Race and Prejudice
"Because we come to do you
service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your
daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse; You’ll have your
nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins,
and gennets for germans."
- Iago, Act I, Scene I
(p. 16, ll. 110)
- Roderigo and Iago degrade Othello in racial terms (Act I, Scene 1)
- they call him "Barbary horse" and "thick lips"
- Othello is referred to as beast and thus, he is considered less human than white people
- in fact, Othello is an outsider in the white Venetian society and also, Iago and Roderigo believe that he should be treated with much less respect
- however, his race sets him apart and makes him work harder in order to earn his status and reputation amongst the Venetian upper-class and senators
- Othello has internalized those prejudices as he refers to himself with racial terms as well despite his status in the Venetian court and his elaborate language and overall gentlemanly qualities
- when he loses his manhood by Desdemona's infidelity, he turns into the irrational beast that Iago and Roderigo believe him to be
- Iago displays a hatred of women based on their honesty about their sexuality
- Othello has religious prejudices as he once killed a Muslim Turk whom he calls a "circumcised dog" and as he boasts about that since he is a Christian
- he uses religious prejudices to cement his own place within the Christian society
In general, the characters in Othello
who have prejudices attempt to take control over and shape another person or group whom they are afraid of. By displaying prejudices, one can determine outsiders and insiders within a society or group and additionally, one puts oneself within the dominant group.
Appearance and Reality
"I am not what I am."
- Iago, Act I, Scene 1
(p. 12, l. 65)
- in Othello, it is Iago's ability to mislead other characters that fuels the tragic plot as those mislead misinterpret what they see
- because Othello himself is an honest and direct character, he automatically assumes that Iago is also straightforward and honest and thus, he trusts him and doesn't question him
- in turn, Iago is able to manipulate Othello
- developing his plot against Othello, Iago creates scenes within scenes and sets up encounters between two persons with another person watching them
- Othello watches Cassio and Desdemona speak with each other
- Othello also watches Iago speaking with Cassio about Bianca
- Iago manipulates Othello to the extent that Othello sees what Iago wants him to see
- Iago is thus the director of the plot which is emphasized through his soliloquies
- although Iago is plotting and scheming all the time, he is perceived as honest by almost everyone in the play
- the same applies for Desdemona: although she is innocent and hasn't done anything wrong, Othello believes that she is cunning and that she has betrayed him
- Desdemona is solely killed on Othello's assumption that Cassio is talking about his affair with Desdemona, when in fact, he talks about Bianca
Iago anticipates his status as villain of the tragedy already in the very first scene of the first act. It is thus highly ironic that most characters in the play go through a crisis of learning who and whom not to trust. As they all trust in Iago and do not question his motifs, their naivety leads to their downfall.
"It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
That meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet soundly loves!"
- Iago, Act III, Scene 3
(p. 136, ll. 170)
- the metaphor "green-eyed monster" is closely connected to the theme of appearance and reality
- as Othello demands that Iago should provide evidence ("ocular proof" p. 152, ll. 365) for Desdemona's betrayal, he wants to actually see physical, real proof of it
- Iago gives him the handkerchief (a metaphor in itself for Desdemona's virginity as well as for Othello's love and trust) and Othello accepts it desite it not being "ocular proof" because he is driven by jealousy
- because Othello is submerged by jealousy, he cannot differentiate between reality and appearance anymore
- given Othello's noble and intelligent personality, it is rather absurd that people call him a beast (merely based on his race); however, jealousy turns him into a beast that isn't even able to speak properly due to epileptic fits
- Iago is also motivated by jealousy: he envys Cassio who got promoted ahead of him and takes his anger out on Othello, ultimately being responsible for his downfall and the death of Desdemona
- Roderigo is jealous of Othello since he is married to Desdemona, his love interest
- this makes him a perfect pawn in Iago's intrigues
In the end, all the characters who are driven by jealousy face utter consequences: Othello kills his wife and commits suicide, Roderigo is killed by Iago, Iago accidentally kills his wife Emilia and when he is captured at last, he refuses to talk about his motivations and swears that he will never speak again.
Manhood and Honor
"Come, be a man!"
- Iago, Act I, Scene 3
(p. 56, l. 336)
- in Othello, men build their reputation and honor through military exploits and through their ability to command the faithfulness of their women
- Iago and Roderigo question Brabantio's honor by claiming that he is not able to control his daughter's romantic interests
- Iago makes Othello question his own manhood by making him doubt his power over his wife
- losing control over the woman in his life, Othello loses control over what makes him human
- being honorless equals being an animal to Othello
- both Othello and Iago try to protect their manhood and honor by killing their wives
- Iago kills Emilia because she dishonors him by revealing his manipulation of Othello and Cassio
- Othello strangles Desdemona because he assumes that she has been unfaithful, which makes him look like a fool
- Othello measures his self-worth by the way he is perceived by others - especially men
- thus, he believes Iago and distrusts his wife which is why he ends up killing her
- for Iago, high position and honor are goals that he literally kills for in order to achieve them
- Cassio being promoted lieutenant is a blow to Iago's pride and honor
- this turns into a motivation to engage Othello into a jealous and angry rage, and finally to bring Othello down
- also, he relentlessly degrades and controls Emilia and makes a habit of insulting women in general
- Roderigo has rather feminine characteristics which is why he is victimized by Iago
presents us with a male dominant world where women have to face a tough time. Additionally, the men in the play are fortified by their fellows to gain fame and status in the society.
Womanhood and Sexuality
"Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue.
The profit's yet to come 'tween me and you."
- Othello, Act II, Scene 3
(p. 88 ll. 8 )
- within Othello, women are either perceived as virtuous and loyal wifes or as whores
- Desdemona is considered virtuous, whereas Bianca is considered a whore
- yet, it becomes clear that those two images are just ideals that men impose on women and that women follow those ideals or fantasies
- Desdemona often mentions her deep love for Othello, but it also seems as if she was playing the role of the virtuous wife
- Othello believes Iago when he says that Desdemona is just playing a role and that she is actually acting as a whore and being unfaithful
- Emilia plays the role of the dutiful wife because she steals Desdemona's handkerchief in order to please her husband
- however, she is not completely loyal and also claims that many women would cheat on their husbands under certain circumstances
- by revealing her husband's intrigues, she proves her actually independent virtue
- most male characters in Othello assume that women are promiscuous, which is why all three women in the play are accused of infidelity
Women within that context are described in a very unidimensional way: they are either Madonnas or whores. However, the women in the play itself show that real women are far more complex.