Challenges to Conventional Perceptions of Race in Othello

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Othello was written in 1602 by William Shakespeare, and is set in the late 16th century at the time of the wars between Venice and Turkey. The play tells the tragic story of Othello, a black military general, as he attempts to build a life with his white Venetian wife, Desdemona, despite their racial difference. In the opening scene of Othello, readers are led to believe that the play will be inherently racist, as Iago and Roderigo use disparaging racist terms to describe Othello, referring to him as “thick lips” or other discriminatory monikers. With such an opening, one would be poised to read a text infused with the conventional racist ideologies of Shakespeare’s time. However, as the play progresses and Othello’s character is developed, it becomes clear that this is not a racist work, but rather the story of an honourable tragic hero who falls victim to the evil and conniving ways of a heinous villain. In multiple ways, Othello challenges conventional perceptions of race. During the period in which Shakespeare wrote Othello, it was unheard of for a black man to hold an authoritative military position such as Othello’s, and even more so that white men would greatly revere and readily report to him. Furthermore, the play’s villainous antagonist, Iago, is white, and he is ultimately to blame for the tragedies of the story. Racism is a concept that has pervaded human history, and it is important for modern readers to recognize the challenges Othello poses to prevailing racist perceptions in order to recognize the play’s timelessness and pertinence to modern society. In the play, Othello is depicted as an honourable military general who inspires profound respect and admiration in many white citizens under his authority. In the 16th century, racism and xenophobia were prevalent throughout Europe, and it would have been simply inconceivable to Shakespeare’s audiences
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