Othello is originally from Africa, so he is a black-skinned man. In the play, he is often referred to as the Moor – a representative of an African race. Othello’s distinctive appearance becomes the reason for one of the conflicts – racial prejudice. Among numerous themes of oppression in Othello, the issue of racism takes the leading role.
Othello (the character) has quite an exciting background. He is a Moor – a dark-skinned man born in Africa. However, due to his courage and hard work, he gains a title of the general of the Venetian army. His successful battles and military achievements make him a highly-respected soldier. However, he is not accepted by society because of his unusual for Venice skin color. Here is where the readers can observe the dissonance. On the one hand, he is an outstanding figure in the professional field. One the other hand, he is an outsider due to his black skin and unusual appearance.
The racism in Othello is notable throughout the entire play. The characters often use offensive language and even compare Othello with animals. For example, in Act 1, Iago uses sheep imagery as he discusses Othello with Brabantio:
“Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you”
(Act 1, scene 1)
Here, Iago compares Othello to the old black sheep and Desdemona to a young white lamb emphasizing the critical difference between the spouses.
Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, even accuses Othello of bewitching his daughter. He does not believe in true love between the spouses. Brabantio is sure that marriage is the result of Othello’s Moorics charms:
“O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow’d my daughter?
Damn’d as thou art, thou hast enchanted her;
For I’ll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned.”
(Act 1, scene 2)
Facing a constant offense, the Moor puts up with his outsider status and becomes mistreating himself. As a result, he is insecure, lost in his thoughts, and blinded by jealousy.
However, racism is not the only cause of the conflict. Sexism and misogyny also play a significant role in Othello’s plot development. Scholars often emphasize that Othello is not only about race issues. It is also about a combination of human weakness and injustice. At the same time, one of the main causes of the conflict is Iago’s misogyny. It is transmitted to Othello and makes him believe in the volatility of Desdemona’s love.
Iago transforms Desdemona’s image, and in Othello’s eyes, she becomes a cheater and a whore. This lie, combined with the Moor’s uncertainty, gives rise to his inner conflict. A woman in this context actually has no rights and is basically the property of a man. Therefore, betrayal in Othello’s eyes is an act that further degrades his dignity. Jealousy, lack of confidence in his own strengths, and dignity enrage Othello, and he kills Desdemona.
In Shakespeare’s era, racism was a critical problem. Since non-whites were a rarity in England, white people felt superior to them. This feature also applies to women who were notably restricted in their rights. For this reason, Othello always experienced a condescending attitude due to his race.
Iago’s misogynistic lies were also a significant stimulus than his racist remarks. The combination of these kinds of prejudice and injustice in society forces Othello to believe in Desdemona’s betrayal. Consequently, Othello’s race is not the primary cause of conflict. Yet, it plays a significant role in its development.