At a Glance

  • Othello the character is a curious mix of strength and weakness, intelligence and stupidity, faith and mistrust. His tragedy is that he's incapable of discerning the truth from lies. This makes him susceptible to Iago's manipulation, which in turn drives him to madness.
  • Iago is often considered a flat character because his motivations are never revealed. There's some indication that Iago is jealous of Othello, whom Iago may hate because of the color of his skin, but these are merely conjectures. Iago emerges as one-dimensional villain.
  • Othello is a tragedy in the classic sense, with the hero, Othello, succumbing to his fatal flaw, jealousy. That Othello's suspicion of Desdemona is ultimately unfounded only adds to the tragedy, in which many innocent characters die because of Iago's evil plot.

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The Role of Race in Othello

The historical development of racial relations between Shakespeare's time and our own has virtually compelled twentieth-century critics of Othello to consider the title character's status as a black man in a predominantly white society. Some modern interpreters of the play have focused on Othello's race as a causal or, at the very least, aggravating factor in the tragedy that befalls him. Others have gone so far as to assert that Shakespeare's Moor is the victim of racial discrimination, if not directly at the hands of Iago's, then indirectly at the hand of the play's author. This, in turn, has generated substantial historical research into the racial attitudes of Shakespeare and of Elizabethan England at large. The results of this effort have been ambivalent: in all probability, white Englishmen of the early seventeenth century (including the Bard) saw themselves as inherently superior to non-Europeans, but they were not racial bigots in our contemporary sense of that word. What can be said for certain is that instances of actual contact between Elizabethan Englishmen and non-whites were exceedingly rare, that the New World slave trade had not yet emerged, and that Shakespeare (and his audiences) looked upon Africans (and other racial "minorities") in a decidedly different light than we do.

Othello is not the only or even the first black character in Shakespeare's stage works. Prior to his composition of Othello, Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, an early Roman tragedy in which the character of Aaron, described like Othello as a Moor, acts as a secondary villain to Titus himself in a work so bloody that its attribution to Shakespeare has occasionally been questioned. But Titus Andronicus was undoubtedly written by Shakespeare and the Moor Aaron is unquestionable evil. Indeed, on the cusp of his execution, Aaron repents of any good deed that he might have inadvertently done! There is a strong implication here that Aaron's evil has a genetic basis. The child whom he sires through Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, is described by the Nurse who acts as midwife as being "as loathesome as a toad" among the fair-faced race of ancient Rome. The strength of the blood connection between Aaron and his offspring is underscored by his exceptional fondness toward his infant son and the scheme to substitute a white baby for the Moor's progeny.

Despite having a black forerunner in Aaron, Othello's presence on the stage as the main character of a Shakespearean tragedy represented something new to Elizabethan audiences. Unlike Aaron, Othello is the chief protagonist of the play in which he appears, and we are forced by its narrative structure to see things through his eyes while knowing that he is being deceived by Iago. The first mention of Othello's race occurs before his initial entrance on stage with Roderigo pejoratively calling him "thick-lips" (I.i.66), a slur that is also applied to Aaron's baby by the Nurse who conveys the infant to him. Iago is even more offensive in his inflammatory remarks to Desdemona's father, telling Brabantio, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (I.i.89-90). Iago's polarity establishes...

(The entire section is 19,268 words.)