In Shakespeare's Othello, how does racism affect the relationship that Othello has with Desdemona, Roderigo, and Iago?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Racism very much affects the way Othello interacts with all the characters in the play. The language used by the other characters makes this very clear—the racial epithets Iago applies to Othello ("the thick lips," for example) all form part of Iago's hatred toward him. Iago doesn't hate Othello just...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Racism very much affects the way Othello interacts with all the characters in the play. The language used by the other characters makes this very clear—the racial epithets Iago applies to Othello ("the thick lips," for example) all form part of Iago's hatred toward him. Iago doesn't hate Othello just because of his race—he says he hates Othello because he believes Othello has slept with his wife; he also hates him for passing Iago over for promotion. However, race clearly plays a part; there is a suggestion that Iago dislikes having a black man superior to him. Note how he describes Othello to Brabantio, Desdemona's father: "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." He knows this will outrage Brabantio far more than if Othello had been a white man, and is an example of animalistic language being applied to Othello.

Desdemona herself does not seem to judge Othello for his skin color at all—on the contrary, she is attracted to him because he is so different from her, and able to tell such fascinating stories of the many places she has traveled. She is certainly not sexually repulsed by him—however, Othello comes to fear that she may be sleeping with Cassio, in part perhaps because he feels she cannot really be faithful to him, as he is so different from her.

Roderigo does not interact with Othello very much in the play, but his interactions with Iago, and the language he uses, suggest that he shares beliefs with many in Venice at that time as regards "outsiders" like Othello.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If you are going to examine the idea of racism in Othello, you have to at least consider what you mean by the term. Are you looking at it from a 21st century perspective? Well, of course you are. Your own preconceptions and what you see in the text are going to be very different interpretations than what someone a century ago would have perceived.  So, you need to consider what the term "racism" might mean as it pertained to Elizabethan England.  You can call Shakespeare a racist, or you can consider that perhaps he was looking at the character as more of someone who is an outsider, a foreigner, than just a black man.

Given that, you could say that Desdemona was a reverse racist in some respects, since her attraction to Othello had to do with the fact that he was so different in every way from her.

Roderigo, as well, does not necessarily see Othello from a place of race; his concern is the fact that Desdemona has rejected him and married someone else, someone so different. Remember, Roderigo is Desdemona's social equal, so he cannot fathom why she would choose Othello.

As far as Iago goes, he has a whole slew of reasons to justify why he wants to be the means by which Othello is brought low. Race is only one of them.

Does the fact that Othello is black perhaps affect the way the other characters respond to him? Sure, buy it isn't so straightforward as simply out and out racism. It's a complex play, and he is a complicated character.

Posted on