The Role That Race Plays in Shakespeare’s Othello

Discuss the role that race plays in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello. How do the other characters react to Othello’s skin color or to the fact that he is a Moor? How does Othello see himself?

Race is not at the core of Shakespeare’s Othello but affects everything in the drama. It plays a central role in shaping the plot of the drama and the behaviour of the characters. Shakespeare has not selected the protagonist to be a man of color without a strong reason. Othello’s complexion is the cause he is ostracised and becomes a  victim of Iago’s manipulation. Had it been some white man like Cassio in his place, Iago’s task would have become difficult. Othello’s skin colour is also one of the reasons that Iago hates him so much. Only Desdemona and Cassio do not seem bothered by the Moor’s colour of skin.   Desdemona’s father does not want his daughter getting married to some man of African descent. He wanted a royalty in his place as son in law who was of fair complexion like his daughter. Iago calls Othello a Black Ram before Brabantio.

While, there are no major signs of racial hatred against Othello, except the few slangs that Iago uses for him, still he is an outsider because of his colour. However, it is for his courage and status as a general that he is considered influential. Shakespeare shows that  even influential people make mistakes and are vulnerable like the common people. Once you stop minding your weaknesses, your opponents will benefit from them. Othello starts looking confused at various points in the drama and acts against his conscience but when we see it in the context of his race, the situation becomes clearer.  Iago keeps fingering his wound to take him away from his beloved wife Desdemona. Othello was otherwise satisfied with his life but for Iago, his life is ruined. He grows more and more frustrated about his skin colour as Iago keeps churning his dissatisfaction to make his feel inferior to his wife and Cassio.

It is due to his colour (race) that Othello is considered an outsider. If he was not of African origin, Iago would have found it difficult to prove that Desdemona did not love him. His colour also gives rise to an inferiority complex in Othello who does not want to believe it, but feels forced to think as Iago wants. Othello’s colour also makes readers sympathise with him. Moor’s skin colour is deeply related to his identity. He is seen as brave, aggressive and ferocious on the battlefield. This is where his complexion and African descent may look like a  natural advantage but off the field it is a disadvantage. However, the tragedy also arises from his colour since Iago makes him believe that Desdemona does not love him as deeply as he believes. She loves Cassio who is fairer and that the Moor is a poor match for her. In this way, Iago makes him feel cuckolded. The pain doubles when Othello thinks that despite all his courage his wife does not love him as deeply for he belongs to an inferior race. He cannot be loved because he is not as good looking as Cassio.

Iago’s wicked plan is successful and he is able to convince Othello that he is physically not as charming as Desdemona. This is bound to give rise to an inferiority complex in the protagonist. Moreover, the agony and ignominy of being considered a cuckold are not small either. Iago successfully brings out the monster from inside Othello. Once the suspicion is in, all the trust is Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship is lost. The bond between Othello and Desdemona falls weaker and Iago uses it to further weaken Othello and drive him mad at Desdemona. In this way, race plays a small but still significant role in Shakespeare’s play. The Moor is courageous and smart in the battlefield but after all his race and colour make him feel like being ostracised. His race and colour are his vulnerability and Othello is not able to survive when Iago strikes there. Iago’s plot is a cruel play of ostracism and racial discrimination. Othello belongs to the out group and once he has been isolated, he is weak and defenceless. Race and racial differences can kill. Shakespeare has showed it in Othello. Iago looks down upon Othello and despises him for being his senior. A respectable Moor in the community of whites is not bearable for everyone. Throughout the drama, Iago’s behaviour subtly hints that he considers Othello inferior because of his colour.

Iago’s racist mind and his hatred for the Moor are clear in his dialogues. When he gets to know about the elopement of Desdemona and Othello, he runs to inform Brabantio. His dialogues are filled with racist jargon.  To Brabantio, he says,

“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”.

He compares Othello with a black Ram and Desdemona with a white ewe. He asks Brabantio to open his eyes else the black devil would have turned him into a grand father before he even knew.

He tells Brabantio that his son in law is a Barbary horse and he will have colts in his family.

“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”.

Right at the outset of the drama Iago makes racist quotes against the Moor. It shows that Shakespeare has used the element of racism in the drama intentionally. So, even if its role is limited, race is of importance. Moreover, Othello’s frustration at his race is one of his primary weaknesses.  It is a weakness that  he can never overcome because it is nature’s gift. Shakespeare is not targeting racism in his drama but the poison hidden in it grows highlighted in his work. Iago injects this racist poison in an otherwise strong relationship and kills the two lovers as he had planned. However, he himself fails to escape his fate for having done injustice to two poor lovers. Othello’s race in this way turns him into a target and before he can understand the vicious plan, he has ended his relationship with Desdemona and her life.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.