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Shakespeare: Othello

2. Race and Racial Difference

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In this module, we think about the theme of race and racial difference in Othello, focusing in particular on: (i) the long history of Othello being played by white men wearing black make-up, and the reasons why there was a critical reaction against this is the 1990s; (ii) the fascination with exploration and travel in early modern England, the growth in the literary genre of the traveller’s tale, and the extent to which Othello himself tells such tales; (iii) the multiple meanings of the words “antres” and the commercial realities that underpinned travel to faraway places; (iv) the explicit mention of Othello’s blackness throughout the play, but also the indeterminacy of where he comes from and his exact racial background; (v) the frequency with which lightness and darkness are compared, contrasted and intermingled in the play; (vi) the mapping of lightness and darkness onto the play’s sexual politics, e.g. Desdemona is “blackened” by her supposed sexual indiscretions; (vii) the extent to which Othello and Desdemona have swapped places by the end of the play; and (ix) the presence of non-white people in early modern England.


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores Shakespeare’s Othello. In the first module, we provide a broad introduction to the play and some of its key themes. In the second module, we think about the theme of race and racial difference in the play before turning in the third module to the theme of religious conversion in the play – the idea of “turning Turk”. In the fourth module, we look in more detail at the importance of Desdemona’s handkerchief, while in the fifth module we provide an overview of the critical history of the play, from the focus on the character of Desdemona in the earliest criticism to the exploration of race and gender politics (and their intersection) in the most recent criticism.

Note: We use the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, Revised Edition, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Smith, H. (2021, January 04). Shakespeare: Othello - Race and Racial Difference [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Shakespeare: Othello – Race and Racial Difference." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 04 Jan 2021,

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