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Othello: A Timeless Play



Many people see Shakespeare as one of the greatest playwrights throughout history. One of the reasons that make him a great playwright is the fact that he was fearless in raising controversial issues and themes in his plays; looking specifically at his play Othello, racism and sexism are two of the major themes. While Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience may have focused on race as the central issue in this play, modern audiences probably find the sexism towards women in the play problematic; therefore more engaging. This is what makes Othello a timeless play.

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If we take a look specifically at the issue of race and racism in the play, Othello, we would see that “Shakespeare’s modern audiences live in a much more multicultural society that Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience did”(Hunter,2). The fact that we are more multicultural today than the English society during the Elizabethan era results in the fact that we have no problem with Othello’s blackness.

Taking a look at the article, Othello and colour prejudice, Hunter says: ” The Elizabethans had little or no interaction with Moors.” This quote shows that Elizabethans view towards blacks was more a view of unfamiliarity. They may have found it unusual that Shakespeare used a black, unfamiliar, man as his hero in this play.  Another reason that made Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience sensitive towards Othello’s blackness was since ” The majority of plays, poems, etc. associated blacks with something negative” (Hunter, 4). This sentiment that the Elizabethans had towards blacks, could help us understand why the Elizabethans might have had a problem with a black hero in one of the biggest plays at the time. This feeling of hate and unfamiliarity that Elizabethans had towards blacks is completely different with the notion we have today. Finally, Shakespeare made a black moor his hero, and since the play is a tragedy, a tragic hero. This tragic hero must’ve been someone that the audience could have attached themselves to. Shakespeare overcame the issue of the audience attaching themselves to Othello by portraying Othello nobly. If Shakespeare used a black person as this tragic hero today he would have no problem and there would be no negative controversy surrounding it. Therefore, we can conclude that the modern audiences would not have had much of an issue with Othello’s race but the Elizabethans may have had a problem with a black man being a hero in this play.

On the other hand, if we look at the issue of sexism, we as modern audiences do have different views on sexism than Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience did; we do see sexism and misogyny towards the female characters of the play is an issue.

In today society sexism and mistreatment of women is not acceptable, yet there are still many stereotypes and sexist jokes targeting women. There are even cases of exploitation towards women. These jokes and stereotypes make the majority of the play, Othello’s, modern audiences very sensitive towards sexism and misogyny in the play.

More specifically, Shakespeare’s modern audiences cannot accept the injustice towards characters such as Emilia or Desdemona. Especially Desdemona, since she is the purest character and does absolutely no wrong. She loved Othello throughout the play and remained the staunch wife she was even though she knew death was a possible outcome of their relationship. Even when she was being murdered, she still remained obedient.

 This mistreatment specifically towards Desdemona acts like salt on the wound; it makes the modern audiences burst into flames and question why Desdemona and other women were treated the way they were. One final reason that makes us much more respectful towards women both nowadays and in the play, is because of the roles that women play in today society; women are much more involved in the society nowadays than they were during the Elizabethan era. Nowadays, women have really high and important roles; these roles that women have today and the respect they have gained, make us as modern audiences respectful of them and very sensitive towards sexism; that is why we have an issue with the misogyny and mistreatment of the women in the play.

Yet, looking at Shakespeare’s original audience, his Elizabethan audience, they saw the discrimination against women in the play as something common.

Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience did not have much respect for women and were a much more sexist society than we are today. They probably did not see sexism and the misogyny in the play as an issue.

We do not have to dig deep into the play to see sexism. A good example would be Barbentio talking about her own daughter: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: she has deceived her father and may thee.” (1.3.289). This quote from Barbentio points to one of the many negative concepts surrounding women; them being deceitful. Even Othello, who purely loved Desdemona, to some extent, believes these stereotypes; Iago: “She did deceive her father, marrying you,…Othello: And so she did.” (3.3.238-241)

 This quote and other quotations like this give us a general idea of how the society looked at women at the time and more specifically towards the women in the play. That is one of the reasons why they were not much bothered about the injustice towards women in the play.

Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience’s view on the injustice towards females was another key factor that shaped the Elizabethan’s view on sexism in the play. As a human being, Elizabethans did see the injustice towards women and partially felt sorry for the characters in the play such as Desdemona; but at the same time, they did accept the injustice because of the lack of respect they had for women. They did not see much of an issue with sexism in the play since they were relatively sexist society. One last reason that explains the sexism and misogyny present in the Elizabethan era, originates from the roles that women played at the time. Dr. Farah Cooper talks about the 3 major roles women played at the time in her article, Sexism In Othello In this article she states “Women were not in charge of important duties…, they had usually the role of housewives…, they were not expected to talk about important matter” (Cooper,1) She also points to the roles that women had in the play: Housewives (Desdemona), maids (Emilia), and prostitutes (Bianca). These roles were also the three major roles that women had during the Elizabethan era; of course, with the exception of the queen. The lack of involvement of women in important matters along with the minor roles they had, resulted that the male-dominated society treated them as inferiors. Eventually leading the Elizabethan audience to be less abhorring and less challenging towards the way women were treated in the play.

The techniques used by Shakespeare in his play, Othello, give us an idea of the views of his original audiences about the themes in the play. His Elizabethan audience had an issue with Othello’s race but did not feel much of an issue with the sexism in the play. As Shakespeare’s modern audiences, we do not have a problem with Othello’s race but we do see the injustice towards the female characters in the play as an issue. The fact that this play is still relevant today, makes Othello a great play and Shakespeare a timeless playwright.


?      Cooper, Farah Karim. “Women in Othello.” Othello: Playing Shakespeare , 4 Feb. 2015

?      Hunter, George K. Othello and colour prejudice. British Academy, 1968

?      Mutlu, Kader. “Racism in Othello.” Journal of History Culture and Art Research, vol. 2,            .         no. 2, Feb. 2013

?      Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. Ed. Roma Gill,        O      Oxford University Press, 1989, pp 1-173