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Racism in Othello

It’s not hard to imagine that Othello was probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play. In the play, Othello Shakespeare shows the audience a transformation of a barbarous black man into a respected soldier and nobleman. At the time this play was written, black people were only known as slaves. That is why there is a clear theme of racism throughout the play. Society rejects the marriage of Othello and Desdemona, sees it as an act “against all rules of nature”(act 1.3, line 102). Society has no real reason to reject the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Othello matches or even exceeds the other men trying to win Desdemona’s hand in marriage. Nothing separates Othello from “the wealthy, curled darlings of our nation”(act 1.2, line 68) except his skin colour. Iago, Brabantion, Roderigo and Emilia are all main characters that have a racist feeling toward Othello. Out of these main characters, Iago shows the most racism in the play.

In the play Othello, Iago is a character that obviously has a plan to bring Othello down from his high place in society. Iago hates Othello because when Othello chose his lieutenant, he chose Cassio and not him. Iago believes he should have been the lieutenant because he has war experience and Cassio doesn’t. In the play, Iago is the catalyst of all the destructive events within the play. Iago is able to use Othello’s insecurities about being black to play Othello against Desdemona until the marriage fails. Iago is a representative of the white race, who is informing the public of the impurity of the marriage between Othello and Desdemona. The play starts out with Iago and Roderigo witnessing the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Roderigo also hates Othello because he loves Desdemona and now he can’t have her. After witnessing this they go to the residence of Brabantio. Once there, Iago and Roderigo tell Brabantio of the marriage by using racist language to appeal to the senator’s traditional beliefs. Iago uses such language as, IAGO: Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.

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Even now, now, very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, Arise! Awake the snorting citizens with the bell, Or else the devil will make you a grandsire of you. (act 1.1, lines 84-89) Iago even goes so far as to tell Brabantio’s grandchildren will be animals. IAGO: …you’ll have Your daughter covered with a Barbary house, You’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have Coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans. (act 1.1, lines 109-112) Roderigo also calls Othello racist names such as “thick-lips”(act 1.1, line 63). Playing on prejudices, Iago provoked Brabantio to take action against Othello by sending out guards to catch him and put him in prison. Othello tells the audience later, “Her father loved me, oft invited me”(act 1.3, line 128). All it took to change that was a few crude words from Iago to make a respected figure turn against a close friend of equal stature simply because of skin colour.

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Brabantio challenged the marriage by accusing Othello of witchcraft in front of the court. Brabantio was unable to imagine that his daughter would willfully deceive him and could not believe she would ever “fall in love with what she feared to look on”(act 1.3, line 99) without the aid of spells. Brabant suggests that Othello’s race makes him capable of these powers of BLACK magic. We have to ask ourselves if Desdemona had eloped with Roderigo, would he be accused of witchcraft? The answer, if you have not figured it out by now, is most obvious. This event supports the idea of white purity equals goodness and that other race, such as African-American, represents darkness and evil. When cabining the blackness of Othello and the fair whiteness of Desdemona in marriage, the audience will see nothing but chaos coming from it. This seems to be the concept that Shakespeare was playing with. That White and Black natural can’t mix, which by today’s standers in society is considered very racist.

In Act 2, while conversing with Roderigo, Iago states that she will find fault in her choice because she will notice how Othello lacks, IAGO: loveliness in favour, sympathy in years, manners and beauty. (act 2.1, lines 226-228) Everyone seems to think that marrying Othello was not a smart thing for Desdemona to do because of Othello’s skin colour. All characters seem to see the marriage as becoming an inevitable failure. In Act 3, scene 3, the audience starts to see the methods of Iago in progress to make Othello doubt Desdemona, by making him doubt himself. Following Othello’s refusal of believing that Desdemona has cheated on him with Cassio. Iago reminds him of his nature as an outsider and assures Othello that “I know our country’s disposition well”(act 3.3, line 204). Making Othello believe he is an outsider, Iago can also make him believe that he is lacking in the knowledge of Venetian woman. Iago is playing on Othello’s insecurities of his lack of experience with women.

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Doing this Iago is forcing Othello to confide in him for advice about the world of women. Facing losing Desdemona’s love to a younger white male is just too much for Othello to handle. Othello then sees the love between him and Desdemona as unnatural, “nature erring from itself” (act 3.3, line 231). The audience then sees Othello making a rare reference to his blackness in a negative way and begins to compare himself to Cassio. OTHELLO: …Haply for I am black And have no soft part of conversation That chambers have, or for I am declined Into the vale of years -yet that’s not much- She’s gone. I am abused, and my relief Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage, That we can call these delicate creatures ours, And not their appetites!… Despite Iago’s efforts, when Othello sees Desdemona he refuses to believe Iago, but the damage has already been done. As the audience will see, Othello returns to Iago to find “ocular proof” (act 3.3, line 363). Othello is then deceived very easily by a thin illusion. After easily falling into this illusion he vows to kill Desdemona, without first confronting her.

The ease at which Iago was able to trick Othello was frightening. Iago was able to do this by playing on his insecurities, which a large portion of is his race. One of the most controversial scenes in Othello happens at the end of the play in the bedchambers. Othello has changed into a savage-like state as everyone had suspected. Desdemona’s death was almost expected by everyone who saw the marriage between Othello and Desdemona as forbidden. After Othello kills Desdemona, Desdemona’s servant Emilia comes into the room and sees what Othello has done. Emilia expresses her feelings by saying this racist remark, EMILIA: O, the more angel she, And you the blacker devil! (act 5.2, line 130) However, Othello’s death is much more symbolic because it represents the other failure of Othello trying to achieve the status of the white man. Othello acknowledges the fact that he is different and realizes his faults. When choosing to take his own life, Othello’s last words are to those standing around him. He tells them to speak of him as he truly is, and know that,

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OTHELLO: Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe (act 5.2, lines 345-346). All of this was brought about by Iago, but only because he was able to play on the insecurities that Othello had about his race. Although Othello is not made out to be the cleverest and most cunning character in the play, he does have a certain wit about him that is uncommon among a European Moor. Othello is a romantic man who has won the heart of Desdemona, the senator’s daughter, with his stories of battles. Othello is also a hero whose life is full of good deeds. With all he has accomplished, he should be able to escape from preconceived notions of his race. But the play shows all too clearly how thin the value of his reputation was, in the eyes of others and to himself. Othello is an example of a noble black man at a time when black men and women were not known except as slaves. The racism in the play reduced a black nobleman to a barbarous state, which everyone, at the time the play was written, expected. We can criticize Shakespeare’s use of racism, but we have to remember that racism was part of the culture in which he was writing in.

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Racism in Othello. (2021, May 30). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from