Othello versus Caliban – Race in Shakespeare’s plays

Shakespeare’s plays incorporate an entire panorama of diverse subject matters. He deals with a lot of social, political and cultural issues in his plays. He has the ability to highlight the different aspects of these various issues through the perspectives of his various characters.

On the one hand Shakespeare seems to foreground a lot of progressive discourses in some of his plays and on the other hand he seems to be a part of the majoritarian sensibility in his other plays. How are we to reconcile this discrepancy? The objective of this paper is to bring to the fore the two ends of spectrum of the issue of race that Shakespeare deals with in two of his plays- Othello and The Tempest.

Othello, written in 1602-1604, shows Othello, the character, as a loyal, courageous and valourous general of the Venetian army. He is a servant of the state and is respected for his qualities of loyalty, innocence, valour etc. This is a revolutionary portrayal of a black person for Shakespeare’s time. The contemporary Elizabethan society saw Othello’s colour as a distraction from the play’s ‘real issues’. So much so that in its performances Othello was played out by white men and not black. Such was the mindset of the contemporary white society. The racial prejudices were extremely deep rooted. And writing a play like Othello, in such times, which portrayed a black man as a tragic hero, as opposed to the villain (which was usually the case during the time), does make Shakespeare worthy of some credit.

Caliban in \'The Tempest\' (written in 1611), on the other hand, is an embodiment of all the negative stereotypes associated with the orient. Shakespeare doesn’t directly paint Caliban black but its difficult to escape what Homi Bhabha calls "those terrifying stereotypes of savagery, cannibalism, lust and anarchy." Caliban is constructed as an unthinking, evil and base creature. He is even denied a human shape and is referred to as \'half-fish\', \'a monster\', \'the devil\' etc. This portrayal of the orient does seem to suggest that Shakespeare has fallen into the trap of stereotyping the orient in a way that is in conjunction with the popular idea of the orient during that time.

Caliban and Othello thus seem to be juxtaposed to each other but a closer inspection reveals that this is not necessarily true. There are lots of parallels that can be drawn between the two. Caliban and Othello, both, partake of the racial discourse of the time. Caliban is animalised, commodified, infantalised, and bestialised in the play. He is invested with a lascivious nature, violent behaviour, baseness and lack of intelligible speech. He is constructed as a threat to the dignity of the white woman (Miranda) and later on in the play he is reduced to a credulous, ridiculous figure. He becomes an instrument to evoke laughter by becoming a part of crude slapstick instances.

It seems, in the case of Othello, that the white society is willing to accommodate those eastern people who can be of service to them. Then the qualities and nature of those orients is given a different colouring altogether. Othello is not seen as violent or base. He is seen as valourous and courageous. His speech, unlike Caliban’s, is not seen as threatening- it’s seen as exotic and attractive. He is even characterised as being naive. This works to the advantage of Othello who wants to be accommodated in the white society. He is unable to reconcile his eastern identity with this new western one.

So both Othello and Caliban have been stereotyped. Though the latter has been constructed positively (at least overtly) and the former negatively.

This apart, there are numerous differences between the construction of Othello and caliban. Othello is not really discriminated against, in the play, on the basis of his race. The only derogatory references to his race are made by Iago, who being the villain of the play is discredited anyway. On the other hand, everyone treats Caliban alike. And this shared perspective on Caliban is appropriated in the play as even Prospero, the hero of the play, denies Caliban any kind of individuality. This works as a complex sub-text as Prospero has been idealized as a