The Effects of Racism and Misogyny in Othello
Race and gender heavily influence the course of peoples’ lives. Shakespeare’s “Othello” depicts a society in which racist and misogynist behaviour informs and affects how characters are perceived and treated. Women in the play are viewed by men as objects, available for their possession and use. The constant subtle and overt racism that Othello encounters throughout the play contribute to his downfall. The unjust treatment of women and people of colour in “Othello” is proof that their society is one of racism and misogyny.
Male characters in the play perceive women as objects to possess and use as they see fit. Unwed women were considered the property of their fathers until marriage, and this is how Brabantio views Desdemona in the play. This is demonstrated when Brabantio discovers Desdemona’s marriage to Othello and says to her, “‘Gentle mistress;/ Do you perceive in all this noble company where most you owe obedience? ’” (1. 3. 176-178). In this quote, Brabantio is asking Desdemona if she has married Othello, in which case she would be expected to show obedience towards him instead of Brabantio.
Women were expected to be obedient to the whims of whoever they were perceived as belonging to, whether that was their husband or their father. Unwed women who exercise sexual freedom are treated with little to no respect. This is illustrated when Iago speaks of Cassio’s relationship with his mistress, Bianca, saying, “‘A huswife selling her desires/ buys herself bread and clothes: it is a creature / that dotes on Cassio/ … / He, when he hears of her, cannot refrain/ from the excess of laughter. ’”(4. 1. 94-99). Iago states that Bianca is a prostitute who is in love with Cassio, despite the fact that Cassio does not respect her.
One can infer that Bianca relies on Cassio for her living and wants to marry him, however, likely unbeknownst to her, Cassio laughs at her with his friends, is solely using her for sex, and likely has no intention of marrying her whatsoever. Emilia, the only other female character in the play, is very aware of this dynamic between women and men. This becomes indisputable when Emilia says, “’They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;/ they eat us hungrily, and when they are full,/ they belch us. ’” (3. 4. 98-103). Emilia remarks on the way men usewomen with a lack of reverence, treating them as food to consume when they want and to throw away when they are finished. This statement is an accurate metaphor for Bianca and Cassio’s relationship, but also for that of Emilia and her verbally abusive husband, Iago. Every female character in Othello faces disrespect, mistreatment and misogyny from the men in their lives. Racism is prevalent and poignant in Venetian society. Iago uses racist language to amplify the anger in Brabantio when he reports on Desdemona’s marriage to Othello.
Iago shouts, “‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ is tupping your white ewe. ’”(1. 1. 89-90). Iago uses racial slurs to his advantage, by calling Othello “an old black ram” he is referring to the Elizabethan-period belief that black men were animalistic sexually, and he is trying to anger Brabantio with the imagery of his daughter sleeping with an older black man. Brabantio’s racism is the dominant reason for his reaction to Desdemona and Othello’s marriage. This is evident when he claims, “‘She, in spite of nature,/ of years, of country, credit, every thing,/ to fall in love with what she fear’d to look on?’”(1. 3. 96-98). In this quote, Brabantio is trying to explain that the idea of Desdemona falling in love with Othello is unnatural, due to her upbringing, and that she was afraid to interact with or even look at people of colour. He believes that it would be impossible for Desdemona to fall in love with Othello so fiercely that he thinks Othello must have bewitched Desdemona for her to fall in love with him. The racism that Othello encounters becomes internalized by the end of the play.
After Othello comes to the realization that Desdemona was in fact faithful, he says, “‘Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away. ’”(5. 2. 343) Othello is comparing himself to a “base” or uncivilized aboriginal. Throughout the play, Othello fixates on Desdemona’s whiteness, after he murders her, and is told she was never unfaithful, he once again compares her to a perfect, white pearl, and it is notable that pearls are associated with purity. This constant onslaught of racism that Othello faces leads to him acting in the very racial stereotype he was perceived as throughout the play.
Racism and misogyny are the factors with the most impact when it comes to the treatment of women and people of colour in “Othello”. Women are used by men as if they were objects for their gratification. Racism permeates Venetian society so deeply that eventually Othello internalizes it. These prejudiced views make it impossible for Othello and women in the play to do anything without being looked at through a tainted lens. In modern society, not only does racism and misogyny make the objectification of women and the stereotyping of people of colour possible, it makes it truly debilitating.