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Essay: Influences of the time period – Shakespeare’s Othello & Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

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Shakespeare has been greatly influenced by the time period he wrote Othello in when observing the roles of racism and white beauty standards in the play. The protagonist of the play, Othello, is a general in the defence forces of Venice, husband of the fair Desdemona and a man of North African descent. While it being highly unusual that a coloured man would have such a beautiful white wife and hold a high position in society, Othello is often criticised by other characters, especially by the antagonist Iago whose mission it is to destroy Othello, purely based on his race. Being referred to as “the Moor” behind his back throughout the entire play by Iago, Othello is seen to be nothing more than what was then seen as his disgraceful and barbaric descent. Iago thus uses Othello’s skin colour throughout the play as means to express his deep hatred towards him. This becomes apparent even further when referred to “an old black ram” and “a Barbary horse” by him. Also often calling Othello “the devil”, Shakespeare reiterates the Elizabethan idea that the devil took shape in form of a black man. Many other religious sayings continuously stated throughout the play constitute the importance of belief during the written time period. Other characters such as Roderigo who who calls Othello “thick-lips”, and Brabantio, Desdemona’s father who accuses Othello of bewitching his daughter into loving him in an attempt to retain a high social status, too make numerous racial slurs. This racist attitude is also present in the beauty standards depicted in the play and in that matter during the time the play was written in. Being pale and white was the epitome of beauty during Elizabethan times as this also suggested wealth by not having to work outside in the fields. The black race was considered inferior in all aspects of life and African men were seen as “barbaric, illiterate and promiscuous” at the time according to Rudolph A. Shaw, professor at New York University in Othello and Race Relations in Elizabethan England (Shaw). This is reflected in the play when Iago suggests there is something “unnatural” and “rank” about Desdemona marrying Othello instead of a man who is of “her own clime, complexion and degree”, suggesting white superiority. This was common at the time as miscegenation and interracial marriage was disapproved by most as black men were considered to have an animal-like hyper-sexuality. Despite clearly demonstrating the racist attitude and white beauty standards at the time, Shakespeare presents Othello as a civil, literate and faithful character, a direct contradiction to the previously described views of African men at the time. Therefore although mostly influenced by the time period he wrote the play in with regard to racist speech, white superiority and white beauty standards, Othello was revolutionary in terms of the depiction of black men for the time of its publication.

A further way in which Shakespeare was influenced by the time period he wrote Othello in is reflected through the clear patriarchy between the genders in the play. Up until the suffragette movement in 1903 and following women emancipation and empowerment movements, women had very limited rights and power. Even in the Elizabethan era ruled by a woman under whose reign the arts, literature, music, dance and etiquette flourished, women equality was certainly not achieved as they first were property of their fathers and later of their husbands. Women were therefore viewed as nothing more than objects, often sexual ones, that should always stay faithful to their husbands and respect their wishes. In Othello, Shakespeare portrays this exact role of women and male superiority in multiple ways. In Act II Desdemona herself describes marriage as an act of of “purchase”, that a woman is bought by her husband to provide for her and is expected to respect him and fulfil his desires in return. Her respect for Othello as well as his dominance in the relationship becomes evident in her language throughout the play, especially when he orders her to go to bed and she replies with “I will, my lord”, also remaining true to her husband in her final breath “Commend me to my kind lord”. Her used language throughout the play suggests Othello’s superiority and dominance over her. In contrast to her respectful language, after being manipulated by Iago that Desdemona had been unfaithful to him, Othello calls her a “whore” on multiple occasions in addition to referencing her as a “strumpet”. Iago too calls his wife Emilia a “villainous whore” and “a good wench” and has a common view of women at the time: “You are pictures out of door, bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in housewifery, and housewives in your bed”, essentially meaning that women behave themselves when they are in public however are noisy, always complaining, easily offended and make themselves sound as if they were saints while in reality they are nothing but sexual objects. In this sense, the time period Shakespeare wrote in heavily influenced the role of women in Othello by dictating the perception and attitudes of women as well as demonstrating male superiority over them at the time.

Morison too was heavily influenced by the time The Bluest Eye was set, not written in, which becomes apparent when observing the roles of racism and white beauty standards in the novel. The novel tells the story of a young African-American girl named Pecola Breedlove who develops an inferiority complex and descends into madness after having experienced constant degradation because of her race and emotional and physical distress at home. Unlike in Othello where discontent and racial slurs towards black people is given by white people, internalised racism, a self-oppressive attitude, is the backbone of The Bluest Eye’s context. Throughout the novel the colour black is associated with dirtiness and filthiness while the colour white symbolises cleanness. Light skinned coloured people therefore tried to distance themselves as much as they could from the dark skinned coloured people, seeing themselves as superior: “coloured people were neat and quiet; nixxers were dirty and loud”. Further internalised racism in the novel becomes obvious as these coloured people derive an impression of beauty by humiliating people of their own community. In this way continuously indicating Pecola’s ugliness to her helps them feel more beautiful and her weakness as a result of this helps them feel more powerful. This and general discomfort with being black was highly usual at the time of the setting as the “black is beautiful” movement and an appreciation of black culture only took place in the late 1960’s when Morrison wrote the novel. Though internalised racism plays a significantly larger role in the novel, discrimination against African Americans by white people was still the norm in America at the time. This too is depicted in The Bluest Eye when Cholly, Pecola’s father, was having sex with a black woman and meanwhile was seen by white men who forced him to continue having sex with her while laughing at and humiliating him. Racism and white superiority is furthermore demonstrated when Pecola tries to buy a candy from a white man who looks at her “somewhere between retina and object, vision and view, his eyes draw back, hesitate, and hover. At some fixed point in time and space he senses the need not to waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see.” Here, not only is Pecola despised and neglected for being black but, like Othello by being called racist nicknames, is essentially dehumanised as she is given the appearance to be nothing worth looking at. This, along with constantly being called ugly, shatters Pecola’s ego and makes her feel horrible for her existence. She therefore denies her own identity and becomes obsessed with white beauty standards. She develops a fascination for Shirley Temple and only accepts blue eyes, blonde hair and white skin to be beautiful. She hereby internalises the values of white superiority within herself and consequently develops self-hatred. Pecola therefore desperately desires to possess blue eyes as she connects beauty with being loved and accepted. This unrealistic desire ultimately leads her to madness where she at last convinces herself to have the blue eyes she so desired. Throughout the course of the novel Morrison accurately depicts the beauty standards of the time the story is set in. It seems that nothing has changed in terms of these beauty standards since the Elizabethan era Shakespeares Othello was written in. Whiteness was still considered to be the only true sign of beauty. This century long ideology of white beauty and Darwinism began to change by the time Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye in, therefore not being influenced by the time she wrote the novel in but by the time of its setting.

Morrison was furthermore influenced by the time period The Bluest Eye is set in with regard to patriarchy between the genders. Despite the establishment of several women rights, men were like in Shakespearean times still superior to women in most ways. The Bluest Eye is not only a story about racism, oppression and beauty standards but about the oppression of women by the men in their lives. Pauline Breedlove, Pecola’s mother, is enduring the harsh realities of her marriage to Cholly, an alcoholic who she constantly both physically and verbally fights with. Unlike the women in Othello which were completely powerless, Pauline exercises her limited authority as a woman over her children through verbal assault and physical force contributing to an unstable and violent home environment which had caused Pecola’s brother to run away from it. Nevertheless, she is still oppressed and controlled by her troubled husband as reflected by her being continuously insulted by him and doing the things he asks her too. Male dominance is most significantly portrayed when Pecola is raped and impregnated by her own father. Pecola, whose childhood innocence had now been completely stripped away from her, is completely helpless: “The damage was total. She spent her days… Walking up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear”. As if this weren’t enough Pauline beats Pecola after finding out about the rape suggesting that she and women in general are to blame for being victims of sexual assault. Furthermore, with the rape scene being narrated completely through Cholly’s perspective, outlining his reasons and justifications behind it, the lack of Pecola’s perspective and say in it illustrates the silencing effect of male oppression over women at the time. While oppression of women differs in each household, for the Breedlove’s, who despise themselves due to believing in their own unworthiness and ugliness, it was colossal, a stereotype often attributed to black households at the time. Morrison’s work is hereby influenced by the genders at the time.

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