Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned 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 th' 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' th' imminent deadly
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,
And portance in my traveler's history,
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads
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. These things to
Would Desdemona seriously incline. (1.3.149-170)
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 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." (Source: "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?