In A Nutshell
Othello is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare around 1603. The play tells the story of a powerful general of the Venetian army, Othello, whose life and marriage are ruined by a conniving, deceitful, and envious soldier, Iago.
Othello is possibly the most famous literary exploration of the warping powers of jealousy and suspicion. At the same time, it's among the earliest literary works dealing with race and racism. Othello, undeniably heroic even if ultimately flawed, is the most prominent black protagonist in early Western literature. Othello faces constant racism from other characters, especially when he marries Desdemona, a privileged white woman whose father disapproves of the union.
The play's performance history has been marked by racism. To see a real black man and a white woman kiss onstage was seen as so unacceptable to many viewers that even in early twentieth century America, Othello had to be played by a white man in blackface. When Paul Robeson, a black American and the son of a slave, played Othello on Broadway in the 1940s, the performances electrified a still segregated nation.
Why Should I Care?
Othello's treatment of race and sexuality makes its one of Shakespeare's most relevant and controversial plays. For some, the play's portrayal of a black man who marries and then brutally murders a white woman in a fit of rage and jealousy makes Othello a racist play. For these critics, Shakespeare seems to endorse a xenophobic (anti-foreigner) attitude that was pretty common throughout England and other parts of Europe. After all, they say, the play is full of characters that express a blatant hatred of black men and foreigners, and these characters often refer to Othello as "thick-lips," the "devil," and the "old black ram" who supposedly contaminates his white wife with his hyper-sexuality. Not only that, but Othello enacts a racist stereotype (that says black men are "savage") when he strangles his wife on her bed.
Yet, for other critics, neither the action in the play nor the characters' racist attitudes makes the play (or Shakespeare) racist. For some, Othello is a play that portrays racism in a way that provokes the audience into rethinking its ideas and attitudes about race. Many critics argue that Shakespeare's play asks us to consider the tragedy of how Othello absorbs and internalizes the dominant racist attitudes that surround him. The idea is that Othello is a study of what happens when a society tells a man over and over and over again that he is violent, savage, contaminating, and to be feared. In the case of Othello, the character begins to believe it's all true and acts out a racist stereotype – that of a "savage" killer.
If you're thinking that all of this is irrelevant in a world where the first black man (that would Barack Obama) has been elected to the U.S. presidency, then you might want to consider this: In October, 2009, a white Justice of the Peace in Louisiana refused to marry an interracial couple (source). Hmm. It seems like Othello is worth checking out, wouldn't you say?