Well, I read it once or twice a year and teach it, so I am not going on long
memory. The Senators make clear that war in Cyprus matters more, and
the Duke says that if virtue is inner, Othello is more white than black
(paraphrase). And I said nothing about the play as a whole validating it.
But the unnaturalness of it comes to be believed by Othello, even, in his
most wretched moments. When I say "unnatural" I am not being
anachronistic. There are clusters of images from beginning to end of the
play that link the marriage with bestiality, witchcraft, charms, demons,
etc. And it is described that way.
It is true that this is all set up initially by Iago and Roderigo, but it works.
And the point is that the ideas about blackness are there to play with.
Brabantio is the first to buy into it no doubt because it's his daughter. But
one could argue that it is one of the main forms of language in the play. It
sets up Brabantio's objection and runs through the constant idea of not
being who you are--that is, being not your "natural" self.
You may certainly read it differently, but I am not simply applying a
modern idea anachronistically---I do read the words.
Date sent: Tue, 21 Jan 2003 00:25:56 -0600
Send reply to: "T. S. Eliot Discussion forum." <[log in to unmask]>
From: Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: More on racism
To: [log in to unmask]
Nancy Gish wrote:
> I don't claim to know about the history of racist thought in any
> specific terms, but how can you say there is no expressed horror at
> intermarriage in Othello? It is constantly called unnatural. "An old
> black ram is tupping your white ewe." It is allied with bestiality,
> witchcraft, and theft, and Brabantio says it could not have happened
> unless she was made unnatural because he is not white or young or
> Venetian. It is not about being ugly.
First of all, the ruleres (Senators? it's been a long time since I read the
play) don't accept Brabantio's argument, and certainly the play, as a total
action, does not disapprove of the marriage. And I think your particular
emphasis on "unnatural" here is anachronistic. There must be a comedy
someplace where a young woman loves a man with a twisted back or a
big nose, and someone says it's _unnatural_ for a pretty young woman to
love such an ugly critter. "Nature" is always a tricky word. A black ram,
after all, is not "unnatural." There's plenty of sexual horror in Shakespeare,
and it is out "modern" eyes that sees it as "racist" in this case.
The "different" has always been feared, seen as ugly, etc etc, but that is
simply of a different order of magnitude as the whole structure of racism
in 19th century u.s.
In 1806 a white man was hanged in North Carolina for selling a free
black man into slavery. In a few decades free blacks lost all rights.
Eighteenth-century laws which _seem_ to be "racial" turn out, when
examined carefully to refer to social position, not race. It is just too
easy to project modern attitudes back into earlier periods.