How we cite our quotes:
She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell:
'Twas I that kill'd her.
O, the more angel she,
And you the blacker devil! (5.2.36)
When Othello kills Desdemona, he enacts a racist stereotype – that black men are violent, savage, and to be feared. Does this make the play and/or Shakespeare racist? Or, is there a more complex idea at work in the play?
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum.(5.2.68)
By this point, it's pretty clear that Othello has internalized the racist ideas that were so common in the sixteenth century. When Othello realizes that he murdered Desdemona for no good reason (Desdemona has been faithful and loving all along), he imagines he's just like a "base Indian" who "threw a pearl away" without knowing its true worth. What's interesting about this passage is the way Othello's comparison gives voice to a common notion among Elizabethans – that Native Americans and black Africans alike are "base," or uncivilized. (Accounts of European encounters with Native Americans are full of stories about how Europeans were able to trade worthless beads for precious gems and gold – the idea being that natives were too ignorant to know the "true" value of anything.) It's also worth noting that Othello compares Desdemona to a pearl, a white gem commonly associated with purity.