Othello - Race
It is certainly not hard to conclude that it is probably Shakespeare's most controversial play. There is a clear theme of racism throughout, one which was firmly embedded in the Venetian society which rejects the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as erring, 'against all rules of nature,' <1.3.102> Nothing separates Othello from, 'the wealthy curled darlings of our nation,' <1.2.68> except skin-color - he matches or even exceeds them in reputation. At the start of the play, he appears confident that,
OTHELLO: My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
when he is called in front of the court on charges of witchcraft. Yet the malevolent Iago is able to call on Othello's deep-rooted insecurities about his race in order to play Othello and Desdemona against one another until their marriage fails. Essentially, Iago is a personification of the bigoted white race, who tries to inform the public of the impurity of Othello and Desdemona's marriage. He demonstrates how this miscegenation is threatening to the existing social order, and ultimately, Othello's lifetime of achievement is not sufficient to persuade others from prejudice in a moment of crisis (such as Desdemona's elopement,) or sustain his self-esteem in the long run. Othello is structured so that the main premise of the play, introducing the main themes, appears near the beginning. It is obvious that Iago has an agenda planned of malevolent proportions with Othello at its target. He is the catalyst of all the destructive happenings within the play starting from the very beginning when he and Roderigo approach the residence of Brabantio in 1.1. He uses crude, racist language to appeal to the senator's traditional beliefs, including such phrases as,
IAGO: Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe!
Iago even goes so far as to propose that Brabantio's grandchildren will be animals because of his daughter's base marriage with an 'other.'
IAGO: ...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.
Later we are told that Iago's motive is jealousy and he uses the rhetoric of racism to undermine Othello, playing on Brabantio's prejudices to provoke him, even though, as Othello relates later, 'Her father loved me, oft invited me.' <1.3.129> A shock and a few crude comments from Iago is all it takes to make a respected figure turn against a close friend of equal stature simply because of skin color.
Culturally, Brabantio had all the support necessary to challenge the marriage given the common racist assumptions of the time, and accuses Othello of sorcery and witchcraft. This means firstly that he is unable to imagine his daughter willfully deceiving him, an understandable reaction given her past dutiful behavior, 'so tender, fair and happy' <1.2.66> and the nature of the patriarchal society in which she lived. Secondly, he cannot believe she would ever 'fall in love with what she feared to look on,' <1.3.99> without the aid of spells. Thirdly, he suggests that Othello's race makes him capable of these powers of 'black' magic; we have to ask ourselves; if Desdemona had eloped with Roderigo, would he be accused of witchcraft? If Brabantio had not reverted to his prejudices and stayed calm, he might have thought of questioning the legality of the marriage based on the Canon Law's requirement of consummation, but he fails to do so, choosing instead to attempt to nullify it by claiming that his daughter was the victim of spells and witchcraft. In other words, Brabantio, a respected member of Venetian society, could have contested the marriage contract logically and legally, but instead he falls back on using prejudiced assumptions as weapons, encouraged by Iago