How did people of the Renaissance view dark-skinned people and how are those perceptions represented in William Shakespeare's Othello?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Much evidence suggests that many people in the Renaissance (that is, the period from roughly 1500 to 1640 in England) were often prejudiced against people of color, including black persons from Africa. Blacks were often presented in highly unflattering ways in Renaissance literature, and indeed the word “black” often had very unattractive connotations during this era. Many examples of racial prejudice can be seen in the comments of various characters in William Shakespeare’s Othello. Interestingly enough, however, these comments often come from the mouth of Iago, who is the play’s true villain. Iago is full of hatred and contempt for many other persons besides Othello, and his racism is partly a reflection of his evil nature.

Iago, however, is not the only character in the play who expresses racial prejudice. Consider, for instance, the various following examples:

  • Iago exclaims to Brabantio that Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, is having sex with Othello:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram 
Is topping your white ewe.

  • Roderigo is disgusted by Othello’s apparent good fortune in marrying Desdemona:

What a full fortune does the thicklips owe 
If he can carry't thus!

  • Brabantio, addressing Othello, says that he cannot believe that Desdemona would

Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom 
Of such a thing as thou . . .

Significantly, all three of these characters are presented in unattractive terms, and indeed Brabantio is even gently rebuked by the leader of Venice for initially rejecting Othello as a son-in-law:

noble signior,
If virtue no delighted beauty lack, 
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

Admittedly, Othello is continually referred to throughout the play as “the Moor” (the word occurs nearly 60 times), but often these references are neutral or even complimentary. Consider, for instance, the following examples:

  • Roderigo, admittedly, warns Brabantio about Desdemona enduring “the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor.”
  • Brabantio seems shocked that his daughter might marry a Moor, as can be seen from his response when he is told that she is with Othello: “With the Moor, say'st thou? Who would be a father!”
  • However, a Venetian senator describes Othello as “the valiant Moor”;  Desdemona twice calls Othello “the Moor” in the early “trial” scene; a Venetian senator addresses Othello as “brave Moor”; a gentleman on Cypress compliments Othello by calling him “the warlike Moor”; Montano calls him “the noble Moor”; Emilia often refers to Othello in neutral terms by using the word “Moor”;  Desdemona, speaking to Emilia, calls Othello her “noble Moor”; and Lodovico later uses exactly that same term. Emilia, of course, even later, having discovered Desdemona’s murder, uses far less complimentary adjectives to modify the word “Moor,” but her comments do not seem especially dictated by racial prejudice.

In short, although there is no denying that racial prejudice did exist in the Renaissance and that blacks were often severely victimized by it, Othello seems less the object of such prejudice in Shakespeare’s play than one might have suspected or anticipated. The least attractive characters are the ones most obviously motivated by racial prejudice.