William Shakespeare can be rightfully considered as one of the greatest and most famous playwrights in history. For over four hundred years, his works have been the subject of analysis and adaptations. Indeed, today it is practically impossible for a student to learn how to write a literary analysis paper or an essay without encountering a work by Shakespeare at least once. His plays and his magnificent handling of the English language have helped countless students learn about literary terms and literary devices. There are many reasons why Shakespeare’s works remain the subject of great interest today, and one of these is the exceptional diversity of the themes his works explore as seen in Othello. Published in the early 17th century, Othello tells the story of the eponymous character, Othello, and his descent into madness and murderous rage through the machinations of his secret nemesis, Iago. A customary reading of this tragedy easily leads to the assumption that Iago destroys Othello out of jealousy for the latter’s success. Taking into account the fact that Othello is a Moor, however, complicates this reading. When his racial and ethnic identity as African is considered, Othello’s downfall in the hands of Iago comes to illustrate a more insidious theme: jealousy rooted in racism.
In order to understand how racism asserts influence over Iago’s actions, it is first necessary to consider some assumptions regarding the ethnic and racial profile of Othello. As opposed to the more modern use of the word “Moor” as a term for someone from North Africa, “Moor” in 17th century England could refer to people with darker skin. This means that “Moor,” at least in the time of Shakespeare, could refer to someone from North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, or even beyond. There is considerable debate whether Othello is an Arab from North Africa or a black man from Sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, Iago describes Othello as a “Barbary horse” in Act I, Scene i. As Barbary was a former term for the coast of North Africa, this passage suggests that Othello is an Arab. On the other hand, Iago refers to Othello as “black Othello” in Act II, Scene 3. This passage suggests that Othello is of Sub-Saharan origin. Scholars’ interpretations have therefore been divided, with some assuming that Othello is Arabic and others taking him for Sub-Saharan African. Yet despite the ongoing debate, what is clear is that Othello is an outsider in Venetian society. Though powerful, highly esteemed, and trusted by the Duke of Venice, he can still be considered as a foreigner. In other words, Othello is nothing more but a capable mercenary in the eyes of Venetian society.
Bearing in mind that Othello is a foreign with darker skin, it becomes more apparent that Iago’s hatred of him has a deeply racist dimension. In the opening scene of the play, Iago conveys his loathing for Othello for being passed over for promotion: “Why, there's no remedy; 'tis the curse of service, / Preferment goes by letter and affection, / And not by old gradation, where each second / Stood heir to the first. Now, sir, be judge yourself, / Whether I in any just term am affined / To love the Moor” (I.i.35-40). From this passage it is evident that he hates Othello for not recognizing him. More than this, it seems that Iago is jealous of Othello’s power, influence, and general success. This jealousy is aggravated by the fact that Othello is an outsider.
Many times throughout the play Iago insults Othello by poking fun at his status as foreigner, and one of the ways Iago does this is by likening Othello to an animal. In his talk with Desdemona’s father Brabantio, Iago taunts the senator by suggesting that the senator’s daughter is having intimate relationships with an animal: “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” (I.i.94-97). In these lines, Iago likens Othello to a black ram and Desdemona to a white ewe. This description emphasizes the contrast between black and white, making it seem like the black ram is sullying the purity of the white ewe. It also alludes to miscegenation, or the marital union of two people of different racial backgrounds. Iago again likens Othello to an animal later in the same scene: “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 gennets for germans” (I.i.121-124). This likening of Othello to a horse is particularly insidious in two ways. First, it denies Othello his humanity. Note that Iago calls Othello “Barbary horse.” The fact that Iago uses both “Barbary” and “horse” rather than settle for just either of the two words reveals a lot about how he sees Othello. By calling him this term, Iago makes it known that he sees Othello as a foreigner and at the same time reduces him to a beast. Put simply, this description by Iago suggests that Othello is a beast on account of him being a foreigner. There is no divorcing these two identities. Second, this passage also conveys suggestions of bestiality. While Iago appeals to Brabantio’s sense of decency by implying that Desdemona is having intimate relations with someone bestial, he inadvertently exposes his own prejudice. After all, what Iago considers as offensive to Brabantio is likely deemed offensive by him, too.
Apart from his reduction of Othello to an animal, Iago also shows his racism by repeatedly using derogatory remarks against him. Also in the opening scene, Iago refers to Othello as “thicklips” (I.i.68). This term is considered as derogatory, especially since Iago uses this word as an insult against his enemy. It is a term that calls to mind the stereotypes used to characterize and debase people of color. While Iago makes it appear that his primary motive for destroying Othello is for being passed over, his use of derogatory words indicates racism.
It is evident that racism plays a central role in Iago’s hatred for Othello. Although Iago himself claims that he loathes for Othello for being overlooked, it is clear that his motive owes a lot to envy. Iago is jealous of Othello as the Moor is far better than him. But more than that, Iago hates Othello for his competence despite being an outsider. This much is evident in how he derides Othello by likening him to an animal and referring to him with racially derogatory terms. In identifying the deeply racist dimension of Iago’s jealousy, Shakespeare’s play on new facets, thereby transcending a story between two men to become a study of racial relations at the time.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=othello&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 27 October 2020.