Within Othello, Shakespeare uses people’s racist thoughts and preconceptions as a basis for thematic interpretation. The play exhibits many universal themes, such as lust, ambition, jealousy and betrayal, however the racist paradigm evident within the text is unusual for the Shakespearean era. Both “Othello and Desdemona instinctively act according to principles of racial equality and sexual freedom”, providing intrinsic value and adding to the rich and allusive aspect of the text. The racist stereotype is created by the white hegemony and is sustained because it disadvantages the minority races.
For example, Othello starts as a good, honest and noble man, but he is socially incompetent and is easily manipulated, transforming into the savage, the stereotype provides for. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy, set up by the Aristotelian tragic structure. Within the structure there must be a person of noble proximity who falls from grace. However “as there may well be different structures, each internally consistent”, thematic interpretations of Othello may differ from the dominant reading. The Aristotelian structure provides for an interpretation of Othello’s social dynamics.
On the other hand the racist paradigms incorporated in the text, provide an alternative interpretation. It is racism that socially disadvantages Othello, and ultimately decides his fate. This alternate reading, through a racist paradigm, provides a structure and shapes the interpretation of Othello discussed here. The language in Othello is masculinised and patriarchal and the period of the play is post-colonial. This is evident through the presence of a black man, within Western society and through commodification, providing for social structure and a hierarchical system.
In line with the Aristotelian model, Othello must be of high status; however his high status is rare, because he is of a different ethnicity. Additionally Desdemona marries an older black man, which would have been considered a social outrage. The prejudice and racist concepts in Othello are apparent in Brabantio’s speech patterns. “She is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted by spells and medicines brought of mountebanks”, displays a racist paradigm in the form of derogatory terms and misconception of spiritual archetypes of the African ethnicity.
Characterisation, as construed by other characters, is a key theme of social acceptability. He then goes on to say that it goes “against all rules of nature”, implying it breaks the greater chain of being, in which “everything in the world has its own place”. This exemplifies the racist social dynamics within Othello, and sustains intrinsic values and paradigms. Brabantio adheres to these values, so strongly, that he thinks of Desdemona as a commodity, and the association of a black man with his daughter, forces him to disown her.
Social dynamics, such as the ones mentioned, highlight the racist paradigm. They are a reoccurring dynamic and help structure Othello’s fate. The black stereotype that Othello fulfils can be analysed in his soliloquy in Desdemona’s bedchamber, Act 5. A soliloquy is mandatory for the Aristotelian model, and helps structure the play. It also allows for further in-depth study of the psychodynamics behind Othello and his stereotypical behaviour. It is apparent that Othello is so overwhelmed by anger, that he convinces himself that Desdemona “must die, else she’ll betray more men”.
To a modern audience, murder seems rather extreme, yet it can be argued that he loves Desdemona so much, that he must kill her, which is representative of the stereotypical savage that Othello has become. The soliloquy is a climax in the play, with dramatic tension building via rhyming couplets and repetition, an example being “put out the light, and the put out the light”. Othello repeats himself, as he is steeling himself to kill Desdemona, and his words help him justify his action.
As stated by Schechner, “Criticism, like other areas of human investigation, suffers from a superabundance of tools and knowledge”, therefore, Othello’s soliloquy can be interpreted differently depending on people’s values. Although this paper would argue that the soliloquy gives an example of Othello succumbing to the racist paradigm, and interprets Othello, as being entirely to blame for such a horrific tragedy. Soliloquys are not only a key aspect of Shakespeare’s tragic plays, they also allow for individual thematic interpretation of the text and characters.
My name that was as fresh, as Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black, as mine own face”, as quoted by Othello, is an important passage, within the play. This quote is the first sign of Othello’s psychodynamics changing as he starts to suspect Desdemona. He suggests that his reputation is stained, due to the actions of his wife. He sees himself as a decrepit, black man, highlighting that Othello has consolidated the racist ideologies of his society. Within the passage, Othello uses racial discourse, to compare his former reputable face to Dian, the moon goddess.
This acts as an example of binary opposition, juxtaposing his inherited skin colour, which infers that he is lacking in hubris. All tragic heroes must have some level of hubris. Othello lacking in hubris suggests that the play is not so much an Aristotelian model. Othello then goes on to juxtapose, his primer status of importance by comparing it to “begrimed and black”, further elucidating that Othello has fallen to the racist paradigm, in which he has so easily been misled.
The passage signifies the stereotype taking a hold of Othello, structuring how the audience, interprets this change in plot. Through the context of the period, the language used, and the key thematic techniques used in the Aristotelian model, social dynamics, and racist prejudice can be clearly identified. It is consistent and “serves as a basis for production or thematic interpretation”. It can then be argued that racist paradigm, shape this play, as the tragic unfolds, through Othello giving in to racist paradigm, and becoming known savage stereotype.