How we cite our quotes:
DUKE OF VENICE
And, noble signior,
If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.' (1.3.22)
Not everyone in Venice shares Brabantio's views of Othello. The Senators and the Duke obviously admire Othello, who is a celebrated and honorable military leader. Here, the Duke defends Othello against Brabantio's accusations that Othello used "magic" on Desdemona. On the one hand, we can read the Duke's assertion that Othello is virtuous and "fair" as a compliment. On the other hand, the Duke's words are also troubling because the compliment to Othello hinges on the idea that blackness has negative connotations. Ultimately, the Duke implies that Othello is "fair" despite the fact that he is black. This suggests that Othello is the exception to the rule.
Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question'd me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels' history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,--such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline: (1.3.4)
Here, Othello explains to the Duke and the Senate how Desdemona fell for him – when Brabantio would invite Othello to tell stories about his past, Desdemona paid serious attention and fell in love. This passage is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it reveals that Brabantio "loved" Othello, so long as Othello was a military hero defending Venice and not in a romantic relationship with his, Brabantio's, daughter. 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 the play:
"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.)
We're also interested in the significance of how Othello's stories about travel, adventure, and even his enslavement lend Othello a romantic and exotic quality that appealed to Desdemona (and others who listened). Despite the way Othello's stories lend him an exotic air, some scholars have pointed out that this passage sounds a lot like some stories that were written by white European travelers. (As we know, Shakespeare lived in an age of exploration, when the English were enthralled with stories about encounters with new people and cultures. Check out, for example, The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, compiled in the fourteenth century but reprinted in 1582.) Othello, then, seems to present himself here as, well, a white European traveler, one who has encountered (and lived to tell about) primitive "cannibals" and "men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders." Why does Othello do this? Is he trying to distance himself from the kinds of racist stereotypes sixteenth century Europeans assigned to foreigners and black men (savage, animalistic, etc.)?
We also want to point out how the tragedy of Othello is that, by play's end, Othello ends up fulfilling a racist stereotype (that black men are savage murderers) when he kills his white wife in her bed. In other words, Othello ends up becoming not unlike the murdering exotics he talks about in his adventure stories. So, what's going on here? Does this mean the play is racist? Or, was Shakespeare trying to provoke his sixteenth-century audiences into (re)thinking their ideas about racial identity?
Ay, there's the point: as—to be bold with you—
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends—
Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion thoughts unnatural.
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. (3.3.29)
Iago suggests that there's something "unnatural" and "rank" about Desdemona if she would decide to marry a black man instead of a man who is of "her own clime, complexion, and degree" (a.k.a. a European man, especially a man from Venice). The word "rank" has serious sexual connotations for Shakespeare – it implies a kind of festering and rot associated with sexually transmitted disease. So, Iago is implying that Desdemona's sexual desire for Othello not only makes her "unnatural," but also suggests that she's promiscuous and corrupt – the kind of girl who might have an STD. (Compare Iago's words here to Hamlet's obsession with his mother's "rank" marriage bed by checking out our discussion of "Symbols" in Hamlet.)
We also want to point out that Iago isn't just playing on Othello's fears about his wife's sexuality. Iago also plays on Othello's fears about his status as a black Moor. Iago says Desdemona will eventually change her mind or "repent" for being with him, leaving Othello for a white man instead. Notice Othello doesn't disagree with any of this. It seems Othello's already beginning to believe that Desdemona is or will be unfaithful to him because 1) she's promiscuous and 2) because Othello is a black man and therefore, not good enough for Desdemona. None of what Iago has to say is true. So, why is Othello so easily manipulated by Iago? Is it because Iago tells him what Othello already suspects to be true? If so, does this mean that Othello is a victim of society's racist ideologies?