The question of gender is even more pronounced in Othello than in most other tragedies because male sexuality is, by virtue of the hero's skin colour, as much as an issue as female sexuality (Callaghan, 36). Hence issues of race and gender can be seen throughout the Shakespearean play Othello. It can be said that binary oppositions are apparent in the reading of Othello, for example black versus white and woman versus man. It is common ideology that white is valued over black and man over woman. Black man is stereotypically associated with the animal and the dangerous while woman with sexual promiscuity and vengefulness.
We see in Othello, the idealization and degradation of sexuality, the disintegration of male authority and the loss of female power, the isolation of men and women and the degeneration of Othello to prevailing generalisations about Black men. Throughout history blackness has been stereotypically associated with negative principles. The stereotypes that are most prevalent include the generalisation that black people especially men are angry, lustful, dangerous (especially towards women), threatening and primitive (Cowhig).
However, in Shakespeare's Othello, the main character of the same name is seen as a hero of outstanding qualities. This is central to the reading of Othello. Othello is often given the title "valiant moor"(Shakespeare I. iii. 48), although to his face "Valiant Othello" (Shakespeare I. iii. 49). Montano also calls Othello "brave Othello"(II. i. 38). He is seen as a noble man but yet later in the play degenerates to animalism, rage and revengefulness seemingly reverting to superstitious beliefs.
The black man is, of course, always accused of animal sexuality in racist discourse" (Callaghan, 129). Iago often associates Othello with animal imagery: "an old black ram" (Shakespeare I. i. 87) showing that this is what he wants Othello to become. Women are usually identified as associated with the physical act of sex, but by doing so Iago is associating Othello to this act. "To love a woman is to become a beast" (Callaghan, 129). Othello and Iago can be seen as total opposites on the surface. They are of different racial groups, different rank and social positions.
But yet Othello is described by the Duke to Desdemona's father as: "Your son-in-law is far more fair than black. " (Shakespeare I,iii,286). Othello seems to be at the beginning of the play "fair skinned" as he is free from moral stain and virtuous. Because stereotypes about black men are mostly negative and Othello does not fit the norm he is described as being like a noble fair skinned man. To describe him as a noble black skinned man, seems to go against all that is believed in society, against the norm. Throughout the play Othello is said to have been a slave in two ways.
Firstly he tells Desdemona that he was sold to slavery: "Of being taken by the insolent foe And sold to slavery;" (Shakespeare, I. iii. 138-139) But Iago who uses stereotypical assumptions about women and female sexuality to make Othello see Desdemona to be like all other women: "foolish woman" (Shakespeare IV. i. 173) Iago describes her as conniving and sexually promiscuous, also trapping him. It is vital to know Slavery is prevalent throughout the history of black people. In this case Othello has not been generalised as a slave he is and was a slave.
Callaghan says that to present a good man next to a bad one is different from presenting a good woman next to a bad one in a culture where the prevailing ideology is that all women are same. In Othello, greater contrast is placed between Iago and Othello than on Desdemona and any of the other women. This is because women were all seen as the same. The stereotypes that women are generalised under are that they seem to be vengeful, duplicitous, sexually promiscuous, always talking and out of their husbands or fathers control.
Brabantio believed that his daughter Desdemona was the perfect daughter, the exception to the misconceptions that all daughters are out of control of their fathers. This is best described by Brabantio himself when he states: "A maiden never bold; Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion Blush'd at herself" (Shakespeare I. iii. 95-97) But he no longer thinks this upon her marriage to Othello. Brabantio seems to be right when he says that upper class white Venetians do not usually marry moors such as Othello. This was seen as something that just wasn't done when the play itself was written.
This is kept in the back of the mind while reading Othello. Desdemona is accused of being domineering, of using witchcraft, of rebelliousness, disobedience and wantonness all common generalisations about females when the play was written and even a little still today. However, the reader realises that Desdemona has none of these traits, she like Othello is not the expected norm. Even though she has transgressed and is no longer seen as perfection by her father (Callaghan, 153). She is still seen as wonderful by most others in the play. She is different from all other women: "she is indeed perfection" (Shakespeare II. ii. 25).
In most of Shakespeare's play female transgression occurs from at least one of the main female leads. This is the case in Othello when Desdemona acts independently in choosing Othello to be her husband. Because of this, constant tension is felt by the reader of this play between a sense that Desdemona was right to elope with Othello as they were in love; and the near fact, (as said by Brabantio) that young, well to do, white women should not run away with black moors (Callaghan, 59). However, throughout the play Desdemona is seen more and more as the perfect wife and woman.
Her death at the hands of Othello is not seen as a punishment for her transgression. By the end of the play Desdemona has almost reconstructed herself as an innocent victim instead of a tragic transgressor. The handkerchief in Othello, can be seen as a symbolic extension of female silence. Chaste, silent and obedient women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are often depicted as sewing (Callaghan, 84). Reference is made to Desdemona sewing by Othello: "Hang her, I do but say what she is: so Delicate with her needle, an admirable musician. O,
She will sing the savageness out of a bear! " (Shakespeare V. i. 184-186) In this way Desdemona is seen as the typical wife. Even though she herself did not sew the handkerchief. The handkerchief symbolises the silent obedient female wife. Which it supposedly would make the owner of, unless it were lost or given away. Female sexuality was seen as the monstrous in the early modern period in which the play was written. Anxieties about female desire suggest a recognition of sorts that desire is always excessive, will always move on and will always cause trouble.
It could be said that generally men are afraid of desire so they impose this onto women. In Othello it is as if Othello's denial of his own physicality is answered by Desdemona's frank admission of desire. It seems as though Othello fears Desdemona's desire because it invokes his monstrous difference from the white, educated world. Desdemona threatens to confirm his difference according to racial stereotypes about black male sexuality. (Neely) The generalisation that men are supposed to be manly can be seen in this Shakespearean play: "I took by th' throat the circumcised dog
And smote him - thus" (Shakespeare V. ii. 253-254) In these lines, Othello is both the 'I' and the 'circumcised dog'. Othello was seen as 'manly' and brave due to his military expertise. The symbolic extension of the phallus, the sword, has shown that suicide is the only honourable act left for him. He does not want to be a failure, he wants to be admirable (Callaghan, 93). Especially, being a black male he does not want to be generalised as being irrational, sexually promiscuous and credulous. Othello's race is essential to the reading of the Shakespearean play.
To fully understand the play it is essential to know of the typical generalisations made about black men. At the beginning of the play Othello seems to be nearly "white skinned" as he is a brave and honest man, but he transforms into peoples preconceptions about black men - that they are animal like, angry and dangerous (especially women). This is seen in his killing of Desdemona. The issue of gender also plays a part in the Shakespearean play. Women are associated with being sexual promiscuous so Iago uses these generalisations to make Othello see that Desdemona is like all other women.