The East-West Cultural Divide in William Shakespeare’s Othello

Published: 2021-07-08 16:00:04
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Category: Drama

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A great deal was happening politically, socially, and religiously in early 17th-century England. One significant political discussion, centered on the idea that foreign cultures were “seductive, different, and dangerous,” had a potent impact on the content of one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, Othello (Vaughan, 1996, p. 14). Colonialism and defining other cultures based on the fact that they were not European (particularly those cultures from Asia and the Middle East) was a big part of Renaissance philosophy. This conversation, and the fear of foreigners that came with it, started in Spain and Italy, but by the early 1600s, it had finally made its way to England (Vaughan, 1996, p. 14).
The titular character, Othello, is a Moor, which is a term that was used at the time to refer to people from North Africa. Generally, historians know that this meant the person was a dark-skinned “exotic” person whose ways of thinking were different from that of European people (Vaughan, 1996, p. 66, 96). Not long before Othello was written, Queen Elizabeth met with some Moroccan ambassadors to discuss allying against Spain, who, along with England, was starting to become a major colonial power with similar goals for settling the Western Hemisphere (Vaughan, 1996, p. 14). Rather than viewing the Moroccans as equals, or even as potential allies, many English citizens reacted with confusion and suspicion, their impressions of the Moroccans ranging from that of a “dangerously inscrutable alien to [an] exotically attractive ally” (Vaughan, 1996, p. 14). This public opinion is reflected in the things the characters in the play say about Othello, particularly Iago and Roderigo. Iago in particular views Othello as a dangerous alien because of his relationship with a white, high-class woman, Desdemona. This can be seen when he essentially refers to Othello as being a sexual predator, whose libido and lustful desires are not only uncontrollable, but easily changeable (Vaughan, 1996, p 66). The phenomenon of stereotyping other cultures in this way can be seen, both in the context of the play and in that of English social discourse at the time, as a way not only to help people feel safe, but to reinforce the idea that European culture was superior to that of cultures to the east and south.
When talking about a society like England being wary of other cultures, the topic of race inevitably surfaces. A great deal of stereotypical imagery of African people that today’s people are familiar with originated in colonial Renaissance England. Just as Othello’s difference as a person is marked by a distinction between black and white in the play, so it was also in 16th-17th century England (Vaughan, 1996, p 51). Shakespeare used the ideas mentioned before about Moors being sexual predators, intellectually inferior, and being essentially slaves to their instincts, to relate to the very white audience who would have been watching his performances (Vaughan, 1996, p 64). Further, the idea that a Moor could be a rare hero and overcome these qualities is another idea people were fascinated with. Shakespeare used Othello to illustrate that, with great effort and a knowledge of morality, foreigners could prove themselves to be just as human as everyone else (Vaughan, 1996, p 64). But it is in this idea of heroism that Othello himself was not like other people in English society. Despite the fact that he was, in the end, a hero, he was still “other.” Just as most foreigners were at the time. While this may not have been the way that Shakespeare himself viewed dark-skinned foreigners, it was the popular culture at the time: and in popular culture is where profit is made.

Vaughan, V.M. (1996) Othello: A Contextual History. Retrieved from

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