The Dominant Theme of Racism Through Othello Play and Film

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         Most of the time, it is difficult for any of Shakespeare’s work to be replicated. However, many directors use the process of adaptation to create a modernized version of his play. Especially the play Othello, one of many great works of Shakespeare, has inspired other directors to recreate it. Othello, who is excellent in military service, has helped him become one of Venice’s most competent generals. Although he has many successes on the battlefield, it is his tragic flaw that causes a change in his life: jealousy. The play reaches its climax when jealousy makes him doubted himself and eventually leads him to kill his wife, Desdemona. Othello was written in the 16th century, and during this period, racism remained prevalent in the Elizabethan context, which valued the significance of national pride.

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In 2001, Tim Nelson recreated Othello play in a modern representation “O,” which features teenaged stars. This film still includes many of the same ideas that appear in the play. “O” was created during modern times, so the language is very modern as well as its medium of production film. The film is aimed at young adults illustrated by the use of vulgar language and in a high school setting. Racial prejudice is depicted in both. It has a strong element that brings about many of the twists, and turns the play and the movie takes. Race is an issue that is embodied in both Othello and 'O' as they both highlight the stereotypical views that society implies over different cultural backgrounds throughout the decade. Although the time of the movie and the play were written are different. Many themes are still prevalent in both the play and movie such as racism. Both Othello and O explore the theme of racism using a different technique such as diction, expressive techniques, or symbolism or the way one communicates. However, they both portray how society focuses on certain stereotypes upon individuals when they are not right.

In the play Othello, Shakespeare uses diction and dramatic techniques as the English literature to demonstrate the idea of racism. When the play just started, the author has already use diction like “moor” and “thick lips” to describe the protagonist Othello. According to the definition in the play, “Moor” referred to dark-skinned people in general to designate a figure from Africa. These racist terms show the prejudiced nature of late 16th Century England. The use of diction can show that there is a strong dislike for the presence of “black people” however, Shakespeare challenges this stereotype by giving Othello a positive character who is excellent in everything. Racism was also brought to the audience’s attention when Desdemona and Othello getting married. During this period, it is uncommon to see a color person marrying a white person as well as a color person held a higher position than the white person.

When Brabantio accuses Othello of using witchcraft on Desdemona, it automatically shows the way Brabantio sees Othello. Brabantio expressed his insecurity about his daughter’s loyalty to him by expressing sneering disgust about Othello’s race, implying that Othello’s blackness is overpowering Desdemona’s souls, turning her into someone bad. Brabantio probably believes that blackness represents evil and that white symbolizes purity. Not until the Duke confirms with them. However, Shakespeare mentioned that the Duke believes black people are sinful except Othello, one of the “good ones.” This line was to reassure Brabantio that Othello is a good man, but it also revealed what the Duke thinks about black people. Brabantio does not think that there is any way that a black man could woo a young white woman without defying the laws of nature. He thinks it must be witchcraft. Shakespeare makes Othello the most powerful man who gain trust from the Duke and control the whole army. However, it does not hide the fact that he was black. Because of racism, it assures that Othello remains isolated from his peers while Iago tinkers with Othello’s mind. Only when Othello buys into the absurd idea that his race inherently makes him dangerous does he begin to creep toward the possibility of doing violence to his wife. When he sees himself through society’s eyes, as uncivilized and black, Othello begins to despise himself, and it is that self-hatred that made him kill what he loves most. The stereotype based on skin color is something prevalent during this time that reflects racism.

Similar to Shakespeare’s dramatic techniques, Nelson introduces racism to the audience through a more modern depiction of society. Nelson uses different techniques to convey feelings of racism to the audience. For example, the use of white pigeons and hawk. The white pigeons in the movie may be a representation of the white race, while the imagery of the black hawk within the film represents Odin, who is black. Everyone wishes to be like the hawk, strong and powerful when it takes flight. However, it depicts the image of not fitting into a society full of white pigeons or white people. Although Odin is a good basketball player, and everyone respects him, but deep inside, he still did not fit in at all in a school with all white people. The theme of racism remains dominant with the depiction of the school’s dean, who may be considered a prominent figure in the white society. Since the setting is at a high school, the dean represents the whole white population. Although both are being compared as animals for their race, in Othello, it is negative; however, in O, the animal Odin was compared to is something big and powerful. However, Odin is often victim to many racial slurs and is ultimately deceived, which highlights the stereotypical view of black individuals in a white society.

Nelson did not shy away from racism, but he even brought up that topic. There is a scene when Odin, who is Othello in the play and Desi, who is Desdemona, was in bed; they jokingly discussed their different races. It is unusual to see how Nelson inputs this topic very casually. When she disapproves of his use of “nigger,” he tells her that he is allowed to say it, but she cannot even think it. Although he told her that, Odin is haunted by it and his “blackness.” When Hugo is known as Iago, who tells him that Desi and Mike called him the “nigger,” Odin’s worst fears are confirmed, and he begins to act out his rage and self-loathing. As an audience, we can see that his inner feeling has come out where he is violent and being disrespectful as often stereotyped. This scene affects him emotionally, building a rage, which fuels an even greater fire emphasizing the dominant theme of racism. By categorizing black individuals as minorities in both Othello and ‘O,’ the theme of racism is conveyed to the audience.

After one of Odin’s eruptions, Mike says that “the ghetto’s come out of him.” Just before Odin shoots himself, he implores his classmates to understand that “I ain’t no different than none of you all. My mom ain’t no crackhead. I wasn’t no gang banger….You tell ‘em where I’m from didn’t make me do this.” This statement clarifies that where he came from as in his race did not make him this violence, but he was manipulated by Hugo. This scene fulfills society’s view on black men who being rapist, aggressive, and violent. At the climax, both Othello and Odin give a speech to defend their nobility and honor. Both characters tell why they did it, and it was not because of their race or they did not belong, but because they were manipulated, and it could have easily been anyone else. Odin acknowledges his race, which defends that although it seems that Odin fits into the stereotyped that society believes, he was manipulated by a deceptive force. He wants people to remember him as the person who loves Desi so much rather than the black man who kills his girlfriend.

Othello and “O” only have one black character throughout the plot since their central theme besides jealousy is racism. Both composers are aiming to highlight society's stereotypical views of black people and further elaborate on how these stereotypes are believed by the society that is not accurate at all. It might not always be their personality or where they came from, but it can be from a manipulative force. In typical society, black men had many negative traits attached to them regardless of whether society knew the individual or not. Their point is to isolate Othello and Odin to emphasize the fact that being the only black man in school or Venice can be hard. They are strong and robust; however, people still associate them with illegal things or having a bad personality. They may seem like they are being respected, but in reality, people looked down on them, which implicates how humanity is racially discriminatory. Both composers challenge social stereotypes and society’s racist nature. One lesson to take out of this is that society frowns upon despite the stereotypes being untrue.

Racism is a significant issue that exists in both our modern-day society and in the Elizabethan society where the play took place. However, Shakespeare and Nelson choose to use different techniques to explore this issue. Shakespeare uses poetic and dramatic techniques, whereas Nelson uses cinematic techniques as the majority of his audience are teenagers to demonstrate the idea of racism. With Shakespeare, he uses diction like “barbarian horse,” the “Moor,” etcetera, or social status to demonstrate how racism is viewed during the Elizabeth era. While Nelson uses symbols, filming techniques such as imagery of a hawk and pigeons, or a black drug dealer to show us how racism can still happen even now. Many of us think that our society has been dramatically improved throughout time. However, we might not hear about it, but it keeps recurring in our history and keeps going on in a cycle. Both adaptations focus on the theme of racism to tell the audience that no matter how powerful, popular, or how good a black person is, they will not fit in being a minority in a white society. Both composers convey how humanity is still very racially discriminatory despite the constant effort to put an end to this issue.   

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