Explore the relationship between identity, perception, and social acceptance in Othello.

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Othello shows that one's sense of identity and perspective can be deeply and negatively impacted by feeling estranged from one's dominant culture. Iago uses European racism to play on Othello's insecurities about himself as a desirable husband. Iago manipulates Othello's racial vulnerabilities to convince Othello that Desdemona is having an affair, although this is an entirely false construction of reality.

From the beginning of the play, Othello has to contend with a white European culture that does not fully accept him, even as an honored and esteemed military leader. In act 1, scene 1, for example, Iago uses racist and animalistic imagery to paint for Brabantio a picture of his daughter being raped by Othello, saying:

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.

He also uses stereotypes of Black people as descendants of the devil to try to inflame Brabantio against Othello. In fact, Brabantio does think the union is unnatural, saying in act 1, scene 3 that Desdemona

in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, every thing,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on!
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature.

Brabantio thinks it wrong and a symptom of poor judgment that a beautiful white woman like his daughter could fall in love with a Moor, no matter how worthy the man. Desdemona and Othello even have to appear in front of a tribunal to convince the authorities that Desdemona has not been abducted or married Othello against her will. She does argue very eloquently of what caused her to be in love with him, but it would be hard to blame Othello for feeling insecure.

Iago, who wants to see Othello suffer and fail, plays on Othello's feelings about his race, convincing him, all the while pretending to be his friend, that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Othello responds, finally, by stating,

Her [Desdemona's] name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face.

Othello shows in the quote above how he has internalized the racism that surrounds him. He equates what he thinks is Desdemona's adultery with his skin color, showing that he believes both are dirty. If Othello feels he is physically "begrimed" because of his race, it is no wonder this negative self-image makes it easy for him to accept that Desdemona does not really love him.

In the end, Othello realizes too late that he has been manipulated into killing an innocent woman. If he had been allowed to develop a stronger positive sense of identity, it is quite possible that would not have happened.

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