Othello and James Baldwin, though separated by several hundred years, share the feeling of being an outsider in their respective situations because of their race. Othello, a fictional character in Shakespeare’s play Othello, faced this as Moor in Venice who falls in love with a white woman, is driven to insanity by his peers and meets a tragic end. James Baldwin on the other hand, experiences this as an African American staying in an isolated Swiss town, having the unique experience of being the only black person the villagers had ever seen. He writes about the blatant as well as unintentional racism he experienced in his essay “Stranger in the Village”. He also uses this essay as a platform to grapple with the big questions of race relations in the United States and Europe. These experiences of being “the other” lead both characters to question their identities and roles in society, and many of Baldwin’s insights on race are applicable to Othello’s situation.
Othello’s peers are constantly making comments about his race, and his differences. Their feelings towards him, based solely on the color of his skin, are even seen in the opening scene of the play when Roderigo refers to him “the thick lips” (Shakespeare 1.1 ) While this is not spoken directly to Othello, it serves as an initial indicator that the people surrounding Othello are thinking about him as different, rather than seeing him as a person in their society. Baldwin describes a similar sentiment when he writes, “In all of this… there were certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder” (Baldwin page 2). While it starts out with a bit of innocence, later in the play the language used towards and about Othello gets more charged and it becomes clear that the other characters are weighing Othello’s race (as a negative thing) to be more important than his character, benefit to the military and his accomplishments.
The first example of this is when Iago says “an old black ram/ Is topping your white ewe” to describe Othello’s relationship with his wife (Shakespeare 1.1). This shows the characters not only thinking about the color contrast of black and white, but also digging deeper, as there is a message in the type of animals Iago chooses to assign to each of them. The ram is a much more aggressive and barbarous seeming animal, than a deer. This is an example of the characters relating Othello to negative attributes that they believe all Moors have. This closely relates to James Baldwin describing the extent that negative associations with color impact race. He explains an encounter in Switzerland with children, “other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach” (Baldwin 4). While the latter is a much more extreme version, both are examples of people relating blackness to negative things.
As the plot thickens in Othello, Othello begins to take the racist things that the other characters are saying to and about him to heart. He starts to see his own race as a bad thing and identifies with the negative attributes they have assigned him. This leads to his tragic ending in which he kills himself and his wife. While Baldwin’s short story does not end with death, but being able to live amongst the Swiss people. Through their experiences of being the other in a foreign environment, the fictional 17th century character Othello can be related to 20th century author James Baldwin. This is a strong testament to Shakespeare’s timelessness and ability to write about humanity.