“In Shakespeare’s Othello the binary of lightness and darkness parallel notions of the ‘ideal’ and the ‘other.'”
Othello is an invaluable piece of Renaissance literature, as it deals with and gives insight into perceptions of race and racial difference that were contextually relevant to the time period. Context here is paramount, as one should not project a modern day sensibility of race onto Shakespeare’s work. Today, race relations and what it means to be black or white, especially in the United States, holds a social and cultural weight that is specific to a certain history, one that occurred years after the Renaissance. That said, Shakespeare makes explicit racial distinctions, many of which echo and build upon notions of racial inferiority that have been more or less consistent throughout history. When looking at Othello, it becomes clear that he is characterized as a kind of “other.” Of course, the “other” cannot exist alone but must be defined in relation to something else, to an ideal. When looking further into the play, it is without question that in the binary of the “ideal” and the “other,” the poles are not only separated by skin color or physical attributes, but also by what these phenotypic differences represent. This becomes increasingly clear when looking at descriptions of Othello, how he is perceived by himself and others, and perhaps more importantly, the implications embedded within the notions of lightness and darkness.
Perhaps the most obvious instances of Othello’s othering are in physical descriptions. Throughout Act I, scene i, Othello’s physicality is characterized by Roderigo and Iago and is largely dependent on animalistic and sexualized imagery. This is clear, for example, when Roderigo calls Othello “the thick lips,” not only reducing him to a racialized physical attribute, taking away his subjectivity as a whole person, but also alluding to his hypersexual nature, as lips, especially big lips, are often a symbol of sexuality.1 This hypersexual nature of Othello is then emphasized by animalistic imagery, repeatedly used by Iago to describe intercourse between Othello and Desdemona. He tells Brabantio “An old black ram/ is tupping your white ewe,” stretching this animalistic imagery even further when he says, “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have/ Your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for/ Cousins, and small jennets for germans.”2’3 Interestingly, in the first description, both Desdemona and Othello are likened to animals, however, in the second, there is a real sense of bestiality. In both cases, such imagery makes Othello seem extremely primal and uncivilized, unable to control his baser, sexual instincts. There is also a way in which he seems highly predatory, which is then maintained later on when he is described as “lascivious Moor.”4 All of these characteristics become intrinsically tied to his skin color, as it is continuously labored: “black ram,” “Barbary horse,” “lascivious Moor.”
It is important to acknowledge, however, that Roderigo and Iago (and Brabantio later on), hold respective grudges against Othello; Roderigo because he is in love with Desdemona and Iago because he was not promoted. Therefore, it could be argued that their degrading descriptions of Othello are shaped by their already negative views of him. Yet, it is impossible to ignore that these descriptions specifically pinpoint and almost exclusively use his race as the means to degrade him. As a result, the negative feelings they hold toward Othello cannot be untied from their own racial prejudices. Furthermore, it is important to note that the othering of Othello does not only take shape in the degradation of his character. In fact, his own wife continuously highlights his outsider status by often referring to him as “the Moor.”5 While this method of othering is not as explicit or, perhaps, even intentional, it constantly draws attention to the fact that Othello is foreign and ethnically distinct from everyone else, in turn making it seem he is out of place.
When looking at all the different ways Othello is depicted by these characters, it seems fair to assume that Othello is a racist play. Is it possible, however, that Shakespeare was trying to do more than simply perpetuate racist attitudes and stereotypes? To go further into the complex nature of Othello as a fully developed character raises the question, Was Shakespeare was leaning on racist tropes throughout the play as a means to challenge them? After all, Othello’s demeanor and manner stand in direct opposition to the way in which he is described by Iago and Roderigo. While the two paint Othello as an uncivilized animal, within the first few pages of Othello’s character development, he shows extreme restraint, civility, and respect. This is abundantly clear when a furious Brabantio raises his sword at Othello, challenging him to a fight. Othello responds calmly, stating, “Keep your bright swords up, for the dew will rust them./ Good Signor, you shall more command with years/ Than with your weapons.”6 Not only is Othello opposed to solving the dispute with violence, but he clearly shows respect for his elders, and more importantly, his wife’s father.
Even when Othello asserts his own position as an outsider, he does so with an astute self-awareness that shows he is highly intelligent and is able to read the way his audience must perceive him. Defending his marriage to Desdemona, he states, “Rude am I in speech . . . And little of this great world can I speak,/ More than pertains to feats of broil and battle . . . therefore little shall I grace my cause/ In speaking for myself.”7 Yet, what follows is a beautiful and eloquent story of how he and Desdemona fell in love. The contradiction within this dialogue proves that the perceptions projected onto Othello, perceptions he is well aware of, have no real relation to reality. What defeats this dismantling of racial prejudice, however, is a line spoken by the Duke, stating to Brabantio, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.”8 As a result, these attributes Othello demonstrates become inherently tied to whiteness, making Othello appear to be an exception to his race and giving more validity to the kinds of descriptions made by Iago and Roderigo.
The binary the Duke highlights between fairness and blackness is crucial to understanding the relationship between the “ideal” and the “other.” Barbantio alludes to this binary when he argues that, Desdemona ran “from her guardage to the sooty bosom” of Othello.9 Here, “sooty” is not simply used to describe the darkness of Othello’s skin, but more offensively suggests that it is dirty. The implication of this remark is significant. Dirtiness, something inherently negative and unwanted, suggests a deviation from cleanliness, something that is socially and culturally valued. Accordingly, if dark skin connotes dirtiness, then it follows that fairness is held as the epitome cleanliness and, to go even further, purity. Nothing makes this point quite as poignant than looking at the characterization of Desdemona.
Throughout the entire play, Desdemona is referred to as “fair Desdemona.” Importantly, “fairness” within this context is synonymous with beauty, a characteristic that holds significant weight during this time period. As many Renaissance authors have stated, there should be a correlation between outward appearance and the internal mind and soul. Renaissance courtier Baldessare Castiglione proposed, “only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.”10 Of course, this then implies that outward beauty correlates to notions of virtue. This idea is clearly expressed by Othello when he compares Desdemona to “Dian’s visage,” the goddess of chastity and the ultimate sign of feminine virtue, making a concrete link between Desdemona’s outward and inward beauty.11 As he realizes that she may be unfaithful, however, he states that her face “is now begrimed and black / As my own face.”12 The assertion here is plain to see. Not only does Desdemona’s beauty fade as she is seen to be unchaste, but the description used to articulate this transition is bound up in racial imagery. Again, we see a link between dark skin and dirtiness, which is used to emphasize Desdemona’s tarnished purity and virtue and, as a result, blackness becomes synonymous with ugliness, both internal and external.
Furthermore, as Othello begins to unravel, he begins to degrade himself in a way that echoes the disparaging descriptions made by Brabantio, Iago, and Roderigo. It seems that he becomes increasingly aware of his race in a different way than before. This shift is clear when he starts to think about the reasons for Desdemona infidelity in Act III, scene iii, pondering, “Haply, for I am black / And do not have those soft parts of conversation.”13 This statement echoes the sentiment in Act I, scene i speech, when he declares “Rude am I in speech,” however, it now lacks the self-confidence. No longer does it seem as though he is acknowledging the perceived shortcomings that are so closely tied to his position as Moor as a means to transcend them; now, it is as though truly believes that these downfalls may be real. Moreover, the fact that he links Desdemona’s internal ugliness to his own face speaks to the evolution of his character, becoming increasingly jealous, violent, and wrathful, arguably crossing the line from (white) civility to (black) primitivism.
Undoubtedly, the binary of lightness and darkness parallel notions of the “ideal” and the “other,” as any deviation from fairness and virtue (the “ideal”) is immediately categorized as vice and darkness (the “other”). Importantly, as this does not strictly connote skin pigment, the implications are much larger and tied to notions of good and evil. This is increasingly clear when looking at an exchange between Emilia and Desdemona. When Desdemona asks Emilia if she would ever have an affair, Emilia responds stating, “Nor I neither by this heavenly light;/ I might do’t as well i’ the dark.”14 Here, fidelity and infidelity, or morality and immorality, are separated by lightness and darkness in a very literal way. Visually, darkness has the ability to conceal immoral actions, as things are not as clear in the dark, making it a suitable place for them to occur. These binaries get intertwined with race, speaking to the culturally ingrained idolization of whiteness.
Overall, whether or not Othello should be considered a racist play, it is undeniable that it makes explicit racial distinctions that often lean on imaged racalized tropes. Even though it is important to note that the term “black” and “blackness” do not always connote someone of African decent within the context of Othello, this ultimately does not matter, as the extreme cultural value placed on whiteness is obvious. As a result, anything other than this ideal and any deviation from whiteness is seen as less than, and of course Othello’s Moorish background and physical attributes are written into and emphasized within this equation. Even when Othello proves himself to be an ideal citizen through his actions, he does not lift the reputation of blackness, but rather crosses the line into whiteness. Furthermore, light and dark imagery and the notions that are embedded within this binary gives insight into the more abstract ways the relationship between the “ideal” and the “other” can be read and demonstrate how ingrained these perceptions are, transcending physicality and tangibility. While the depictions of racial difference within Othello are specific to the time period in which it was written, I believe that it is a piece of literature that can help illuminate the underpinnings of current racial dynamics, as it demonstrates that racial prejudice and the idealization of whiteness has been, and continues to be, embedded within our cultural psyche. Perhaps it will become easier to dismantle this hierarchy when we have a better understanding of its historical roots.
- William Shakespeare, Othello, edited by Russ McDonald (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 1.1.65
- Ibid., 1.1.87-88.
- Ibid., 1.1.124.
- Ibid., 1.3.248.
- Ibid., 1.2.59-61.
- Ibid., 1.3.81-89.
- Ibid., 1.3.290.
- Ibid., 1.2.70.
- Baldessare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 330.
- William Shakespeare, Othello, 3.3.38
- William Shakespeare, Othello, 3.3.387-8.
- Ibid., 3.3.263-4.
- Ibid., 3.3.65-6.