Category Archives: podcast review

Race and Othello

So this is a subject that has been beaten to death, but I listened to Emma Smith’s (Oxford) Approaching Shakespeare podcast on Othello. I feel like it’s unfortunate that she chose this subject to be her first podcast; I’ve listened to several now and some are excellent. This one, however, I felt, not so much.

She starts off strong; similar to a Great Courses series of lectures I’ve listened to (Marc Conner argues that you can understand Shakespeare by using a set of tools he can teach you), Smith says that she will give you a set of interpretive tools that you can use to approach any Shakespeare play. This particular lecture strives to show you how to can approach Shakespeare by using the techniques of close reading, looking at Shakespeare’s sources, and genre (she also uses performance).

For better or worse, the question she wants to ask is, “What is the significance of Othello’s race?” She starts off by asking whether Shakespeare intended Othello to be a Sub-Saharan¬†black African or a North African Arab (I guess, avoiding the fact that many North Africans are not Arab), and briefly whether Othello is Muslim or not.

Eventually she gets around to mentioning that she wrote a book arguing that Othello is unavoidably a racist play. Then she mentions you’re “welcome to argue with that.” I get the feeling she is playing devil’s advocate here a bit, which is fine. From a certain perspective of course there is a racist element about the play; I’ll talk about this more when I write about both Emma Smith’s and Alan Cohen’s podcasts on The Merchant of Venice. On the question of whether Merchant is anti-semitic or not, Professor Cohen argues that it has to be, because historically, as a man growing up in the South, even as a liberal, he was racist.

On one had you can say, there were no gender or race studies departments at the Universities during Shakespeare’s time. There was no education about race or gender inequality. So post such studies, of course we are more sensitive and better educated about such subjects than any Elizabethan, including Shakespeare, could be. He probably thought he wasn’t racist, but at the same time wouldn’t let his daughters marry a blackamoor. Or so the argument goes.

The problem with this view, as enlightened as it may be, is that there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Let’s look at the evidence Smith gives to prove that Othello must be a racist play.

First, she argues that we’re encouraged to be sympathetic towards Iago and disinclined to be sympathetic towards Othello. She argues that this must be the case, because Iago is allowed to talk to the audience (via soliloquies or asides), and Othello is not. So we’re supposed to sympathize with Iago, like, for example, Hamlet, because he talks to us. In Tibetan logic, the way to answer this is to say “not necessarily.” Can you think of a character in Shakespeare who talks to the audience who we are not supposed to sympathize with? I can; have you seen Richard III? He constantly talks to the audience about how is going to steal, kill, and manipulate his way to the crown. Are we supposed to sympathize with him?

Next Smith argues that perhaps Iago’s “motiveless malignancy” is due to his dislike of Othello’s race. In Shakespeare’s original source material ,¬†Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Iago (“Ensign” in the original story) hates Othello because he’s in love with Desdemona himself. So the question is, why did Shakespeare remove this obvious motivation? (What Stephen Greenblatt calls “strategic opacity” in his book Will in the World.) Maybe, Smith suggests, it was to hide a racial motivation.

This is borderline detestable. Sure, racism may be one of the possible motivations for Iago’s hatred. He certainly tries to play on racist feeling in 1.1.91-92 (“an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.”) But does Iago hate Othello because he is black? Or because he cuckolded him? Or is it because he passed him over for promotion? Iago gives all these reasons, then says, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know” (5.2). Is Shakespeare hiding a racist motivation?

It seems unlikely. If he wasn’t afraid to write Iago’s speech to Brabantio, I don’t see why he would be afraid to let Iago confess a racist motivation. In Merchant, are the characters afraid to call Shylock “Jew”? Is Shylock afraid to say that he hates Christians? So if that’s what Shakespeare wanted us to think, why not say it? He’s not afraid to let us know that he’s an anti-semite, but he is afraid to let us know that he’s racist?

Iago is not the only character Shakespeare creates with “strategic opacity.” Is he hiding a racist motivation when King Lear asks how much his daughters love him? Because he removed Lear’s motivation from the original source. My personal theory on “strategic opacity” (I haven’t read Greenblatt’s book yet) is that Shakespeare removes obvious motivations because he doesn’t want us to think about that; he wants us to focus on the results. What is the result of hatred? Or perhaps Shakespeare is asking, is the hatred of any other human being justifiable? Can you have a reason to legitimately hate someone, or is any one reason as good as any other? “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Anyway, the last piece of evidence Smith gives here is a possible etymology for Iago’s name. Scholars have conjectured that “Iago” is a contraction of Santiago, a Saint made famous for slaughtering “Moors.” Whether this is true or not is only speculation; there is no real evidence that this is the case. But even if it is (it’s possible), then this only again implies a racial motivation among the other (possible false) motivations Iago lists, but refuses to name at the end.

And all of this ignores what Smith herself admits; you can’t say what an author’s beliefs are based on what their characters do. Shakespeare wrote characters of almost every persuasion; does that mean he condoned or agreed with all of their behavior? Was he expressing his views with which characters? In which plays?

The truth, as Smith discusses to better effect in later lectures, is that Shakespeare appears to be interested more in asking questions than giving answers. He removes the obvious motivations for his characters; he changes his source material to make his plays more ambiguous. Smith’s second lecture is on Henry V; is he a mirror (role-model) for Christian kings or a violent sociopath? The only answer you can give to that question is “yes,” because Shakespeare represents him as both in the play. So, is Othello’s race significant? Yes, it could be. No, it’s not really in the Orson Wells version. Is the play racist? Yes, it could be read or performed that way. But if you found it that way, it might say more about you and less about Shakespeare. Because what Shakespeare seems to want us to do is to ask the question.