Warning: The following article contains major spoiler alerts and some disturbing content.
Recently, another violent, racially charged tragedy occurred in the United States. On April 13, 2023, Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old African American teenager, went to pick up his twin brothers in Kansas City, Missouri. He ended up at the wrong address by accident and Andrew Lester, the white homeowner, shot him. Yarl is currently recovering. Lester is currently in custody.
If you’ve lived in the U.S. long enough, you probably know that this is unfortunately quite a common occurrence. Frequently when it happens, a swift counter-narrative emerges. We saw this, for instance, with the death of George Floyd back in May 2020. The counter-narrative was something like: “Was this crime actually racially motivated?” or “He was a ‘violent, drugged-out criminal’. So… ‘he got what he deserved!’” Floyd’s incident involved the police. Another civilian gunned down Yarl. Police officer or civilian, though, when the counter-narrative emerges, some mixture of gaslighting and/or victim-blaming comes with it. Fortunately, as far as we know, no such counter-narrative has emerged during the most recent incident.
But “preemptively expecting a counter-narrative” is yet another phenomenon that has emerged in the United States (not just with racially charged incidents but also mass shootings). So, what is the most reasonable counter-counter response? Wokeness in the traditional sense of the term and proper skepticism. I’ll extend the “culture war” critics an olive branch. It’s vital not to crowbar race into everything, and it’s also vital not to write off every mostly/completely white enclave as bigoted, but let’s not kid ourselves. This is America. We know its history. We know what kinds of incidents occur here. When it’s a racially motivated incident, we know that it is. It’s not worth convincing ourselves that it isn’t.
This leads me to the subject of today’s article. Othello (1603). Welcome back to 11th Grade English. It’s my third “Shakespeare” article, but the first to address Shakespeare’s prototypical approach to racism. Before proceeding further, it’s worth addressing a few bullet points.
First bullet point- the elephant in the room. Was Othello a racist play? Potentially. It was after all produced in 16th century London. But then again, it may be the case that it deals with racism but doesn’t necessarily endorse it. To use a modern parallel, the films Ghosts of Mississippi (1994) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) both deal with racism; but while the latter condones racism, the former doesn’t.
The second bullet point- although racism and its common attributes are timeless and universal, the type of Elizabethan racism on display in Othello is not the same as the racism we know today. Today’s racism is wide-scale, subtle, and systemic. It also has occurred in a near half-millennium’s wake of violent, oppressive, trans-continental slavery. Elizabethan racism wasn’t any more justifiable or excusable, but it certainly was different. The trans-Atlantic slave trade began in 1527. At the time Shakespeare wrote Othello, most Europeans hadn’t yet emigrated to the colonies and were completely oblivious to the horrors of slavery. There were no highways, airplanes, automobiles, smartphones, or internet. Most 16th-century people had no knowledge—or any way of gaining knowledge– of anything outside their tiny villages.
Third bullet point- Othello’s role is a complex and high-status one. Othello is a well-respected military commander. Shakespeare set the play in one of the few Renaissance locations that was in fact very diverse- Venice, Italy. Venice- a major trading port- saw travelers from all over the Renaissance-era world. Merchants arrived from the European mainland, the Near East, and North Africa. People sold sugars, spices, foodstuffs, glassware…you name it. Venice was quite heterogeneous for its time, and so the roles that people played would’ve been quite diverse as well (for its time, that is).
Fourth bullet-point- it’s arguable whether racism is the primary theme of the play. The primary theme may very well be jealousy. Namely, sexual jealousy and the type of sexual jealousy that arises when marital infidelity or the perception of marital infidelity occurs.
Othello begins in the streets of Venice. Iago converses with Rodrigo. Rodrigo is a rich but foolish young suitor of Desdemona, a woman who spurned him. He pays Iago to secure her hand in marriage for him. Iago is more than willing. Iago hates Othello, the military general who married Desdemona. Why does he hate Othello? The play makes it clear but also keeps it somewhat of a mystery. Iago married Emilia. He believes she slept with Othello. Iago desires Desdemona, and he resents Othello for promoting another soldier- Michael Cassio- to the position of lieutenant. Some critics speculate Iago may have a homosexual attraction to Othello, and, then there is the reason that seems obvious in the way he describes him (calling him “The Moor” and comparing him to livestock)- Iago is a racist.
Iago is undoubtedly one of literature’s most infamous villains. Cold, hyper-rational, and calculating, Iago puts into place a Machiavellian plot to take down Othello. First, he attempts to turn Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio, against him. When that doesn’t pan out, though, he tries another route. The military contingent (Othello, Iago, Cassio, and Rodrigo) and their wives/mistresses travel to Cyprus to put down a Turkish invasion. They resolve that, and Iago discovers a new opportunity. A moment of affection occurs between Cassio and Desdemona (Cassio grabs her hand), and Iago pounces upon that. Othello demotes Cassio for a drunken brawl he gets into, Iago advises Cassio to seek out Desdemona and plead to her husband to reinstate him (Cassio) as lieutenant, and from there all the dominoes fall in Iago’s favor.
Slowly but surely Othello spirals down a path of obsessive rage and jealousy- the notorious “green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” (Act III, Scene 2). He becomes more violent and misogynistic, and this drives a wedge between himself and his wife, and also his friends/soldiers. Ironically, the only one he (blindly) trusts is Iago (who of course deliberately deceives him). This all culminates in a very violent, brutal denouement in which Othello smothers his wife, Iago stabs his own wife when she reveals the truth, and Othello fatally stabs himself. Most Shakespearean tragedies end that way (one or more major characters die violent deaths).
One important question- which theme carries more weight: the theme of violent sexual jealousy and domestic abuse or the theme of racism? Or do they both carry equal weight? Depending on which version of Shakespeare’s work one sees, reads, or listens to, one might forget that race is a major theme in the play. This doesn’t mean that people think the topic of race and/or racism is unimportant. Rather quite the opposite.
One of the key attributes of racism is that it flattens groups of people and puts them into boxes. It gives them certain characteristics that are apparently unique and different (for better or worse). But that is inevitably why it falls apart (at least in diverse societies). There’s not one specific race or ethnicity of people we can ascribe jealousy, love, or deception to. The same goes for resentment and regret, or murder and betrayal. This is the timeless reason why Shakespeare’s plays are “timeless.” They appeal to human universalities.
But isn’t racism itself a human universality? Yes, it is, and human history contains hundreds of millions of examples of it. Several years ago (in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win), I remember speaking with a close relative who put it plainly- “the real reason behind all this current division is race.” He didn’t specifically mean black and white, though. His definition/conception included that, but it had a broader connotation; one closer to “tribalism.” The classic “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. For instance, the Irish Catholics vs. the English Protestants (1970s, Belfast); the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda (1994); the Chinese and the Uyghurs (present-day). Are those racial conflicts, ethnic conflicts, religious conflicts, or are all of those in some sense one and the same thing?
One of the great tragedies of Othello is that the human universality of racism can blind us to other major human universalities (such as love, jealousy, and anger). Recall for instance the previous year (2022). Outside of the Russian-Ukrainian War and the death of Elizabeth II, what were the biggest news stories? Ones involving rocky marriages. Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith. The infamous Red Table Talk in 2020 revealed that Jada had cheated on her husband with one of her son’s friends. Then came the “slap heard around the world.” What motivated that? As Chris Rock puts it in his Netflix special, “we all know the reason.”
Will Smith felt hurt. He felt embarrassed and angry. Smith displaced his anger onto Chris Rock, but, as the comedian put it, “she hurt him WAY more than he hurt me!” Marital infidelity…jealousy…anger…embarrassment…insecurity (perhaps)…those are all of course human universals, but people gave an angle to the “slap heard around the world” that they didn’t give to the Depp-Heard trial—race. Sadly, this is an angle that appears quite frequently. As I suggested at the beginning of the article, let’s not beat around the bush. We know why. This is America. It’s a wonderful melting pot full of freedom and opportunity, but it also has a huge, historical, and slow-healing scar.
In 1968’s film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, which stars Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier as a free-thinking white woman engaged to a black doctor (respectively), the couple meets the young woman’s parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) for the first time. The parents are wealthy, open-minded San Francisco liberals, but remember that this was still 1968. A year prior, the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia put the topic of interracial marriage on the map. At the time, miscegenation (relationships/marriages between people of different ethnic or racial groups) was a third rail, and for most of U.S. history, interracial marriage was illegal.
Othello is not a play that theaters would’ve produced throughout most of U.S. history (had Shakespeare not done so first). During the climax of 1915’s Birth of a Nation (previously mentioned) the Ku Klux Klan “saves” a young white woman from what the producers of the film (and the novel that inspired it) called “a fate worse than death.” Keep in mind, this “fate worse than death” attitude historically only tended to flow in one direction. The (in)famous story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings was no isolated incident. For centuries, countless (likely non-consentual) examples like it passed under the radar.
U.S. history is rife with examples of black men who were brutalized and lynched even for just “looking at white women a certain way,” let alone being intimate with or marrying. In 1931, the “Scottsboro Boys” (nine African American teenagers and young men, aged 13-20) were accused in Alabama of raping two white women.8 The case followed a “hobo train” altercation in which the young men (who allegedly got in a fight with other white male teenagers) were taken to jail.
While in jail, two young white women accused the black teenagers/young men of sexual assault (the two young women were not involved in the above “hobo train” altercation).8 Every black teenager/young man but one was found guilty and sentenced to death.8 The case, which was met with lynch mobs, grossly insubstantial evidence, all-white juries, and rushed trials, inspired Lead Belly’s eponymous 1938 song (“The Scottsboro Boys”). This song introduced the expression “stay woke.”
Several movies in recent years/decades have dealt with the dynamic of romantically/sexually involved white women and black men. Most notably- Get Out (2017)- Jordan Peele’s inventive, darkly comedic horror film. Another example- O (2001)- transplants Othello to a 21st century American high school (modern-day Shakespearean adaptations were common in the late 1990s/early 2000s).
At the end of Othello, Emilia (Desdemona’s best friend) curses Othello (who has just murdered his wife) as an evil “black devil.” Would her character have cursed Othello as a “devil” if Othello were white? Probably. But it’s extremely unlikely she would’ve added “white” as a qualifier. Unfortunately, medieval Europeans got rather carried away with their superstitions. “White” was good and “black” was bad. This might not have been such a harmful belief had they just stuck to the (inanimate, abstract) colors themselves. But they didn’t. They attached colors (and whatever colors allegedly signified) to people, and everything ethically and aesthetically related to people. No longer did a person simply have light or dark skin. People were “white,” “black,” “red,” or “brown.” With that, modern-day racism, and the institution of transcontinental slavery that spurred it on, was born.
The other major theme in Othello besides racism is of course jealousy. Namely, sexual jealousy, and the type of sexual jealousy that occurs within marriages. Marital infidelity was a rather common motif in many Shakespearean plays. A belief existed at the time that “cuckolds” (men whose wives cheated on them) grew antlers, and Shakespeare references that frequently. One of his lesser-known plays- The Winter’s Tale- follows Leontes, a Sicilian king who suspects that his boyhood friend, Polixenes (King of Bohemia), has had an affair with his wife, Hermione.
In The Winter’s Tale, though, no hyper-rational villain eggs him on. He arrives at his suspicions all on his own. Othello’s jealousy is intriguing though. Iago doesn’t need to feed him much to get his suspicions going. Othello is a high-ranking general. He’s reasonable, diplomatic, and fair, but he’s also gullible and self-conscious. He’s highly concerned with image. Both his wife’s image and his. Anything that threatens that ignites his jealousy, the flames of which only rise higher the more his wife denies her alleged unfaithfulness.
So, what is jealousy? According to Psychology Today, “jealousy is a complex emotion that encompasses feelings ranging from suspicion to rage to fear to humiliation. It strikes people of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations, and it typically occurs when a person perceives a threat to a valued relationship from a third party. The threat may be real or imagined…research has identified many root causes of extreme jealousy, including low self-esteem, high neuroticism, and feeling possessive of others, particularly romantic partners. Fear of abandonment is also a key motivator.”7.
In heterosexual relationships, jealousy can manifest itself in different ways. According to Science Direct, “it has often been speculated, and some evidence suggests, that men and women differ in the elicitation of jealousy: Men appear to be more likely than women to become upset over threats to sexual exclusivity; whereas women are more likely than men to react negatively to potential loss of partner time and attention.”1 Long story short (evolutionarily speaking)- Men don’t want to (unknowingly) raise children who aren’t theirs. Women don’t want to raise children alone.
Even in our modern, affluent era, jealousy still acts like it did on the veldt. You don’t have to dig deeply to find (in)infamous “crimes of passion.” The husband who finds his wife with another lover in his bedroom and shoots them both or the barfight that erupts when some guy looks at a man’s wife “the wrong way”. Then there are the real-life female killers.
On June 4, 2008, Arizona resident Jodi Arias stabbed her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, 27 times before slitting his throat and shooting him in the head.2, 3, 4. Arias, who pleaded self-defense, was convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder and sentenced to lifetime imprisonment.5 Her ex-boyfriend at the time had allegedly been planning a trip to Mexico with another woman. 11 years prior to Arias’ sentencing, Clara Harris, who owned a chain of dental offices with her husband, David Harris, ran over her husband with a car multiple times in a hotel parking lot when she found him with one of his secretaries.6 Harris was sentenced to 20 years in prison.6 Extreme jealousy is clearly no joke!
But, given Othello’s arc of jealous, murderous rage, is his character still a villain? Yes, I’d argue, but a tragic villain, like Anakin Skywalker or Daenerys Targaryen. Othello ends up on the warpath, but it is a warpath someone else has deliberated paved. Iago- who both orchestrates people’s downfalls and commits deadly violence himself- is Othello’s undeniable villain. Iago has no conscience. During Shakespeare’s time, “morality plays” were a big thing, and one of the stock characters was “Vice” (representing evil and sin). Shakespeare modeled Iago on “Vice.” Othello, on the other hand, is not a stock character. He has a conscience, but, tragically, the primal rage he succumbs to overrides it.
In the end, though, whether Othello is a villain, tragic villain, or anti-hero, he is a still a person (albeit fictional). At the nexus of Othello’s two major themes- racism and jealousy- is a third, overarching one- the theme of appearance vs. reality. The jealous rage Othello acts out upon his wife is based on the appearance/impression that she no longer loves and/or has cheated on him. The potency of emotions that arise in people in such situations are strong enough to make real-world outcomes seem tragically inevitable. But, alas, for Othello, his impressions of his wife’s alleged infidelity are just those– impressions! They aren’t real!
And that’s what racism essentially is—impressions, appearances, and prejudice (literally “judging beforehand”). People receive an appearance, tell themselves a quick story, and make a quick judgment, all before knowing the actual truth. It’s an ancient tendency; evolution and survival reinforce it. A snappy decision on the veldt could make all the difference between having or not having your head in a crocodile’s mouth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. We’ve seen its violent and tragic consequences countless times throughout history, and the shooting of Yarl earlier this month was just another example.
 Owens, Ryan (January 3, 2013). “Jodi Arias Trial: Jurors Shown Photos of Victim’s Dead Body in Shower”. ABC News. Archived from the original on October 1, 2021. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
 Glynn, Casey (January 2, 2013). “Jodi Arias trial begins in macabre ’08 murder of boyfriend Travis Alexander”. CBS News. Archived from the original on March 19, 2013. Retrieved January 2, 2013.