Shakespeare's play Othello was written some time between 1600 and 1605. In a time
when ethnic minorities were so unimportant that they were almost ignored, a black man rises
and has a rank of a general in Venice, and is well respected and trusted by his white leaders.
However, when Othello marries Desdemona, a young and beautiful white girl, and the
daughter of Senator Brabantio, everything changes, and the racism in the play begins to take
place. Natural versus unnatural is one of the major themes in Shakespeare's play. What is
considered to be the most unnatural thing in the story is the marriage between Desdemona
and Othello, where the most obvious issue emphasises the topic of race. Throughout the whole
play, racism is certainly very present. Shakespeare tests his audience's racial prejudice
through the relationship of his Moorish character Othello to the true villain Iago, using
diction and metaphors throughout his various speeches.
Shakespeare uses many metaphors and diction to create a racist tone through certain
speeches. In the opening scene Othello is variously called "The Moor"(1.1.40), "the thick lips'
(1.1.61), 'black ram' (1.1.88) and finally, 'the devil' (1.1.91). In his speech, Iago says "an old
black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88). Here, Shakespeare plays on one of many
racist notions that black men have an animal-like, hyper sexuality. Later on, Iago calls Othello
the devil: "Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you" (1.1.9). Another racist slur
portraying the beliefs of the people in 16th century that the devil takes shape and form of a
black man. Iago knew what kind of racist Brabantio was, and he used his attitude toward the
idea of mixed marriage in order to rile the man against Othello. Shakespeare used animal
imagery and racist slurs with a purpose to bring out subconscious hate in the audience
towards black people.
Not everyone in the play feels the same way about Othello. The Senators and the Duke
admired Othello as an military leader who defended Venice. The Duke even defends him to
Brabantio, saying "your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (1.3.22). Even though the Duke
is talking positive about Othello, the racism is still there, considering Othello is being treated
as an exception to the rule. Even Brabantio loved Othello as long as he was only a military hero
defending Venice and has not yet been in a romantic relationship with his daughter. Othello
was tolerated and accepted as a general and a valuable fighter to Venice but as soon as he had
seized a white woman, everything changed.
Shakespeare does not portray skin color of his protagonist as a big issue or an
insecurity right from the start. Later on, towards the end, more and more of Othello's
insecurity is being revealed. Othello's sensitivity to the issue becomes clear when Iago uses it
as proof that Desdemona could not be faithful to a man so foreign:
But pardon me. I do not in position Distinctly speak of her, though I may fear Her will, recoiling to her better judgment May fall to match you with her country forms And happily repent. (III.3.29)
Shakespeare manipulates Othello into believing that Desdemona will eventually change her
mind or "repent"(3.3.29) of being with him, leaving Othello for a white man. Othello's self
confidence, once seemingly so strong, is very easlly eroded by Iago's ability to convince him
that he is inferior to the men of Venice: "Haply, for I am black / And have not those soft parts
of conversation / That chamberers have" (3.3.268). Iago is not only playing on Othello's fears
about his wife sexuality but also on the uncertainty about his status in the society as a black
Moor. Since all the manipulation is done through Iago, Shakespeare makes you question who
the true villain of the play is.
Iago is not only playing on Othello's fears about his wife sexuality, but also on Othello's fear
about his status as a black Moor.
Othello had a cruel past, being a slave, and even now being a general, he is still being
referred to as a black Moor and outsider to a very racist society of 16th century. As much as
he is trying to hide it at the beginning, towards the end his insecurity is more and more
obvious, which only allows Iago to manipulate him into believing about the affair, that much
faster. At first, Iago implies Desdemona's infidelity, Othello is attempting to dismiss Iago's
hints that he might have cause for jealousy "For she had eyes, and chose me"(3.3.189). But
when some more of Iago's "pestilence is being poured into his ear"(2.3.265), Othello does not
disagree with any of Iago's saying even though he has no prove of it and starts believing the
fact that Desdemona is doomed to cheat on him because of his skin colour: "My name, that was
as fresh/ As Dian's visage is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face"(3.3.54). At this
moment in the play Othello seems to have internalized the racist ideologies of other
character. He sees himself as a solid black man, who could never be loved by an innocent
white women. It is because Othello's own insecurities, why he can believe Iago's stories and
falls for his plan. Deep down he himself doubts Desdemona's love and loyalty.
In Elizabethan England, when Shakespeare wrote his play Othello, people belief that
the ethnic origins of an individual affected ones behaviour and personality was very strong.
The language that Shakespeare uses to describe or insult Othello was very familiar with the
audience at the time. In his play, Shakespeare is merely reflecting the racial views of his
audience. Shakespeare is reflecting the behaviour towards black people from the society in
england in 17th century. Despite all the racist slurs and other literary devices(animal
imagery, metaphors) that Shakespeare used to describe Othello, the play itself is not racist.
He was challenging the racist ideas. the audience was at first shocked and terrified with the
interracial marriage, but throughout the play they were able to recognize the true
villain-Iago, being a white man. Apart from that the love that Desdemona had for Othello
remained till the very end. Another racist idea that Shakespeare messes up. A white woman
who is able unconditionally to love a black man. Even though Shakespeare does end the play
as expected, therefore the black Moor kills the white, pure and innocent woman, the real
reason for her death Shakespeare portrays somewhere else; in manipulative workings of a
white man. In Othello the true villain is caucasian man, therefore Shakespeare challenges
society's point of view about black people and makes them consider that bad intentions and
evilness can come from a white man as well.