be of his higher social class than that of the other two. However, Barbantio is nevertheless still frank with his opinion as he accuses Othello of using witchcraft and black magic in wooing of his daughter. Through this accusation, the readers can clearly define the meaning of this as witchcraft and black magic is often in association with people of African background (such as voodoo). Furthermore, Barbantio expresses his racism through comments such as “to the sooty bosom”, “of a thing as thou”. Barbantio’s comment to Roderigo after his realization of “O, would you had had her!” shows Barbantio’s sudden attitude change towards Roderigo even though he had rejected RoderigoТs offer in marriage multi-times previously.

The majority of the racial prejudices are presented in the first three acts of the play, but by the end of the novel, Emilia also makes a racist remark when she discovers that Othello had killed Desdemona; “O the more angel is she/ and you the blacker devil”; shows that Emilia may also have been racist. Emilia’s racism may not have been displayed previously may be because of her less important social position and because of her love for Desdemona.

The personality and strong character of the female archetypes on Othello can be seen through the Feminist point of view. The three main female characters; Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca; are all affected and oppressed by society in different ways. Desdemona; the faithful wife; and her servant, Emilia are suppressed by the society’s male domination, and its views that women should be owned by men as if they are property. Bianca, on the other hand, has more freedom than of an average woman due to her role as a courtesan. However, she, also is suppressed by the society due to her work as a courtesan. Thus her lower status in society is paid for by her freedom.

The men of Othello are dubious individuals. This can be seen through the main character, Othello, himself. Via Othello, the audience/readers can witness a strong sense of irony, which is displayed through his speeches. In the beginning of the play, Othello claims that he believes in his love for Desdemona and her love for him; “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee” – “My life upon her faith!” (1.3.292-294) however, later in the play, he contradicts himself by believing in Iago who, in fact, is the villain of the play. “Damn her, lewd minx! O damn her, damn her!”

The men within Othello regard women as sexual possessions instead of individuals. As Iago and Cassio talk of Bianca, Othello talks of Bianca;s reputed sexual nature for that of Desdemona: “She gives it out that you shall marry her” I marry her! What? A customer!” This is the monkey’s own giving out (4,1,115-127). Thus here shows Othello’s view point upon Desdemona’s whorish sexuality.

In conclusion, each reading of Othello establishes certain values to which assists with the understanding and enjoyment of the play. Through the Race reading; Shakespeare takes advantage of Othello’s background into emphasizing the social boundary of race that many are intolerable to. Through the Feminist reading, the readers are shown the oppressive women in the seventeenth century Venetian society and this can be contrasted with the modern day society where feminists strongly believes in the equality of the genders. These readings gives the readers an understanding through different levels, thus possibly making the play more enjoyable.
Desdemona arose from a row that Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison had with Peter Sellars, the opera director, about Othello. She liked it, he didn’t.

To prove her point Morrison re-imagined Shakespeare’s tragedy from the view of Othello’s wife, inspired by Desdemona’s allusion in Act IV to her mother’s maid Barbary, which in the 17th century meant Africa.

Morrison’s prose-poem is a soulful exploration of Desdemona’s estrangement from her own parents and lifelong enchantment with the continent, based on the songs that the maid supposedly taught her. Sellars has now directed a semi-staged version of it, to which the Malian singer, Rokia Traoré, has contributed a song-cycle. The result, shown as part of the London 2012 Festival at the Barbican, is an unclassifiable entertainment, albeit one highly conscious of its status as “important art” about “important issues”, such as race, gender and Shakespeare.

As Desdemona, Tina Benko is commanding as she recalls her sexual enchantment with Othello and her elopement with his army — Morrison’s depiction of the militarised rape of two women as seen by her is particularly chilling. Traoré, singing as Barbary, has an austere grace. Accompanied by the jewel-like kora and dusty n’goni (two desert stringed instruments), she creates a dolorous ambience. However, both the music and the staging lack dramatic variety, and after two hours, the show’s strength — its hushed intensity — has become its weakness.

You long to remind someone that Shakespeare had jokes in it, too.
This is Shakespeare reimagined from the viewpoint of one of his great tragic heroines, but now with an audaciously new setting, the afterworld, and an African perspective. The stage is in half-darkness and littered with glass, like an African graveyard, and the performers are dressed in white, with their shadows looming on a screen behind the stage. Desdemona, powerfully and sensitively played by Tina Benko, is able to discuss in death the issues she never raises before her murder in Shakespeare's Othello, and the woman to whom she unburdens her thoughts is her mother's African maid Barbary, intensely played by the Malian singer Rokia Traoré, who also sings a set of compelling songs, interwoven with the spoken narratives.

Written by Toni Morrison and directed by Peter Sellars, this multimedia project was inspired by the fourth act of Othello, in which Desdemona, facing death, sings Willow Song, taught to her by Barbary. It's a device that allows an exploration of Desdemona's fascination with Africa, for monologues on women, love, race, relationships and war, for discussions in the afterlife with Othello himself, and between the mothers of Othello and Desdemona – with Benko providing all the voices.

Traoré's songs (with lyrics translated on the screen) are crucial to the drama. She has enjoyed a remarkable summer, performing three sets of wildly different new material in the past month, and the new songs reflected her acoustic Epic of Soundiata, with reminders of how Desdemona's story might have been told in Africa in Shakespeare's day.

As on that project, backing was provided by Mamadyba Camara on kora and Mamah Diabaté on n'goni, along with two singers from her Fondation Passerelle. Her music, of course, included a new treatment of Willow Song, along with a blues-influenced piece on which Traoré played guitar, leading to the final uneasy reconciliation between Desdemona and Othello in the afterlife. This is a remarkable, challenging and bravely original work.

What do a reliquary set with the gouged-out eyeball of a Catholic priest, foot-high platform shoes, and a narwhal tusk have in common? The perhaps surprising answer is that they are all things that would have been known to the audience that packed the Globe Theater to see the plays of William Shakespeare 400 years ago.

Today, they are among the objects that have been gathered together at the British Museum for its magnificent new exhibition Shakespeare—Staging the World, which aims to present the world as the playgoers of London circa 1612 would have experienced it. The silver reliquary containing the right eye of the Jesuit priest Blessed Father Edward Oldcorne, which was collected at his execution at Worcester in 1606, brings a gruesome layer of resonance to the famous lines from Lear when Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall, “Out vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?” Today this scene is a ghoulish coup de theatre; in 1612, it would have been a moment alive with the frisson of contemporary politics.

Gouged-out eyeballs were not exactly an everyday occurrence, but they were an unavoidable fact of life for the playgoers who flocked across London Bridge to Southwark, then the theatrical and red-light district of the capital. The playhouse, the “Magic O,” was a place where in the absence of newspapers, let alone the Internet, the populace could make sense of the brave new world around them.

For, as the exhibition richly demonstrates, the London that the theatergoers of 1612 would have known was a city trying to make sense of issues like race relations, national identity, sexual politics, and religious tolerance; themes that feel startlingly contemporary to the modern visitor. Take the issue of national identity—in 1612, England was under the rule of James I, who was also the King of Scotland. The exhibition features designs made in 1604 for a Union Flag of Great Britain to symbolize the union of the two countries through the king. The idea of Britain as one united nation was explored by Shakespeare in the famous speech made by John of Gaunt on his deathbed in Richard II: “This fortress built by nature for herself/Against infection and the hand of war/This happy of men, this little world/This precious stone set in a silver sea.” And later in Cymbeline, Cloten says, “Britain’s/A world by itself.” An audience that was coming to terms with the idea of a Scottish king on the English throne might well have been reassured by watching the idea of Britain being played out on the stage as a historic and noble concept. Who knows what contemporary Scottish visitors, who are looking forward to a referendum about independence in 2014, will feel?

The Lyte Jewel (left); Richard III (Courtesy of the British Museum(left); Courtesy of Society of Antiquaries of London-British Museum)

A whole section of the exhibition is dedicated to Venice. There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever left his native country, but he set his plays all over the known world, using Venice in particular—with its maritime trade, multicultural population, and questionable morals—as, the curators assert, “a reflection to Londoners of their own desires and fears, their own future.” For Jacobean Londoners, Venice was a city of easy virtue. The exhibition has a print from 1578 that shows a gondola with a closed canopy; the viewer can lift the flap to reveal a couple canoodling underneath. Although Venice was famous for its courtesans, it was not easy to distinguish them by their dress from wives. Both sets of women wore the sky-high chopines, or platform shoes, in which they were expected to walk and even dance. The pair featured here would make the most dedicated Louboutin wearer wince. Othello is tortured by Iago about the fuzzy line between vice and virtue trod by Venetian wives, whose “best conscience/Is not to leave undone, but kept unknown.”

When Shakespeare wrote a play about a Moor of Venice he was writing for an audience that was just beginning to have contact with sub-Saharan Africans. The curator of the exhibition, Dora Thornton, and Jonathan Bate, a consultant on the exhibition, estimate that London had around 900 black Africans in a population of 200,000 (a percentage that is not far off from today’s London), many of whom lived in the “suburbs” like Southwark, which contained the playhouses. Although many of these were slaves, there was no law against intermarriage, so the union of Othello, the Moor of Venice, to the fair (white) Desdemona was not unthinkable. The exhibition includes some objects that show a developing aesthetic of black beauty—there is a magnificent marble bust of a black African by the French-Italian sculptor Nicolas Cordier dating from 1610, and an elaborate silver gilt cup made in the shape of a Moor’s head from 1602.

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