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Shakespeare and Race: Othello's Relationship with Desdemona

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916.

It is at this point that the second of the great problems of the play emerges. The proper understanding of the relations of Othello and Desdemona is equally important with the question of the relations of lago and Othello. The exposition of these two elements of the play is set forth by the dramatist with his usual clearness, and at considerable length, but has nevertheless escaped the notice of the critics, or has been discounted as a factor in the interpretation. But it is high time to learn that whatever Shakespeare put deliberately into his dramas is to be considered in the interpretation.

The meeting of the two search parties, each seeking Othello for a different reason, brings the relations of Othello and Desdemona into prominence. The party of Cassio, with the Senate's hasty summons to Othello, serves to give dramatic importance to Othello's great ability as a commander, and to emphasize his military value to Venice. Brabantio and his troop serve to bring out the private side of Othello's character, hither-to unsuspected. When the two parties meet, Brabantio is in a very quarrelsome mood. The cool words of Othello prevent a clash between the two:

"Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them."
(I. ii. 75-6.)
The sudden danger from the Turks at Cyprus has made great dispatch necessary, and the Duke has ordered Othello before him "even on the instant." Brabantio's appeal to the Senate occurring at the same time, Othello appears before the magnificoes in the double capacity of the General of the state entrusted with a great military exploit, and as an eloper with Brabantio's daughter.

The Moor now finds that his old friend, the Signior Brabantio, formerly his admirer, has unexpectedly become his accuser before the Senate. Formerly honored as a friend and as a great soldier, and gladly admitted to Brabantio's house, Othello discovers that he is now considered an enemy, and execrated as the husband of Brabantio's daughter. For the first time, possibly, Othello becomes aware of the fact that he is not accepted on terms of full and exact equality in all particulars with the Venetians. It is likely, however, that Othello had feared this, and so took Desdemona in marriage without asking her father, evidently satisfied that as a black man he could not obtain Brabantio's consent.

When the matter is brought before the Senate, Brabantio's objections to Othello all have to do with his difference of race and color. He thinks it utterly unnatural for Desdemona to accept him willingly and knowingly. He cannot conceive how his daughter, a fair maid of Venice, could consent to marry a man of Othello's color and nationality, unless in some way out of her senses. So preposterous does it appear to him that he must suppose Othello has charmed her with drugs and magic. He cries out in his desperation:

"She is abus'd, stolen from me, and corrupted
By spells, and medicines, bought of mountebanks;
For nature, so preposterously to err,
(Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense)
Sans witch-craft could not."
(I. iii. 75-9.)
He reiterates his belief that it is "against all rules of nature," and speaks of Othello's supposed magic as "practices of cunning hell." Brabantio, at least, thinks the marriage of Moor and Venetian, of black and white, to be utterly preposterous and unnatural, and doubtless the other Senators shared this conviction. It seems likely that this was also the opinion of the dramatist, for there is abundant evidence that it was always so regarded on the Elizabethan stage. Only the development of the drama will show how far Shakespeare sympathizes with this opinion.

Two deeds upon the part of Othello have now brought him into active collision with other persons, and the two are related to each other. Because of his obligations to Cassio in the matter of his love-making with Desdemona he has appointed him to an important position over lago, thus making an enemy of his faithful officer. He has also stolen away Desdemona from her father, and secretly married her, making an enemy of Brabantio, who had been one of his greatest admirers among the Senate. In both cases there is evidence of his callousness and dullness of mind. Up to this point Othello had been able to carry successfully his exalted responsibility in his adopted state, but in these matters he makes a complete break-down. Not even his superior military training could save him. He could perform well the duties of military life, but now it begins to be evident that he is not fitted for the higher and more exacting arts of peace, and especially of love, in a civilized state. When Othello leaves "the tented fields" for the streets and homes of a refined city he utterly goes to pieces, and whatever sense of honor he may have had speedily gives place to a dangerous caprice. An unsuspected weakness, or deficiency, in his character is thus laid bare, upon which the whole tragedy will later be seen to turn.

This deficiency, it is now important to notice, the play implies is due to his racial character, and comes from the fact that he is a Moor. The half- civilized Othello is but ill adapted for life in civilized and cultured Venice. Some critics endeavor to make out that nothing whatever of the happenings of the play are in any way connected with the fact that Othello is a Moor. They allege he is nothing but a man, though he happens to be a black man. His color, they say, is an entirely indifferent matter in the play, and can be all but ignored in the interpretation. On this assumption, however, the many references to his color and race throughout the play cannot well be explained. This view takes for granted that the dramatist heaps up idle words having no significance, and refuses to believe that there was a meaning in all he wrote. It is not necessary to hold, as Professor Bradley would have us believe, that the dramatist must be credited with clear doctrines of Kulturgeschichte if we are to maintain that he made the problem of Othello at least in part a problem of race. Feelings of racial differences did not have to wait for the Germans of later times to write histories of culture. In Shakespeare's day the discovery of new lands and new peoples must have impressed all thoughtful Europeans with the conception of their own superiority in all the arts and character of civilized life. And the play makes Othello quite as conscious as any one else of his diversity of race, though it is to other causes that he assigns his want of grace and culture.

When charged before the Senate with the abduction of Desdemona, Othello's defence consists of a frank and free admission that he had taken Brabantio's daughter, and an apologetic account of his "whole course of love." He pleads that he is "little blest with the soft phrase of peace," for he has spent all his life in "feats of broils, and battle." (I. iii. 104 ff.) In the course of his apology, his "round unvarnished tale" becomes eloquent with a barbaric sincerity and splendor that almost enlists the sympathy of the Senate. The story of "the battle, sieges, fortune" he had passed is almost as potent with the senators as it had been with Desdemona, who, he says,

"lov'd me for the dangers I had passed,
And I lov'd her, that she did pity them."
(I. iii. 190-1.)
He further says he is ready to abide by the decision of Desdemona, and advises the senate to call her to speak for herself. He considers the marriage to be a matter for themselves alone, and implies that the lady has a right to choose her husband without her father's consent.

There are numerous Shakespearean plays which seem to bear out the idea that the dramatist thought it to be the woman's right to choose her own husband, without meeting her father's wishes in the matter. But there are many differences, and these must be given consideration. Shakespeare undoubtedly approves such choice when it means a larger and fuller life. Juliet disobeyed a tyrannical and hateful father to find a larger life and a true spiritual union with Romeo. In the same spirit Imogen refused the coarse and villainous Cloten, to join hands and hearts with the virtuous Posthumus. The lovely Jewess, Jessica, ran away from the miserly Shylock to marry the Christian, Lorenzo, and at the same time accepted the religion of her husband. In all these cases the maidens found their true life with the men of their own choice, and the dramatist gives his verdict in making their love happy and successful, and in bringing out of their marriage a larger good to all.

There are in these and other instances, however, many differences from the case of Othello and Desdemona. It is not so much the wilful disrespect to her father that is the fault of Desdemona, though some critics make a great deal of this, but the fact that in marrying Othello she showed a wilful disregard of her own highest interests. It can scarcely be maintained that the marriage of Othello and Desdemona was a complete spiritual union, for there were too many diverse elements that at the time seemed incompatible and in the end proved entirely irreconcilable. It is true, of course, that as in the case of Juliet the passion of love transformed Desdemona from a meek and blushing maiden into a strong and self-reliant woman. There need be no attempt to deny the reality of the love of these two, and its effect upon their development, but it was not strong enough or natural enough to overcome all its enemies, as a true and natural love like that of Romeo and Juliet can do. Under some conditions it is possible that their love might have outlived their lives and overcome its handicaps, yet it is to miss the art of this drama not to see that the dramatist is here showing its unnaturalness by placing it in the conditions that test it to the uttermost and that reveal its weakness and bring it to defeat.

When Desdemona is brought into court to speak for herself in the matter of the marriage, she declares that she freely and lovingly takes Othello for her husband, and intimates that she is willing to take all the consequences of that act. She affirms her love for the Moor, and her desire to live with him, and requests to be permitted to accompany him to Cyprus. She says she understands fully what she is doing, recognizes Othello as a Moor, but that she accepts him as he is, or, as her words imply, she finds compensation for his color in the quality of his mind, in his honors, and in his courage:

"My heart's subdu'd
Even to the very quality of my lord;
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honors and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate."
(I. iii. 278-282.)
Seeing her determination and her willingness to abide by her decision, her father accepts what seems inevitable, but leaves them with the needless and cruel mark:
"Look to her (Moor) if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee."
(I. iii. 323-4.)
These words let us see where Desdemona got her wilfulness, and relieve us of the necessity of grieving much over the sorrows of her father in this most unfortunate marriage.

In some recent criticism there has been an attempt to glorify the purity and beauty of the love of Othello and Desdemona, and to place it among the most spiritual of the loves of Shakespeare. Professor Bradley speaks of Desdemona's choice of Othello as rising "too far above our common level," and adds: "There is perhaps a certain excuse for our failure to rise to Shakespeare's meaning, and to realize how extraordinary and splendid a thing it was in a gentle Venetian girl to love Othello, and to assail fortune with such a downright violence and storm as is expected only in a hero." But this is only another instance of that fanciful criticism that makes a new Shakespeare, and yet thinks it is interpreting the old. If Goethe's suggestions for the re-casting of Hamlet in order to express better the meaning have not helped but hindered the understanding of Shakespeare's drama, we should learn the lesson of letting the dramatist have his way. Some of the critics before Professor Bradley have more truly seen the character of the love of Othello and Desdemona. Professor Dowden has observed that "In the love of each there was a romantic element; and romance is not the highest form of the service which imagination renders to love. For romance disguises certain facts, or sees them, as it were, through a luminous mist."1

Snider has noticed that the qualities in Othello that attract Desdemona are "his bravery against external danger," that is, physical rather than mental or moral qualities, and that "no feats of mind, or skill, or cunning are recorded."2 Her love, indeed, seems to be a kind of romantic fascination, a love of the sensuous imagination, what Professor Herford properly calls "a perilous ecstasy of the idealizing brain without secure root in the heart."3 The last mentioned writer shows clear insight when he contrasts the love of Othello and Desdemona with that of Romeo and Juliet, which so "completely possesses and occupies their simple souls, that they present no point of vantage for distintegrating forces."4 Apparently it needs to be said over again that no conflict arose between Romeo and Juliet, but that all their trouble was with a world arrayed against them. But, between Othello and Desdemona, on the other hand, a most distressing conflict arose that almost completely overshadowed the original conflict and ended only in the greatest catastrophe of the drama. Instead of bearing a comparison, the loves of the two plays are in almost every way a contrast.

The marriage of Othello and Desdemona was a union of different races and colors that the sense of the world has never approved. The marriage of black and white seems always to have been repulsive to an Elizabethan, and dramatists before Shakespeare had always presumed that to be the case. Shakespeare no doubt shared this feeling, for in the two plays where no doubts on the matter are possible he follows the usual tradition. Assuming he had a part in writing the play, he has made Aaron, the Moor of Titus Andronicus, not only repulsive but a veritable brute and as cruel as Marlowe's Barabas. And in The Merchant of Venice, about whose authorship there can be no doubt, and which is earlier than Othello, he had previously portrayed a Moor as a suitor for the hand of Portia, and presented him as unsuccessful. When the Prince of Morocco chooses the golden casket, only to find "a carrion death" awaiting him, Portia remarks:

"A gentle riddance: draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so."
(II. vii. 80-1.)
His color is recognized as a natural barrier that makes him a very unwelcome suitor. Even his royalty is not to Portia a sufficient compensation. Othello, too, feeling that some compensation must be offered, pleads before the senate his "royal lineage," apparently wishing them to infer that with this outer advantage he becomes the equal of his wife. Desdemona likewise offers her plea and says she has found the necessary compensation in his "mind" and in his "valiant parts." But this does not appear to any of the other persons of the drama or to the dramatist as sufficient. Marriage makes a demand for absolute equality between the parties, and is likely to prove fatal in those cases where apologies and excuses are necessary.

It has not generally been observed that Shakespeare makes more of this racial difference than did Cinthio, the Italian original. To Cinthio it is almost entirely a matter of a difference of color, which in itself is external though not unimportant. But to Shakespeare, who always reads deeper than others, it is on the surface a matter of color, but at bottom a matter of racial divergence that amounts to an incompatibility of character.


FOOTNOTE 1: Shakspere His Mind and Art, p. 232, 13th edition, 1906.
FOOTNOTE 2: Shakespeare Commentaries: Tragedies, p. 95, St. Louis, U. S. A., 1807.
FOOTNOTE 3: Eversley Shakespeare, Vol. VIII., p. 290.
FOOTNOTE 4: Ibid., p. 290.

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How to cite this article:

Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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