The Pervasive Power Of Prejudice Essay, Research Paper
The Pervasive Power of Prejudice
by Ben Lowe
One of the first themes to emerge in Shakespeare?s Othello, and certainly one of the most discussed, is that of the blatant racism against Othello, most notably by Iago, Roderigo, and Desdemona?s father, Brabantio. However, while racism is certainly a valid topic, tracing evidence in that vein fails to provide any clear moral by the end of the play. For though the racist villains meet just ends as the play draws to a close, it was not their racism for which they ultimately suffer, but rather their villainy, caused by jealousy, passion, and anger, but not racial prejudice. The scope must be broadened, therefore, in order to grasp some sort of lesson. Upon deeper analysis, it becomes evident that it is premature judgments of all kinds, and not merely racism, that drive the story to its tragic end: sexism, Othello?s rush to judgment, the recurring theme of reputation, and the assumption of Iago?s virtue by all parties join racism as prejudices that doom Othello to make his final tragic assumption of his wife?s infidelity.
As mentioned earlier, racism leads off Othello?s string of prejudices. Indeed, the entire first act deals with Brabantio?s accusation that Othello has used some ?arts inhibited and out of warrant? (Ii 92) to entice Desdemona to embrace Othello?s ?sooty bosom? (Ii 84). Were it not for the racial prejudices against the noble Moor of Venice, Brabantio would have reveled in Desdemona?s love for Othello, who is both a hero and a ?man of royal siege? (Ii 24). And though this bigoted dispute does not lead directly to Othello?s downfall, it establishes the pattern of easy assumptions and difficult struggles against them that will continue throughout the play.
In the midst of this struggle against unjustified bias, Othello introduces the next family of unfair assumptions, sexism. In defense of bringing his wife to the field of battle, Othello claims Desdemona, one of Cupid?s ?light-winged toys? (Iii 288), will not distract him from the war. Relegating Desdemona to the position of a mere plaything seems quite unfair, especially served directly on the heels of a passionate speech by Desdemona declaring her deep love for Othello. This willingness to dismiss Desdemona as a weaker vessel is one of the most important undercurrents in Othello, because in seeing Desdemona as an inferior he never gives her the chance to defend herself against the slanderous accusations against her, a chance that may have saved her.
In Act II Iago enforces the sexism already established, insulting his wife?s talkative nature (though she speaks only sixteen words throughout Act II, Scene I, while Iago has over 150 written lines of speech in the scene). Upon the heels of this abuse Iago claims he can think of nothing positive to say about Emilia, stating he is ?nothing if not critical? (IIi 132). For the rest of the play Iago continues to unjustifiably accuse his wife of being too talkative and to belittle her in public and private until the final scene, when his commands to silence herself are ignored, and she is killed by Iago for stubbornly speaking the truth.
The next prejudice to emerge is of a more subtle kind, and perhaps is not so instantly recognized as prejudice because we still use it today. It is the prejudice of reputation, ?an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving? (IIiii 278-280), as Iago puts it. The first unfair reputation, certainly ?got without merit,? is Iago?s. Throughout the play Iago uses every character with whom he comes in contact to serve his ends, yet his reputation keeps all from analyzing his role in Cassio?s sudden fall from favor. Iago was well aware of this power of his reputation, declaring ?he that filches from me my good name/ Robs me of that which not enriches him/ And makes me poor indeed? (IIIiii 181-3). And poor indeed does Iago make Cassio, whose reputation was ?lost without deserving.? (IIiii 280). Cassio?s situation by the end of Act II, in terms of deserved reputation, is precisely the opposite of Iago?s: while Iago schemes under his colleagues? protective assumption that he is honest, virtuous Cassio is cast out of his previous position of authority because of a stained reputation, his previous valor and honor overshadowed by one night of drunkenness. This openly recognized system of prejudice, like the sexism mentioned earlier, is one of the most influential biases in the play, because just as sexism blocks Desdemona from defending herself, Cassio?s loss of reputation keeps him from explaining himself to Othello.
Through this array of prejudices Shakespeare quietly teaches us his moral: easy assumptions lead to hard ends. Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio, and Othello were all victims of prejudice. Desdemona and Emila were killed by the assumption that women are flawed and cannot be trusted. Desdemona did not struggle against this conclusion, while Emila was struck down for fighting against it, speaking for Desdemona against Iago?s will. Cassio was maimed because of the importance placed upon reputation: without the paltry issues of social status impeding him, Cassio would have been by Othello?s side to refute Iago?s accusations. And finally, Othello was a victim of his own prejudices. It was his assumption of Desdemona?s weakness, his weight given to Cassio?s reputation, and his rapidly formed belief, without much evidence, of Cassio?s and Desdemona?s guilt that guided Othello to murder his wife. It is fitting that he should take his own life, for the prejudices that led him to death were his own; the killing hand should be his own as well.