The Issue of Race in Shakespeare's Othello

Racial issue may not be as important as the themes of jealousy or love are, but the different race of the hero has much role to play as the cause of tragedy in Othello. In fact, the images of black and white, light and darkness are persistently repeated in the drama. Othello is a black Moor, though it is not exactly certain whether he is a Negro, an Arabian or any other black race.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

But what is important is that his blackness makes him an outsider in the eyes of the Venetian society and also in his own eyes; and that is why he doubts himself as a proper match for the white Desdemona.

Thematically, there must be some reason behind Shakespeare's breaking of the tradition by using a black hero instead of a black villain: he has made the black a noble hero, perhaps for the sake of emphasis on the theme of difference, dislocation and opposition. In the beginning, we feel that the Venetian court and the people and young ladies seem to respect a man for his qualities despite his color. But, we cannot say that the society overlooks racial difference. The duke has to tell Brabantio that he has got a son-in-law 'more white (in virtues) than he is black (in his skin)'. To many people like Brabantio, lago and Roderigo Othello's black background are astonishing when he marries a white girl. Iago talks about Desdemona's match with Othello in loathsome terms like 'sooty bosom', 'thick lips'  ‘an old black ram'. We know that lago is more black (evil, as the white men might mean) than Othello, but Othello fails to keep up the comment that he is 'fair' or white in his feelings and virtue, which we wish to confer on him.

Othello is superstitious like a savage, as in the case of his handkerchief; he is as savage as the white men would like to say the black men naturally are; and his passions are as blind and mad as the devil's. The problem is not with his blackness, and we as civilized and educated human beings can never believe in the white man's foolish attitudes towards black skins; lago the white man is the patron and promoter of all the evil in the world of Othello. The problem is the racial difference that causes unnecessary doubt and jealousy, sense of revenge and hatred in Othello which results in disasters. It is perhaps the inferiority complex in Othello that makes him lose his sane mind and stoop before a damned villain instead of using his own head to find out things for himself. The main cause of Iago's hatred of Othello is also his racial hatred and prejudice; it is in that sense also that we can regard racial difference as the cause of tragedy. The theme of 'dislocation' of Othello in a white society and a white wife is also due to his racial difference. He can't overcome the feeling that he is an outsider.