What Role Does Racism Play In Othello?

In the play, Iago provokes Brabantio regarding his daughter Desdemona’s elopement with Othello by saying that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” It is the very first outrightly racist remark in this play by Shakespeare.

Even when the play is titled The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, the ethnic origin of the main protagonist remains ambiguous. 

In the Renaissance age, any classification in a racial sense was very different than that of ours. Roderigo, in his deep malice and envy against Othello, calls him as “the thick-lips.” It may refer to Othello’s possibly African feature.

The envy and anger of Roderigo and Iago provide an answer to such terms used by them against Othello but the racist sentiments are clear in a social sense in the reasons for which Brabantio opposes his daughter’s marriage to Othello.

Othello is a successful, politically respected and a brave individual known for his integrity but Brabantio believes that it is Desdemona’s “unnatural” want for someone like Othello who has “sooty bosom.

Iago attacks Othello’s vulnerabilities because he knows his social isolation. There must’ve been racial segregation in the world of this play, otherwise, it’s not easy to make someone like Othello insecure.

After planting doubts in Othello’s mind about Desdemona’s infidelity, when Iago leaves, Othello starts questioning the possible lacking in his self. He is an outsider. He doesn’t belong to the refined manners of courtiers.

He mourns that “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation.” This sentence is a clear reference towards his insecurity which stems from his racial awareness. 

To provoke the racial sentiments in Brabantio, Iago calls Othello as a “barbary horse.” It refers to a region in northern Africa on the Mediterranean coast. He is also called as “a lascivious moor” by Iago.

Moor is of a mixed Arab and Berber descent. The play exploits this reason to isolate Othello further into his tragedy. He feels rejected further when the whiteness of Desdemona is brought into contrast with his blackness. 

Historically, in the West, Othello is performed by many great Black actors. In the play, once can see that the character of Othello is also culturally isolated.

Iago makes him insecure from the mere character of Cassio. Cassio is shown racially as someone more refined and suited to the Florentine aura where Othello is treated as an “Other” by Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio.

His vulnerability to Iago’s manipulation is mainly due to his racial complexity and the whole play echoes this since the very beginning when Roderigo and Iago remarks upon him in their mutual envy and anger.