Othello by William Shakespeare presents a battle between the black and the white. It puts the symbol of black against white. To start with, black is usually representative of evil while white represents virtue. On another level, it is a struggle between the white and the black race. Moreover, there are struggles on a personal level. There is a struggle between a white versus a black man. The author of this book moves from the normal convention where black represents evil and white represents virtue. Shakespeare weaves the plot of this play in a way that black stands for virtue and white for evil. It is hard to tell why Shakespeare chooses that direction but critics claim that Shakespeare wanted to make a political statement about racism (Hall 113).
The literature of the Elizabethan period was very racist. It used to portray people of African origin in a very negative light. This author had been racist in some of his major plays, like the Merchant of Venice. However, Othello is one of the few Elizabethan plays that allow a black man to be viewed positively. From the beginning of the play, a man of African heritage is portrayed positively by William Shakespeare. The author depicts Othello as a real hero, a very brave general and a man of high social standing. However, this great man, just like any other Elizabethan greats, has some weaknesses that antagonists use to bring him down. His greatest strengths which are his nobility and honesty become his greatest weaknesses. They are used by Iago to trap him. Iago is a white man and it was very hard in Elizabethan literature to find a white man being used as the evil character. Iago is the evil man now. Shakespeare tries to create a notion that evil and virtue are not found in colors. The fact that a white man is playing an evil role does not mean that white has ceased to be the color of purity. He is just debunking the myth that normal color symbolism cannot be used to judge the nature of human beings. That is why Desdemona represents purity while Iago represents evil.
Othello is full of racial hatred. As the play opens, Iago states that he hates Othello. This is because Othello, who is Iago’s boss, has refused to promote Iago to a position he had been eyeing. The position is given to a man who is less experienced than Iago. This really infuriates him and his hatred for Othello is fueled up. This is not the only reason that makes Iago to detest Othello. This hatred goes beyond workplace differences. Iago is fond of making personal attacks at Othello. He had called him an old black ram twice in the play (Shakespeare 121). This is a racial insult. Ironically, Othello is politically powerful but because of his race, he occupies a very inferior position in the white dominated Elizabethan society. Due to this inferiority, Othello is vulnerable enough to be tricked by his junior, Iago, on a number of occasions.
Iago cannot give a plausible reason as to why he hates Othello. He decides to invent a reason. He comes up with a lie that Casio is sleeping with Desdemona. Desdemona is Othello’s wife and their relationship is very strong. There is a strong bond of love in this marriage that is symbolized by the handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona. It is this handkerchief that Iago steals and places it in Casio’s house to prove that Casio and Desdemona are having an affair behind Othello’s back (Kass 89). He wants to disguise his racial hatred by making Othello become the villain in the play. The people will definitely detest him. His anger is evident when he talks about the hell and night and this is a display of utmost contempt for his boss. Hell and night are usually associated with evil and in this case, the issue of color and evil comes out again (Kass 90).
The racial hatred that Iago has already cultivated incites him to make evil schemes against Othello. He has already planted a seed of jealousy and it is almost coming to fruition. Iago is out to finish Othello. He has managed to hatch the plot that will make Desdemona look like an unfaithful wife. Due to the influence of Iago, Othello now wants to kill his wife Desdemona because of “cheating on him”. The humanity in Othello starts to dissipate and he starts to behave like a savage. It is important to note that savages are always likened to the people of the black race.
The only human sense that Othello seems to have is love. Now he believes that he longer has love and his manhood is gone, so is his nobility. Iago’s schemes have created very disastrous consequences. Death and destruction are the aftermath of his evil plans. The schemes orchestrated by Iago lead to many deaths. Desdemona is assassinated by her husband Othello. He also attempts to kill Casio, who gets injured in the process. Iago kills his wife in a horrible manner which displays his increasingly evil ways. Othello is able to get back his love and his noble status, albeit very late. The big question that arises is why Othello take his own life after this restoration. Most likely, Othello had within him very many positive qualities but he did not have the capability to keep them. Despite all the hate that is directed towards him, he had enough love and love was all he wanted to live comfortably in a perfect world. However, this was rarely the case in Elizabethan literature. Elizabethan literature always presented serious flaws that made it difficult for a perfect world to be created.
The tragedy at the end of the play is a culmination of racist hatred that was heavily engendered by Iago. It seems as if the prime cause of the tragic events at the end of the play is marital infidelity. However, there is no infidelity in the play and all the cases of infidelity are created by Iago to cover up his racist hatred. Racial hatred would not have been enough to cause all the destruction in the play and Iago had to look for another reason that would have more catastrophic outcomes.
What if Othello is a person of black heritage? If Othello was a white man, most probably, he would have rode to glory again despite all the controversy surrounding him. However, Othello is a black and as the play ends, he seems to be worried about his image when all what he has done goes public. He fears that people will judge him harshly because of his African heritage and that is why he states that he wants to be remembered as a person who was loved in a wise way, but not too well. If Othello was a white, he would not be worried about the judgment that the society will pass on him. However, he is a black and this is his first limitation. It is because of his African heritage that the play ends in this tragic manner, influenced by Iago’s racism. He is going to face the white mans law for the crimes he has committed. The law will not be fair to him because of his African heritage. The law will not be able to look beyond his crimes and see the evil schemes perpetrated by Iago. The public will never have the chance to understand that it was not his fault and Iago, the criminal behind all these deaths will continue to walk in the society like a saint. It is only God who can give a perfect judgment in this case because no human being will ever approach the case from a non racist viewpoint. All in all, Shakespeare’s attempts to portray a black man as virtuous in Elizabethan world succeeds to a certain extent and as the play ends, the reader sympathizes with Othello who is just a victim of racial circumstances.
Hall, Kim F., ed. “Racism in Othello.” Othello, the Moor of Venice: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.
Kass, Sarah. “The Trials of Othello.” Journal of Education 176.1 (1994): 85-101.
Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. Ed. Kim F. Hall. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.