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Othello is the main character in the play Othello by William Shakespeare. He is a well-respected African general in the Venice army and is happily married to Desdemona, a white woman. Othello being African already makes him an outsider and highlights racism in Venice. Throughout this play, there are slurs that have been used to describe Othello, “Moor, is an example of one. Even though Shakespeare did not make race the main theme in the play it is a huge factor in decisions Othello and other characters make. Iago uses race to manipulate Othello by convincing him that people harbor racist sentiments against him although this is untrue. Othello believing that racism exists not only brings about his downfall but give others the reason to condemn his unstable behavior.
While there is no blatant racism in the play, Othello is considered an outsider because of his skin color. Iago would have found it difficult to manipulate Othello if he was a white man. He makes Othello believes that Desdemona does not love him as much as he loves her but rather, she is in love with Cassio, a man who is fairer than Othello. Through this, Iago makes Othello thinks that regardless of all his courage and hard work in becoming general he cannot be loved by anyone because of the color of his skin. Iago’s racist views towards Othello is evident through his dialogues, he uses racial slurs when waking up Brabantio in Act 1 with the news that Othello and Desdemona (his daughter) have eloped. Saying, “Even now, now, very, now an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise! Arise! (1.1.97-98) Iago means that black men have animalistic tendencies which is going to taint the innocence of the beautiful ewe (Desdemona). This is also another one of Iago’s schemes to manipulate Brabantio into thinking that interracial marriages only end up in disaster, and his only daughter getting hurt. The stereotypes of black men continue to be prevalent in the way characters act towards Othello.
How it works
Iago is not the only character in the play that uses race to his advantage. Brabantio, who is afraid of his reputation as the senator, accuses Othello of kidnapping Desdemona, in a desperate attempt to keep his power. Othello points out that Barbantio once “loved me, oft invited me, Still questioned me the story of my life. (1.3.149-150) showing that Brabantio in the past did not harbor any racial resentment towards Othello until Iago manipulated him into thinking that having a black man as your son-in-law is not a good look for a senator. Everyone comes to Othello’s rescue saying he did not bewitch Desdemona, the Duke says to Brabantio, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, Your son in law is far more fair than black (1.3.330-331) indicating that Brabantio should not focus on Othello’s skin color but rather the goodness in his heart. Othello is still not aware of the discrimination he is starting to receive because of his marriage to Desdemona, he still sees the good in everyone and is unaware of what is others have planned for him.
Throughout the play, Othello is not affected by the discrimination he faces in society. He can brush off the harsh insults and slurs he receives from his enemies. His humbleness allows him to accept and defend his race. He does not believe that racism and discrimination can determine the perception others have of you. Othello’s notion of equality ruins Iago’s plans at first when he tries to convince Othello, Desdemona is cheating on him because he is black. However; Othello says “And yet, how nature erring from itself— (3.3.268) indicating that maybe Desdemona likes white men. Even though he trusts Desdemona completely, Othello deep down believes that Desdemona favors men her race over him. Iago adding to that doubt says, “Her will, recoiling to her better judgment, May fall to match you with her country forms and happily repent (3.3.275-277) he suggests that Desdemona compares Othello to men in the city further convincing Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him because of his race.
Othello now starts to believe racism is prevalent in Venice, he starts to justify Desdemona cheating, by saying “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation…must be to loathe her. (3.3.305-309) he is implying that maybe because he is black and does not have the same manners as the other men in Venice is the reason Desdemona is cheating on him. This dialogue Othello has with himself shows a shift in his character, rather than love Desdemona unconditionally Othello starts to hate her.
Othello’s hate for Desdemona grows as he believes that she is cheating on him because he is African. He is not content with ending the relationship but is blinded by hatred because his reputation is his soul, and his wife cheating on him not only makes him inferior, but it causes him so much pain. After he murders Desdemona, people who once admired him begun to blame his actions on his race. They are now seeing him like the animal he was described as at the beginning of the play. Emilia, who respected him calls him “the blacker devil (5.2.161) she also clarifies that Desdemona would never cheat on Othello as “she was too fond of her most filthy bargain (5.2.192), referring to Desdemona and Othello’s marriage as filthy, she goes on to say “than thou wast worthy her (5.2.196) telling Othello that he was never good enough for Desdemona. If his race was not recognized before, he was now being called names by those who trusted and stayed with him through his rational and irrational actions. If he had not been manipulated by his self-loathe, he would have still been the general with a great reputation. Othello, before he was manipulated, lived a racist free life, except for those who were threatened and jealous of his position.
To the rest of society, he was a well-respected general, and they paid no attention to the color of his skin. But when Othello committed the most shocking crime because of jealousy, those who admired and respected him punished him by criticizing his race. Despite the fact, the Othello was written in the 1600’s it highlights issues that are still prevalent in our society today. Anti-blackness has been a part of society throughout history and this is evident throughout Shakespeare’s play. Even though Othello’s race was not the theme of the play, it played a major role in the storyline and is what led to his downfall. His race was used constantly to bring him down while his self-loathe and reputation was what led him to kill his wife and himself. Iago may have pushed Othello to believe lies about his wife but if deep down Othello did not have these thoughts and doubts, Iago would have not been able to manipulate him.
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