Shakespearian plays provide the reader with a comprehensive look at the human condition, dealing with the virtues of men, their vices, and ultimately the factors that lead to their demise. In this manner, the characters of Shakespeare’s Othello become symbols of honesty, jealously, love, deceit, nobility, and race. Within the first few lines of the play, the reader learns Iago’s name, but remains unaware of his intentions. At this early point, the audience is dependent on Iago’s and Roderigo’s description of Othello, restricted to the described image of an uncivilized bestial Moor.
The beginning of the play highlights stereotypical racial sentiments, however, Shakespeare uses Othello’s entrance to juxtapose the tropes of race, with the image of an adroit soldier and an accomplished leader. Thus, Shakespeare recognizes Iago’s and Roderigo’s color prejudice as a sordid manifestation of jealousy against an individual who has achieved higher recognition and status. Consequently, Iago uses racism as a means to achieve both an advantage and authority over Othello in an attempt to control his actions and ideas.
Shakespeare’s Othello demonstrates that nobility and valor, like jealousy and cowardice, are not the monopoly of any color. Shakespeare employs Iago as the “Machiavel,” who adheres to Machiavelli’s principle that the acquisition and effective use of power may necessitate unethical methods. In short, Iago becomes Shakespeare’s amoral villain. Accordingly, Iago uses inflammatory diction as a form of vengeance to manipulate Othello in response to his lost promotion. Through this diction, the audience understands that for Iago, Othello’s race is the source Iago’s power.
However, the provocative racial sentiments through out the play are generally confined to Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio. Both Iago and Roderigo implement racial insinuations during their plot against Othello’s position and reputation. Iago tells Brabantio that, “an old black ram/ is tupping your white ere,” (1. i. 88-89). However, these potent insults demonstrate Iago’s consistent desire to reduce Othello and his actions to those of a beast, with his use of animalistic racial slurs.
With this diction, the audience becomes sympathetic to Othello as Iago’s actions and dialogue reveal the nature of his own character. In addition, the audience sees that Roderigo is also adept at racist insults and stereotyping. He refers to Othello as “thicklips” (1. i. 66) and informs Brabantio that his daughter has given herself to the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor,” (1. i. 126). Provoked, Brabantio professes his anger, “Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be,” (1. ii. 99).
Nevertheless, beyond the racial innuendos, Othello remains a strong warrior and remains an integral part of Venetian civic society. Therefore, these racial comments have little impact upon the Venetian court in general. Even as Brabantio struggles to conceptualize his daughter’s disobedience, his final expression of grief communicates a sense of anger at her deception and betrayal rather than the racial disparities of her marriage. In contrast, Othello uses composed, poetic, humble, and articulate diction. As a result, his character is clearly revealed through his speech.
Although a Moor, in this scene Othello demonstrates nobility and valor, while Iago and Roderigo reveal their jealousy, as their characters are being continually exposed through the course of their actions and speeches. Shakespeare introduces color prejudices initially in the play; however, he continues to negate the prejudices reflected in the Iago and Roderigo’s language. It is Iago, the white man, who is portrayed as amoral and anti-Christian, essentially barbaric towards Othello, who he envies and resents.
After being passed over for the position he coveted, Iago assaults both the person who received the position and the system itself. He voices the timeserving bureaucrat’s objection that promotion goes not by the “old graduation, where each second/ Stood heir to th’ first,” (1. i. 37-38) and denigrates the abilities of his successful rival as “mere prattle, without practice,” (1. i. 26). Iago’s constantly tries to suppress or deny the feelings that consume him, and to transform them into other feelings that might justify a course of action instead of having to suffer in silence.
Consequently, Iago acts brutishly, seething resentment at having to remain in a condition of peripheral political standing. In Shakespeare’s presentation of Othello, he remains the antithesis of the stereotypical Moor. Shakespeare’s Othello is born of “royal siege” (1. ii. 22), he is a great solider, he possesses a lofty vision, and uses the richest language in the play. Othello’s capacity for love is intimately bound up with his sense of honor. Othello’s detestation of adultery sets him amongst the moralists and in stark contrast from Iago’s savage devious nature.
As Othello’s sense of betrayal intensifies, he intermittently refers to racial language. In this manner, Shakespeare epitomizes Othello not as the “natural” embodiment of Iago’s jealous “old black ram, but rather as the victim of the racist ideology in Venice, an ideology to which Iago relentlessly subjects him to and which increasingly comes to define him as he internationalizes it. “My name, that as a fresh. As Dian’s visage, is now begrim’d, and black/ As mine own face,” (3. iii. 392-94).
As Othello searches for a metaphor to convey a sense of soiling to both his own name and Desdemona’s body, he compares them to his own face. Race comes to dominate Othello’s sense of self, polluting his “peace of mind” and forcing him to quickly believe that Desdemona had committed adultery. Accordingly, Othello strangles Desdemona in an act of desperation. However, Shakespeare does not employ this act as one of “barbarism,” but rather concentrates on the problem of the inevitable vulnerability of human judgment to hidden malice.
He demonstrates that human judgment cannot be expected to penetrate the opacity of deception. Othello’s language in the final scene shows his concern for release, for justice and punishment, his painful, enduring sense of love, which ensures that Desdemona, as a Christian, be permitted to confess to ensure salvation. Shakespeare’s Othello demonstrates that nobility and valor, like jealousy and cowardice, are not the monopoly of any color. Iago and Roderigo’s prejudice towards color is recognized as sordid. Their prejudice towards color is a means to masked their jealousy or feeling of mediocrity.
Iago, also, uses racism against Othello as a means of degradation, since Othello demonstrates the nobility, courage, and individual skills Iago lacks. However, as the play unfolds, Othello begins to embody a raging sense of jealousy as he internalizes his wife as an adulteress. This animalistic rage denigrates his performance as a solider and ultimately causes his demise from nobility. Accordingly, Shakespeare’s play Othello criticizes typical racial stereotypes by highlighting that these “barbaric” emotions are not caused by race or color, but are driven by hidden malice.