Study Guide

Othello Race

By William Shakespeare

Race

Act 1, Scene 1
Iago

IAGO
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say! (1.1.97-101)

Iago uses racist slurs when he wakens Brabantio with the news that his daughter, Desdemona (a white Venetian), has eloped with Othello (an older, black man). When Iago says an "old black ram" (Othello) is "tupping" (sleeping with) Brabantio's "white ewe" (Desdemona), he plays on Elizabethan notions that black men have an animal-like, hyper-sexuality. This seems geared at manipulating Brabantio's fears of miscegenation (when a couple "mixes races" through marriage and/or sex).

History Snack: It's also important to note that, although Othello is probably a Christian, Iago calls him "the devil," playing on a sixteenth century idea that black men were evil and that the devil often took the shape and form of a black man. Check out what Reginald Scott had to say in his famous 1584 book, The Discovery of Witchcraft: "Bodin alloweth the divell the shape of a black moore, and as he saith, he used to appear to Mawd Cruse, Kate Darey, and Jon Harviller." (Later, it's no surprise that Brabantio will accuse Othello of using black magic to woo Desdemona.)

Brabantio

BRABANTIO
This is Venice. My house is not a grange.
[…]
IAGO
Because we come to
do you service and you think we are ruffians, you'll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse,
you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll have
coursers for cousins and jennets for germans.
[…]
I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter
and the Moor are now making the beast with
two backs. (1.1.119; 123-127; 129-131)

We've seen how Iago uses animal imagery in his racist diatribe against Othello, which is grounded in the idea that black men (and women) are inhuman. Here, Brabantio objects to Iago's middle-of-the-night assertions that Desdemona has eloped by saying his house isn't a "grange" (a farm or a farmhouse). Iago takes the opportunity to pun on the term "grange," as he claims that Desdemona is having sex with a "barbary horse" and, as a result, Brabantio will have relatives that "neigh to him." Desdemona and Othello, he says, are "making the beast with two backs" (in other words, humping, like camels). This isn't the first time Iago has implied that Othello's animal-like sexuality corrupts Desdemona. Compare this to 1.1.106-113 above.

Act 1, Scene 3
Brabantio

BRABANTIO
She, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, every thing,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on!
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature, (1.3.114-119)

Desdemona's father argues that her love for Othello is unnatural, since, according to him, Desdemona would never fall for a black man who she "fear'd to look on." Of course, Brabantio couldn't be more wrong about his daughter – Desdemona is in love Othello. It seems that Iago has played Brabantio perfectly. Iago knew that Brabantio was racist and, as previous passages demonstrate, he used Brabantio's attitude toward the idea of a mixed marriage in order to rile the man against Othello. Brabantio repeatedly insists that 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 (1.2.70).

Duke, Senators

DUKE OF VENICE
And, noble
   signior,
If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black. (1.3.328-331)

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.

Othello

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
   breach,
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
   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. These things to
   hear
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 [1930]. 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?

Act 3, Scene 3
Othello

OTHELLO
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
'Tis gone.
Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell! (3.3.4505-507)

Othello himself associates blackness with something negative – "vengeance."

OTHELLO
Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face. (3.3.441-443)

This is one of the most important passages in the play. When Othello suspects that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio (she's not, by the way), he suggests that his "name," or his reputation, is now soiled and "begrimed" because of his wife's supposed infidelity. (This idea, that a wife's fidelity to her husband can make or break a man's good reputation is pretty common in Shakespeare's plays. See, for example, The Comedy of Errors, where the fidelity of Antipholus of Ephesus' wife plays such an important role in her husband's good name around town.)

What's interesting about this passage is Othello's use of a racist discourse. When he says his "name" used to be "as fresh as Dian's" face, he aligns his (former) good reputation with the "fresh[ness]" of a white face. (Diane is the goddess of the pale moon and of chastity.) Now that Othello feels his wife's supposed sexual infidelity has soiled his good reputation, he compares his once good name to his "begrimed and black" face. In other words, Othello associates the blackness of his own skin with something dirty and stained, which is exactly the kind of thing that the racist Venetian characters (like Brabantio) have been saying all along.

The point we're trying to make here is that, by this moment in the play, Othello seems to have internalized the racist ideologies of other characters. He sees himself as a soiled (and soiling) black man.

Note: Some versions of the play read "Her name, that was as fresh / as Dian's visage is now begrimed and black / as my own face." How does the substitution of "her name" for "my name" change the meaning of this passage? (Psst. This is a great paper topic…)

Iago

IAGO
Ay, there's the point. As, to be bold with you,
Not to affect many proposèd 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. (3.3.268-278)

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) 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 he already suspects to be true? If so, does this mean that Othello is a victim of society's racist ideologies?

Act 5, Scene 2
Othello

OTHELLO
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,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, 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.(5.2.402-412)

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.

OTHELLO
She's like a liar gone to burning hell!
'Twas I that killed her.
EMILIA
O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil! (5.2.159-161)

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?

OTHELLO
Yet I'll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light,
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore. (5.2.3-9)

As Othello resolves to kill Desdemona, he is noticeably preoccupied with Desdemona's "whiter" than snow skin. He implies he won't stab her because he doesn't want to "scar" her flesh. He also seems to think of her as a kind of pale statue – her skin's as "smooth as monumental alabaster." What's up with that? Why does Othello fixate on Desdemona's skin color (as he contemplates her infidelity) just before he kills her?