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The Shakespearean tragedy "Othello" has got the distinction of being one of the most debated one in terms of racial intones of the characters in the long history of English Literature. The work that has received intense scrutiny that is due towards any work of Shakespeare, due to its dual nature of popularity and universal appeal, has till this date not produced an uniform view on the fundamental issue of racism. There is difference of opinion among critics as to the fact of whether Shakespeare would reflect his observation of the racial tones of England in Elizabethan era in his work or was he portraying his own disposition towards the foreign elements that were introduced to his society at that point.
Othello is portrayed as a Moorish general in the Venetian army and the term "moor" by itself is a vestige of ambiguity as the Oxford dictionary meaning relating it to 'a person of dark colour' which can be open for interpretation as some one from Afro-American, Arabic or Indian subcontinent. Over the time the public perception on this topic has kept on changing as can and which prompts some critics to conclude that Othello's race was ambiguous (Honigmann, 2001). The main theme that is pointed out by Bartels in her dissertation is that "by contrasting black and white, the dramatist simultaneously uncovers the complex relations between two races, revealing that cultural differences may result in tragedy."(Bartels, 1990)
The tragedy is not only by virtue of difference in races, it is also an extension of the difference in stature of Othello and Desdemona which is so ably manipulated by the villainous Iago to exert a wedge in their relations, leading up to the final tragedy of their unfortunate lives. There are many references in the play to the difference in stature of Desdemona, who is a Senators daughter and Othello who is a general in a mercenary army. The fact that Othello is a high ranking general despite his background makes it a further case for racial prejudice. As Vaughan points out, the role of a General was not an easy one, "to exact his soldiers willing obedience, a General had to set an example. If they were to control their passions, he must control his" (Vaughan, 1994) The play that embodies the overflowing passions of main characters, whether it be of love, greed, envy, lust or the all consuming jealousy is a testament of breach of this rule at all corners.
One of the characters who assumes a central role is that of Iago, who by virtue of his cunning ability to befriend and manipulate people with more talent and social stature than him, weaves the web of deception to which Othello and Desdemona fall prey. On the onset of the play, the root cause for his hatred towards Othello is revealed, which stems from the progression of Cassio to higher rank above him. This reflects the theory that age rather than talent in Iago's view are more important in career progression.
The play has a wide spectrum of themes and emotions that are played out by the characters. The concept of a pious Englishman against the "others" who are tainted with barbarian, black nature is played out again and again with the insults panned out to Othello in the different stages of the play. According to Kolin, all the male characters suffer affliction of alcohol and other 'Macho' problems, while the females like Desdemona acquire the perseverance of Goddesses. (Kolin,2002p;228 ) The feminine perseverance, tolerance and innate ability to forgive is reflected time and again by Desdemona who even in her last breaths frees Othello from blame.
There is little that can be added to the numerous interpretations and symbolism drawn from this timeless masterpiece of Shakespearean writing. Othello is regarded as the 'most romantic tragedy' by many critics and while there is ambiguity in regards to the themes played out, there is universal acknowledgement of this play being one of the most treasured works of English literature unto posterity.