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Othello is the first great black protagonist in Western literature... and he's still one of the most famous (which is a big problem, and why you should set a goal to do a "read only non-white authors" month/year).
The play dramatizes this dude'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. Not bad, Othello. Not bad at all.
Othello's status in Venice is pretty complicated—he's both an insider and an outsider. On the one hand, he is a Christian (probably) 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 shockingly overt racism, especially by his wife's father... who believes Desdemona's interracial marriage can only be the result of Othello's trickery.
Of course, as we learn, Othello is definitely not the tricky character in this play.
Holy racial slurs, Batman. Othello doesn't hold back when it comes to racism: these Venetians really show how bigoted they are.
According to Brabantio, Othello must have "enchanted" Desdemona with "foul charms" and magic spells. Otherwise, he insists, Desdemona never would have run "to the sooty bosom" of Othello (1.2.82, 92, 89). 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 (1.1.100).
Many literary critics have pointed out that the play seems to capture some pretty common (and completely awful) 16th and 17th century attitudes toward interracial couples. We can also—tragically—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 n**** 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 1930's 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). And—as news stories continue to inform us—racism is alive and rampant throughout the States.
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 a) either pretty gullible or b) trusts Iago way more than he trusts his wifey.
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.
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 of the theme of "Race").
Check out the internalized hatred Othello displays. It's not pretty:
Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face. (3.3.441-443)
Yikes, right? This statement proves that Othello's exposure to racist attitudes has changed the way he thinks of himself, bigtime.
We may also want to consider another possibility—that 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 the way Desdemona has hurt him and trying to get back at her for it. He's obsessed with his feelings, the way in which 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:
I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamors counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone! (3.3.397-409)
We'll repeat that one again for good measure: Othello's reaction to hearing that his honey has stepped out on him is to say: "Othello's occupation's gone!"
Othello's destructiveness—and his determination to punish Desdemona for cheating on him—stem 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 pretty 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 being consistently viewed as an outsider, simply because he's 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.
(Not that Shakespeare does—he treats him in the same way that he treats all his tragic heros, i.e. he freaking kills him off.)