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Racism was apparent during Queen Elizabeth's reign in the seventeenth century. Just white Englishmen had strength and liberty. During this time period, the sense of black was associated with mud, foulness, and soil. The black men were viewed as having evil and being wicked. Shakespeare produced a protagonist in Othello that embodied some of these views toward black men. Shakespeare produced Othello, a Moor with moral ancestry who was sold as a slave and then freed to become a soldier. In the play, most of the characters show some form of racism towards the protagonist Othello. His black color is not only a sign of physical isolation in the society but also as a symbol, to which each of Shakespeare’s characters must respond, Othello included. From this play, several interpretations have come up. Oliver Parker and Wilson Milam have interpreted the play into films. In the two films, Globe Othello by Wilson Milam and Othello by Oliver Parker, racism is evident in many scenes similar to Shakespeare’s play.
Racism in Film Adaptations of Shakespeare’s Othello
In 1995, Oliver Parker, the director of Othello succeeded to interpret Shakespeare’s Othello and create a compelling film. This film is a fine redaction of Shakespeare’s play. Oliver Parker put together visual cues and Shakespeare’s art of language to stress the theme of racism in Othello. In the film, racism is evident in several scenes such as the actor in the role of Othello is black, the racial language used in the film, and music and camera focus in the film (Parker). In 2007, the first Globe’s film of Othello was directed by Wilson Milam. This film was another interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello (Milam, Eamonn, and Shakespeare).
Racism is defined as discrimination towards individuals of a different race. In both Parker Othello and globe Othello, examples of racism are several throughout the conversations between the characters in the films. In the two films, the main characters who are racist and they display racist attitudes are Iago acted by Kenneth Branagh in Parker’s film and Tim Mclnnerny in Milam’s film. Roderigo acted by Michael Maloney in parker’s film and Sam Crane in Milam’s film, Brabantio acted by John Stahl in Milam’s film, and Emilia acted by Anna Patrick in Parker’s film and Lorraine Burroughs in Milam’s film (Milam, Eamonn, and Shakespeare; Parker). These characters’ racism comments and actions are mainly towards Othello, a brave soldier from Africa and he holds the position of supreme commander of the Venetian army.
In the first film directed by Oliver Parker, Othello, the film does not bring out the desirable characteristics that manifest in the black character, Othello. In the original Shakespeare’s play, this protagonist is given the descriptions of a brave soldier. Moreover, he also is said to have an endless, loving, moral character, and Lodovico describes him as “the noble Moor whom our full senate call all in all sufficient… Nature whom passion could not shake whose solid virtue the shot of accident, nor dart of chance” (Shakespeare). All these desirable characteristics are not evident in the film Othello by Oliver Parker as the director avoids bringing out these positive characteristics. This act in the film places Othello as a bad character. He is sidelined due to his skin color, and his desirable character is omitted to place emphasis on Othello's black color. The Globe film by Wilson Milam covers the positive characters that Othello has an indication that the black people are now valued in the 21st century.
Throughout Parker Othello and globe Othello, Iago is the most racist character. In Act 1 scene 1, Iago’s racist character is seen in a conversation between him and Roderigo. In their conversation, Roderigo asks Iago, "I thought you hated him!” Iago replies, "Of course, I hate him!” (Milam, Eamonn, and Shakespeare; Parker). They do not mention who they are talking about, an indication of how they did not value him. Later it is known that it was about Othello. Several factors trigger this hatred and racism against Othello from both Roderigo and Iago. Roderigo in this scene is seen as a stereotype. He becomes extremely troubled when he learns that Desdemona, a girl that he loved, has run away with Othello. Roderigo has been making attempts for several months to have Desdemona to love him, but he did not succeed. Roderigo, like several other protagonists in the two films, then talks ill of Othello. He directs racial insults towards Othello to bring out a picture of a less significant person. In this first scene, Roderigo says, "What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe," (1, 1, 72-73), this was to condemn Othello for taking Desdemona.
In the conversation, Iago is bitter with Othello for choosing Cassio as his lieutenant instead of Iago as he had expected. Iago viewed Cassio, a mathematician who only knew about the battle from readings, as not qualified for the position. Iago tells Roderigo that he had made attempts to convince Othello to pick him as his lieutenant. However, Othello did not fall for all the attempts, and he ended up choosing another guy named Michael Cassio (Shakespeare). Iago believes that Cassio will not be of importance in battlefields. He is upset that he is still at the lower rank, and he is mandated to carry a flag in war instead of holding Cassio’s position of second-in-command to Othello.
“One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damned in a fair wife,
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster—unless the bookish theatric,
Wherein the togèd consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practice
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election;
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be beleed and calmed
by debtor and creditor. This counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be (1.1.21-34)
Iago is bitter, and he promises he will get his payback. He will only play to love Othello and follow his orders, but he has a plan to use any chance he gets to betray Othello. However, Iago does not portray his racism and bitterness to Othello’s face, and he chooses to go behind his back and say things against Othello. After the argument, Iago proposes that they go now to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, and cause a commotion. At Brabantio’s house, Brabantio is asleep, and they show up and make a commotion. They shout at the sleeping Brabantio. They warn him that he should be careful with thieves and his daughter, Desdemona. Iago shouts at Brabantio, “Awake! What ho, Brabantio! Thieves, thieves! Look at your house, your daughter, and your bags! Thieves, thieves!” (1.1.86-88). Iago refers to Othello as a thieve. In the Elizabethan period, the black people were referred to as thieves because of their dark skin color considered to be evil.
After Brabantio is awake, the news that his daughter has run away with Othello has delivered by Iago using racist remarks.
“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!” (1.1.97-101)
In the remarks by Iago, “old black ram” refers to Othello who is having a sexual relationship with Brabantio's “white ewe,” Desdemona. In this scene in the film by Oliver Parker, Iago effectively uses racism to turn Brabantio against Othello and to provoke him so that he can see the danger of allowing his daughter to mix races with Othello through sex and marriage. Starting from the first scene throughout the films, it is evident that Iago is the worst racist. Iago uses viciously racist dialect to make Brabantio’s blood boil because Othello has wed his daughter. These remarks are full of racism as he views the black man, Othello, to have an animal-like characteristic.
Roderigo and Iago say that Brabantio's daughter is immoral when she eloped with Othello. Iago continues the theme of racism by degrading Othello. Iago refers to Othello as a Barbary Horse, and he warns Brabantio that,
“Because we come to
do you service and you think we are ruffians, you'll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse,
you'll have your nephews neigh to you, and you'll have
coursers for cousins and jennets for Germans. (1.1.126-127)
The choice of words by Iago towards Othello to use animal descriptions in his criticism is based on the belief that black people, unlike the white, are inhuman. Iago leaves, and Roderigo is left to convince Brabantio that his daughter is at the Moor's bed. Roderigo in his efforts tries to convince Brabantio to check Desdemona’s room, but Brabantio objects to these allegations that Desdemona has run away.
“This is Venice. My house is not a grange.
I am one sir that comes to tell you your daughter
and the Moor are now making the beast with
two backs.” (1.1.129-131)
He says that his house is not a grange to refer to a farmhouse. Iago takes the opportunity, and he makes use of the term grange. Due to the black color of Othello, Iago refers to him as a Barbary horse, who is having sex with Desdemona. As a result, the two will have offspring that neigh. Iago further describes the lovemaking between Desdemona and Othello as making the beast with two backs. He compares their sexual relationship to that of camels. On hearing this, Brabantio turns against Othello and sees him as a minor human being because of his degraded race. The action by Iago to be able to convince Brabantio to turn against Othello by using Othello's physical appearance shows how racism is manifested in the films.
Brabantio does not believe that the Moor could convince Desdemona to escape with him. He believes that Othello must have tricked his daughter, by using witchcraft on the girl to fall in love with him. A now frustrated Brabantio wishes Roderigo, a white man, had married his daughter instead of the black man, Othello. They now set to go and look for Desdemona
“O heaven! How got she out? O treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds
By what you see them act. Is there not charms
By which the property of youth and maidhood
Maybe abus’d? Have you not read, Roderigo,
Of some such thing?”
Iago thinks of replacing Othello as the commander of the army because of his color, but he notes that the state cannot afford to replace him at the moment since it entered into war in Cyprus. The state had no match to Othello’s ability as a commander of the army, and no individual can rival Othello. The state needed his services despite the fact that he was considered a minority in the state.
In conclusion, racism is evident in both films. There is no mention of Othello’s name in the conversations between Roderigo, Iago, and Brabantio. Othello is referred to using different names such as thief, old black ram. All these names are to associate Othello to bad characters. In referring to Othello as a black ram, the other characters in Parker’s Othello think that black color is associated with animalism. In the 1995 film, racism is more evident to showcase how people in this period were racist than in the period 2007. In the 2007 film, racism is only present to bring out a genuine edition of Shakespeare’s play. Thus, this difference in the level of racism in both films can be blamed on the period of setting the films.
Milam, Wilson, Eamonn Walker, and William Shakespeare. Othello. London: Heritage Theater, 2007.
Parker, Oliver, and William Shakespeare. Othello: A Screenplay. , 1995. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. , 2014. Print.
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