Racism-a topic which has always caused conflict throughout history whether it be during the Crusades between European Christians and the Muslim Turks, the Holocaust between the Nazi Germany and the Jewish people, or the slavery and segregation of black people in the United States. It is clear that racism is a serious issue in the play Othello by William Shakespeare as well. Considering the fact that Othello is a Moor, a black man who is married a black man who is also married to Desdemona, a white Christian woman, the stage it set for Shakespeare to explore the theme. Although Othello is highly respected for his achievements in war, his race plays a majour role in the play for it brings out the latent racism that was hidden among many of the characters, leaving the audience to ponder the significance of race.
Throughout the play, many characters use racist language to describe Othello in moments of their frustration and anger. When Iago finds out that Othello secretly married Desdemona, he sees it as a great opportunity for revenge since Othello chose Cassio to become his lieutenant instead of himself. “What a full fortune does the think-lips owe,/ If he can carry’t thus!” (I,i,65-66) says Roderigo demonstrating how he is offended to hear Othello’s decision in choosing a person who is only “theoretical” and practically has no military experiences to become his lieutenant. The “think-lips” description is racist since it describes a dominant facial feature of a black man. He then visits Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, with Roderigo and informs him about his daughter’s affairs with the black moor. This infuriates Brabantio, a very conservative Christian man, because during Shakespearean times, it was considered unnatural for a Christian woman to marry a black man. However, it is Iago’s racist commentaries that are the key to what fully brings out Brabantio’s latent racism. Being a dissembler and having a mischievous mind, Iago is able to manipulate other people through this language and Othello does not question his “honesty” since he never uses racist language in front of the moor.
Still, when talking to Brabantio, Iago says “Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,/ Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you” (I,i,90-91) demonizing Othello. “ou’ll have your daughter/ covered with a Barbary horse…” (I,i,110-111) says Iago, animalizing Othello as a North African horse before continuing with, “our daughter and the/ Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (I,i,115-116) which creates a graphic sexual image of Desdemona and Othello’s sexual affairs inside Brabantio’s mind. This fires the fury within Brabantio and when he sees Othello, he says, “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her … That thou hast practiced on her with foul charms,/ Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals that weakens motion… I therefore apprehend, and to attach thee/ For an abuser of the world, a practiser/ Of arts inhibited and out of warrant” (I,ii,63-79). Here, Brabantio is being racist since he accuses Othello of using “foul charms” and “drugs” to lure his daughter in marrying Othello and insinuation that Othello is like a stereotypical black man who must use the black arts. However, it turns out that the only witchcraft that Othello used was the stories of his life which Desdemona became empathetic to.
In several parts of the play, Shakespeare uses black and white imagery in describing Othello. In the beginning of the play when Iago is talking with Brabantio, he says, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe” (I,i,88-89) illustrating how the moor and Desdemona are having sex and their contrasting skin colours. Othello later points out Desdemona’s whiteness as he watches her sleep before killing her and says, “Yet I’ll not shed her blood,/ Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,/ And smooth as monumental alabaster” (V,ii,3-5) meaning that he will not ruin her beauty by shedding her blood, but he also acknowledges Desdemona’s “whiter skin”. He recognizes once again his difference in their colours and also thinks that if he scars her white skin, he will be “tainting” it like his own as though destroying the goodness still left in her appearance, if not also in her character. When Othello murders Desdemona for her infidelity with Cassio, Emilia says, “O the more angel she,/ And you the blacker devil… Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil” (V,ii,132-135) describing how Desdemona is like a white angel and how Othello is like a black devil. With this being said, the black and white imagery also relates to the good and evil contrast wince colours are very symbolic. White, which is often used to describe Desdemona is symbolic for purity and goodness, while black represents darkness and evil when describing Othello.
By the usage of racist descriptions, and black and white imagery, it may seem as though Othello is not like by his peers; nonetheless, he is actually one of the most respected men of his society. Firstly, he is the Moor of Venice even though he is a black man. During those times, perhaps it was quite impossible for a black man to be in such high rank unless he was either unbelievably rich or had done something very heroic. Othello had earned his position in society for his valor and wisdom in the military. For instance, the Duke says, “Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you/ Against the general enemy Ottoman” (I,iii,49-50) indicating him as being “valiant” and also relying on him in leading the war against the Turks in Cyprus by saying “Othello, the fortitude of the place is best/ known to you; and though we have their a substitute/ of most allowed sufficiency, yet opinion, a more/ sovereign mistress of effects, throws a more safer voice on you” (I,iii,221-226). It is also very important to note that it is the Duke who says this because a duke is a member of the nobility, historically highest rank below the monarch since being trusted by the Duke also helps Othello in his position of power.
When Othello is about to leave the council room the senator calls to him “Adieu, brave Moor” (I,ii,290) showing how it is not just the duke who is fond of Othello’s bravery. Even Iago, still irritated by not being chosen for lieutenant, admits “He is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar” (II,ii,116) describing Othello as a valorous soldier like Caesar. Thus, it is clear how Othello receives respect by the people even if he is a black man and this is how some people actually look at Othello’s inside personality instead of his skin colour and race.
Despite the fact that many characters use racist language such as animalizing and demonizing him as well as using black and white imagery which enhances the disparateness of Othello as a black man, it seems as though Othello himself is not offended by this even when they are said straight to his face. This is seen quite clearly because Othello uses black and white imagery himself and says “ name, that was fresh/ As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black/ As my own face” when he is confused whether Desdemona is truthful and is struggling to figure out if he still loves her or not. This demonstrates how racism leads to self-loathing and makes people feel inferior to others and Othello himself probably decided not to bother whether his society treats him as a black man for he noticed that he will not be able to change how he looks from the outside, but rather he can only change who he is form the inside through accomplishments. This leaves the audience pondering whether it is race and external aspects of people or if it is internal aspects such as personality and the way a person lived their life that really determines a person’s success in life. In the end, Iago knows what people really are, and his ability to unleash the latent racism in so many of the other wise noble characters is what leads to the tragic outcome of the play.