Iago’s Orientalism: Imperial Discourse in Othello


The debate about how Othello treats race, imperialism, and Arabs has gone on from Rymer in the Seventeenth Century until the present day. This essay surveys the critical heritage on this theme and then focuses its analysis on the language of the play, considered in terms of Edward Said’s theories in Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, to determine whether Shakespeare himself held racist and Orientalist views. This analysis finds the source of the play’s Orientalist and imperialist language and attitudes in one character, Iago. The criticism then turns to examine the operation of Iago’s Orientalism and finds the play very conscious of the textual nature of such distortion and control of discourse. Othello’s tragedy results, in this analysis, from directed misreading and consequent misinterpretation of internal texts like the handkerchief. Further, Iago’s imperial discourse about blacks and Arabs is seen to connect to his misogynistic attitudes towards women, while Othello’s misreadings connect him to the play’s women (for example, when he shares his misreading of the handkerchief, which represents his Arab heritage, with the play’s most maligned woman, Bianca). The study concludes by showing how one women-- Emilia, Iago’s wife--speaks back to the reductive and exploitative discourse that causes the tragedy.


Charles Campbell




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