Race in Shakespeare’s plays-Othello versus The Tempest



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 he 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 almost opposite ends of the 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 generally respected for his qualities of loyalty, innocence, valour etc. This is a very revolutionary portrayal of a black person for Shakespeare’s time. This play was very controversial. So much so that in many of 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 profound and a play like Othello, 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.


On the other hand Caliban of The Tempest (written in 1611) 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 at complete disjunction with 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. 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. They are no more seen as violent or base. They are now seen as valourous and courageous. Their speech is not seen as threatening- it’s seen as exotic and attractive. They are also seen as being naive. This works for 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.


Caliban on the other hand 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 through crude instances.


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


This apart, there are lots of differences between the construction of Othello and caliban. Othello is not really discriminated against, in the play, on the basis of his race. Iago, who being the villain of the play is discredited anyway, makes the only derogatory references to Othello’s race. Everyone, on the other hand, 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 in a very complex way as prospero has been idealized as a kind and forgiving king who has been wronged and thus