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Othello as an outsider

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Set in 16th century Venice, Othello, by William Shakespeare, explores the idea of an outsider from the very beginning of the play. Shakespeare uses Othello, a black army general, to explore the relationship of an outsider in high Venetian society using a variety of approaches. The reader sees characters consistently referring to Othello in derogatory and demeaning terms, as well as frequent implications that Othello is scarcely human. Further exploration of an outsider in society comes from Othello himself, as he outlines a few of the major differences that set him and the community apart.

Throughout the first act, a host of disparaging and select terms are used to describe Othello by a number of different characters. Referred to as “he” and “him” by Iago, the first mention of Othello leads the reader to believe that Othello does not hold a lot of merit or status with his portrayer, as he is not afforded the decency to be called by name. Another term frequently used to describe Othello, “Moor,” (or “the Moor,” “his Moorship,” etc.) derived from the race of the general, is a label that clearly sets Othello apart from the white Venetians he keeps company with. Although some use it and mean no harm, when said by the likes of Iago and Brabantio, “the Moor,” turns into a racist slur, deliberately used to undermine and ostracize Othello from society. Likewise, depictions such as “thick-lips,” and “the devil,” from Iago are further used to play on Othello’s outwardly different physical appearance, enforcing the notion that Othello is different, and an outsider in their community.

Another way Shakespeare explores the relationship of an outsider is through the implications given by various characters that Othello barely human. Describing the act of Othello and Desdemona sleeping together, (to Brabantio) Iago tells, “An old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” In this situation, Iago draws attention to the difference in both skin colour and age between the two, while at the same time implying that a corrupted Othello is stealing the innocence and purity of Desdemona. Again using animal imagery to depict Othello and his race, Iago says to Brabantio that he will have his “nephews neigh… coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.” In predicting that any of Othello’s offspring will be subhuman, Iago again suggests the extent at which Othello does not fit in with society. Another suggestion that Othello is not a normal being comes when Brabantio accuses him of bewitching his daughter: (to Othello) ‘That thou hast practised on her with foul charms/ Abused her delicate youth with drugs and minerals.” Indicating that Othello dabbles in supernatural forces, the implication appears again that he belongs to a very different race to which he lives among.

The relationship of an outsider to society is also explored through Othello himself, as he recognises the differences between him and those around him. While describing his and Desdemona’s love, Othello tells (about himself): “Rude am I in speech/ And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace.” In these words, Othello is able convey that he is a little awkward in speech, and not a smooth talker, with the unspoken understanding that others in the room are. Othello goes on, “For since these arms of mine had seven years pith/ Till now some nine moons wasted/ …in the tented field/ … little of this great world can I speak.” Here the reader learns that Othello, unlike the assortment of senators and the Duke, has spent most of his life in battle, and therefore has not had a lot of life experience to speak of or to help in his defence. Othello also makes reference of being “…sold to slavery; of my redemption thence,” describing being sold as a slave and then his escape; yet another anomaly setting Othello apart and marking him as an outsider to the Venetian high society.

Shakespeare explores the concept of the relationship of an outsider to society in Othello in a number of different ways. He plays on different characters and their emotions towards Othello, as well as descriptions afforded Othello to assist in the depiction of the man as an outsider. Racist slurs, coupled with select and derogatory terms combine to enforce the notion Othello is different, while references from others that Othello is no more than an animal, and that he has the knowledge of bad magic further set him apart. Finally, Shakespeare uses Othello himself to outline the many disparities in both his upbringing and life experiences to further portray the idea of Othello as an outsider.

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