Othello is the first great black protagonist in Western literature, and still one of the most famous. The play dramatizes this hero's fall from grace – Othello begins as a noble guy (he's a celebrated and respected war hero, a loving husband, and an eloquent storyteller) but, by the end of the play, Othello has become an irrational, violent, and insanely jealous husband who murders his own wife after Iago convinces him that Desdemona has been unfaithful.
A black man from North Africa, Othello has traveled the world, been sold into slavery, escaped, and ended up as the military commander of the Venetian military, guard to a powerful Italian city-state. Othello's status in Venice is pretty complicated – he's both an insider and an outsider. On the one hand, he is a Christian and experienced military leader, commanding respect and admiration from the Duke, the Senate, and many Venetian citizens. On the other hand, being a black Moor and a foreigner in Venice also subjects Othello to some overt racism, especially by his wife's father, who believes Desdemona's interracial marriage can only be the result of Othello's trickery (1.2.1).
According to Brabantio, Othello must have "enchanted" Desdemona with "foul charms" and magic spells. Otherwise, he insists, Desdemona never would never have run "to the sooty bosom" of Othello (1.2.2). In the play, Othello's marriage to Desdemona prompts some characters to refer to Othello as "thick-lips," the "devil," and the "old black ram" that supposedly contaminates a white woman (Desdemona) with his hyper-sexuality. At one point, Iago suggests that Othello is a "devil" that will make Brabantio the "grandsire" of black (like the devil) babies (1.1.10).
Many literary critics have pointed out that the play seems to capture some pretty common (and pretty awful) sixteenth and seventeenth attitudes toward interracial couplings. We can also draw some parallels between the play and more contemporary attitudes in the U.S. Here's what actor Paul Robeson (the black American actor who broke the color barrier when he played Othello on Broadway in 1943) had to say about Othello:
"In the Venice of that time [Othello] was in practically the same position as a coloured man in America today . He was a general, and while he could be valuable as a fighter he was tolerated, just as a negro who could save New York from a disaster would become a great man overnight. So soon, however, as Othello wanted a white woman, Desdemona, everything was changed, just as New York would be indignant if their coloured man married a white woman." (See "My Fight for Fame. How Shakespeare Paved My Way to Stardom." Pearson's Weekly, April 5, 1930, p 100.)
The 1930s may seem like a very long time ago, but it would be a mistake to say that Shakespeare's work and Paul Robeson's remarks are not relevant today. As recently as October 2009, a white Justice of the Peace in Louisiana refused to marry an interracial couple (source).
Despite the taboo of an interracial marriage, Othello and Desdemona are pretty happy and in love at the beginning of the play. So, what the heck happens? Why does Othello become convinced that his faithful wife is cheating on him? We know that Iago manipulates Othello with his lies about Desdemona, but Iago never actually offers up any real proof of Desdemona's "affair," which suggests that Othello is pretty gullible.
There are a couple of ways we can read Othello's eagerness to believe the worst about his wife. Some literary critics suggest that Othello believes that all women are inherently promiscuous. This seems to be the case when he says things like all men are "destined" to be cuckolded by their wives (3.3.42). Other critics argue that Othello begins to absorb the racist attitudes that surround him in Venice. In other words, Othello begins to believe that 1) he's not good enough for Desdemona because he's black and 2) as a black man, his relationship with his wife may "soil" her, which we discuss in more detail in our discussion the theme of "Race."
We may also want to consider another possibility. The one Othello loves "too well" isn't Desdemona – it's himself. Jealousy is an intensely self-centered emotion, and Othello spends much of the play obsessed with how Desdemona has hurt him and trying to get back at her for it. He's obsessed with his feelings, the way that her cheating reflects on him.
Scholar Marjorie Garber suggests that Othello's self-absorption starts way before Iago gets to him. She points out that Othello equates his inner, personal life with his outer, professional life. He can't draw any boundaries between them. Most people may not believe, as Othello does, that a problem in their personal life could destroy their ability to function in their careers. But in Othello's scene with the Senate, he's eager to assure the senators that he won't let his marriage get in the way of his career. And when Othello thinks Desdemona has cheated on him, his first reaction is to declare, "Farewell the pluméd troops and the big wars… Othello's occupation's gone" (3.3.49).
Othello's destructiveness, his determination to punish Desdemona for cheating on him, stems from his rage that Desdemona's immoral actions have also damaged him. What makes Othello so furious, Garber suggests, is that, when it comes to himself, Othello is a perfectionist. This all reflects rather poorly on Othello.
But let's take a step back. Why is Othello a self-obsessed perfectionist in the first place? Othello's dangerous perfectionism may stem from his position as an outsider, a black man in white Venetian society. Othello only could have risen to his position of power through incredible self-discipline. To be fair to Othello, we have to consider carefully why he is so obsessed with his own self-image, and why he is so easily persuaded that Desdemona would tire of him and move on to another man. To the extent that these factors are the result of Othello's outsider status and the prejudice he constantly has to overcome, we may want to cut Othello some slack.