Harmless, Harmful: A Review of Othello

They had me cornered–two adults sitting on the ground, and my friend in between them. I gave them all a bewildered look and sat heavily on the ribbed metal bench.

The man asked the dreaded question. “So, where are you from?”

I wanted to run away screaming, certain I would be here for hours. “Well,” I said tentatively, “I’m Italian-German on one side, and–or, well, I suppose more like Italian-German-American, since—” I broke off. They were nodding at each other in satisfaction.

“We knew you were American. You have the accent,” said the man sagely.

I glanced at them helplessly. “But . . .” I had an accent, but it definitely wasn’t American. “But, ah, I’ve never lived in the US,” I said. They just blinked at me. Inside, I sighed. Why did they assume—even invent—so much based on race?

“You still have an American accent,” said my friend, and I nodded weakly. What harm could it do?

Othello is a tragedy by the legendary poet and playwright William Shakespeare. It tells the story of the “moor” Othello. Othello marries Desdemona, the young, beautiful daughter of a Venetian aristocrat, and though her father tries to break off the marriage, Desdemona cannot be dissuaded. However, Othello’s standard-bearer Iago, recently slighted by Othello, decides to act. Soon, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is having an affair. With strong themes of race and power, Othello is a masterpiece of writing and human frailty.

Power is a recurring theme in Othello. Othello is a general, and Iago not even a lieutenant—yet Iago exerts power even greater than Othello’s. In fact, Iago is so powerful that he manages to dupe Othello, though he works only in half-truths and gossip. Soon, it seems that Othello is powerful in name only—not because he is weak, but because he has come to believe the lies that others tell of him.

Race is one of the strongest themes in the tragedy. This is hardly surprising, as Othello himself is described as a Moor—generally taken to mean from Sub-Saharan Africa. Othello is often described with adjectives like “dark” or “black” and even insulted as a “thicklips.” But although he is most prominently ostracized for his race, he is not the only one. Iago, although racist himself, fulfills the stereotype of the conniving Spanish villain. Is anyone in the drama truly unbiased?

Othello is a masterpiece. Full of evocative wordplay and bursting with themes still applicable today, its dramatic, even brutal perspective on racism is a reminder that what might seem harmless can quickly become harmful.

High-school dramatic script, ages 14 and up.

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