Race and Discrimination in 'Othello' by William Shakespeare

Updated on February 25, 2017
Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie has two bachelor's degrees, one in science and the other in English. She is working on her master's degree.

Othello, an African prince
Othello, an African prince | Source

The Issue of Race

People discriminate for many different reasons: fear, envy, the desire for power, or a need to disassociate themselves from others. They can, thus, use someone's skin color (an innate trait that cannot be altered) to express their hatred.

Othello, in Shakespeare’s play Othello, is a happily married and widely respected general in the Venetian army despite his African heritage. In the beginning of the story, Othello has not, as yet, experienced discrimination. However, Iago succeeds in bringing about the ruin of Othello and his wife Desdemona by revealing to Othello the existence of racist ideas and convincing him that he must act out against the individuals supposedly harboring racist-fueled resentment.

Through Iago’s manipulation of Othello and others, his claim comes to pass. In the end, people use the color of Othello's skin to condemn his erratic behavior. And by his believing that racism exists, Othello also creates it.

Othello's Background

Othello is an African prince, born into privilege and royalty. He claims, “I fetch my life and being/From men of royal siege.” (III.iii. 21-22). He left his native homeland and his life of guaranteed luxury to live among white Europeans and be free of the innate obligations of royalty. In his new home, his only obligations are to people he himself has chosen to serve: the Venetian government and his wife Desdemona. Even in this position as general, Othello still experiences freedom since he can retire at his leisure, and he tells Iago:

But that I love the gentle Desdemona,

I would not my unhoused free condition

Put into circumscription and confine

For the sea’s worth (I.ii.27-28).

This statement suggests that if he had not met Desdemona, Othello would have continued to live life in a “free condition” without matrimonial commitments that “put into circumscription and confine” his freedom.

Othello delights in and experiences the ultimate freedom to do as he pleases. He is free to make the choices that ultimately affect his life, and enjoys his self-made position. The color of his skin has not prevented him from achieving a high rank in society and exercising the power and freedom such a position entails.

Othello and Desdemona, husband and wife, in happy times
Othello and Desdemona, husband and wife, in happy times | Source

A Plot Rooted in Jealousy

These achievements have earned Othello the respect and admiration of those around him with the exception of a resentful few, including Iago and Roderigo. Iago hates Othello because he appointed the inexperienced Cassio as his lieutenant instead of Iago, who instead became his “ancient.” Iago enacts his revenge upon Othello by manipulating Roderigo, who desires Othello’s wife Desdemona. Roderigo expresses his jealousy by calling Othello racial slurs: “What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe/If he can carry ‘t thus!” (I.i.65-66). Both men plot to bring an end to Othello’s marriage by telling Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, that Othello kidnapped her.

They succeed in angering her father when they bring up the subject of race. Iago says to Brabantio, “An old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.87-88). With this saying, Iago and Roderigo hint that Othello and Desdemona’s future children will be half-breeds who will become the ridicule of society and bring shame upon Brabantio. They continue by saying, “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary/Horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans” (I.i.110-12).

Is Racism Fabricated?

Afraid that such events would jeopardize his position as senator, Brabantio accuses Othello of kidnapping and bewitching his daughter in a desperate attempt to retain his own power and honor in the eyes of society. In his defense, Othello points out that in the past Brabantio “lov’d me; oft invited me” (I.iii.128), showing that Brabantio was not racist and did not discriminate against Othello until Iago's interference made him feel it was in his best political interests to do so.

Desdemona acquits Othello of any wrongdoing, and the Duke says to Brabantio: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack/Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.288-89). The Duke tells Brabantio that he should not put importance on Othello’s skin color, but on his virtuous deeds and nature instead.

The character Iago, who brings about the demise of Desdemona and the ruin of Othello with accusations of racism
The character Iago, who brings about the demise of Desdemona and the ruin of Othello with accusations of racism | Source

Othello Starts to Believe That Racism Exists

Othello, himself, is unaware of any existing racism or of the power of such thoughtless hatred. He declares, “My parts, my title and my perfect soul/Shall manifest me rightly” (I.ii.31-32). He does not believe that discrimination can determine his guilt. At first, this notion of universal equality works against Iago’s claims that Desdemona is cheating on Othello because of his skin color. Othello confidently declares, “Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw/The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt/For she had eyes, and chose me” (III.iii.187-89).

However, he goes on to say, “And yet, how nature erring from itself—” (III.iii.228). This indicates that, perhaps deep down, Othello believes that it is in Desdemona’s inherent nature to favor men of her own race. Iago draws upon Othello's doubt and says, “Her will, recoiling to her better judgment/May fall to match you with her country forms/and happily repent” (III.iii.226-28). By saying this, Iago implies that Desdemona compares Othello with other white Venetian men and regrets her marriage. Persuaded by Iago's words, Othello starts to believe that Desdemona is cheating on him because he is black.

Left alone with these thoughts, Othello states “I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind/To prey at fortune (III.iii.263-64). His words suggest that if Desdemona was proven false, he would cast her out of his household. However, after he brings up the issue of his own race and recognizes how he is different from the rest of society, Othello lashes out in anger at Desdemona, the scapegoat for his overpowering sense of self-loathing:

Haply, for I am black

And have not those soft parts of conversation

That chamberers have, or for I am declin’d

Into the vale of years (yet that’s not much)

She’s gone. I am abus’d: and my relief

Must be to loathe her (III.iii.264-69)

Othello does not just criticize Desdemona for her infidelity nor condemns her for her sins, but he, in a way, justifies her actions by assuming that his own race-related weaknesses motivated her to have an affair with another man. This quote shows a change in Othello. He begins to hate Desdemona because he now believes that she cheated on him because of his race. He will not be content with just throwing her out, but is now consumed with loathing because he believes her cheating and discrimination has caused him to feel pain and inferiority.

Othello's Character Comes Into Question

As Iago continues to supply Othello with 'proof' of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, Othello is further consumed with rage and jealousy. When Lodovico comes to deliver a letter to Othello, Desdemona makes a comment which Othello assumes is about her other lover, and he slaps her. Lodovico is shocked at this rash behavior, which is so out of character, and tells Othello: “My lord, this would not be believ’d in Venice/Though I should swear I saw ‘t; ‘til very much” (IV.i.225-26). He goes on to question Othello’s reputation after such an act, saying:

Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate

Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature

Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue

The shot of accident, nor dart of chance,

Could neither graze nor pierce? (IV.i.245-49)

Othello becomes even more rash when he calls Desdemona a whore, and Emilia, Iago’s wife, exclaims: “Here’s a change indeed!” (IV.ii.107). However, it is not until Othello commits the ultimate crime that his skin color is held against him. They condemn his race because they struggle to find a meaning for this sudden and seemingly unprovoked action.

Death of Desdemona by Othello's hand
Death of Desdemona by Othello's hand | Source

Murder

When Othello murders his wife, it forces those who formerly respected and admired him, and those who held him to be equal on all levels, to use his skin color to explain his great misdeeds. For example, Emilia calls him a “blacker devil!” (IV.ii.132). On the topic of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, Emilia states that Desdemona was true and “was too fond of her most filthy bargain” (IV.iii.157), contemptuously referring to Othello in racist terms. His race is now recognized and being utilized by those who Othello alienated through his irrational actions. If he had not been prompted through jealousy and his own sense of self-loathing, Othello would continue to have been regarded in high esteem by the rest of society.

Conclusion

Othello had previously lived a life free of racial discrimination, except for those few who envied and resented him, or feared he would sabotage their powers. These few used his race as a means of bringing about his destruction. For the rest of society, he was considered a noble and virtuous general, and his color was of little consequence. However, when Othello committed atrocious crimes because of his unfounded jealousy, those who had previously believed him to be admirable and good condemned him, not by criticing his character, but by criticizing his distinguishing racial characteristic: his color.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Ashley 

        8 weeks ago

        Under Murder you quoted the wrong Act. its not under Act 4 its under 5.

      • profile image

        ishabedi 

        2 months ago

        this is really informative essay.

      • profile image

        zara 

        8 months ago

        Did we read two entirely different versions of Othello? In what world would a black man not have experienced racism in the early 17th century despite being surrounded by primarily white politicians? It appears as though you are blaming Othello for conforming to the highly prejudiced stereotype which his companions relentlessly abuse to disparage him.

      • asqueezeoflemon profile image

        Erika 

        2 years ago

        This was a really interesting read!

      • profile image

        Hiro Bower 

        3 years ago

        This was a very well constructed essay. Your evidence and analysis are wonderful and compelling. But I have to disagree with your thesis and conclusion.

        Othello was not living in a world free of racism, and the racism experience was not confined to those who envied or resented him. Though it is not blatantly expressed, the racism is clearly trailing behind Othello through all eyes who watch him. The slew of racial slurs that spill out at the end of the play, that you mention, are evidence of this.

        I fear you are making a claim that Othello is at fault because he falls into a racist stereotype and provokes these slurs. It feels as if your argument then justifies the racism of the play, when the racism is inherently the problem. Othello commit a crime that Iago manipulated and pushed him into.

        I cannot agree that Othello "created" the racism in the play.

      • profile image

        Max Shepley 

        3 years ago

        This is a nice essay though some bits are a little hard to understand. You should probably attempt to clarify who you're referring to or the point you're trying to make by keeping the language a little simpler in areas.

        Don't get me wrong, it really annoys me when people accuse my writing of being overly verbose or pretentious because I like to use flowery language however, some sections do need to get more to the point and not dance around it too much.

      • profile image

        Prof.M.Afzal kumhr 

        3 years ago

        Yes it is a very nice descrimination 'in this essay I like it.

      • profile image

        Mollicat 

        4 years ago

        Well done,why not so Shylock?That is a very anti-semitic or is it?And how do we judge plays written in the past?

      • Ally Lewis profile image

        Ally Lewis 

        4 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

        I studied Othello in college and this hub complemented it nicely. Your observations are pretty spot-on, well done!

      • profile image

        Jhonka 

        4 years ago

        "However, when Othello committed atrocious crimes at the result of unfounded jealousy, those who had previously believed him admirable and good condemned him by his distinguishing racial characteristic: his color."

        You forgot to put in the quote that is an example of this claim, probably because there is no such quote.

      • belleart profile image

        belleart 

        5 years ago from Ireland

        Love this, Othello is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays so I love how you've examined it. very interesting

      • profile image

        nicole 

        5 years ago

        what was the date this was published, the publisher, and publication medium so I can cite it in my essay?

      • Schatzie Speaks profile imageAUTHOR

        Pilar Floyd 

        5 years ago

        Hi Dina,

        You can just credit it to Schatzie Speaks. Obviously it's not my real name, but all my online work is linked to it.

        All the best,

        Schatzie

      • profile image

        Dina 

        5 years ago

        Who wrote this so I can cite them in my essay?

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