“Othello, no matter how respected or how much he can claim the privileges of whiteness, cannot escape his blackness.”
Writing in 1953 about the effects of French colonialism on the black Antillean, psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon claimed that as the white man establishes blackness as inferior to whiteness, the black man internalizes racist attitudes and wants to be white. The black man is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of his civilizing nation’s cultural standards. His inferiority complex develops when he rejects his blackness and strives to be white. The black man who has lived in France, breathed and eaten the prejudices of racist Europe, and assimilated the collective unconsciousness of that Europe will “be able . . . to express only his hatred of the Negro.”1 In William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice, Othello holds a similar inferiority complex. While Othello is not a colonized person, the psychological impact Fanon describes is seen in Othello’s character. His sense of identity is altered by the complex dynamics of his presence as a racialized other in Venetian society. Fed negative ideas about blackness, Othello seeks the privileges of whiteness in order to deny his perceived inferiority, a quest that eventually leads to his downfall.
Attitudes toward blackness during Shakespeare’s time manifest in the other characters’ descriptions of and actions toward Othello. Fanon claims that in European unconsciousness, the black man has become the symbol of evil and sin throughout the developments of different time periods. He writes, “The torturer is the black man, Satan is black . . . when one is dirty one is black.”2 Fanon is writing a few hundred years after Shakespeare, but these associations with blackness have already formed during the Shakespearean era. The black Devil in particular was solidified earlier in the medieval period, before interactions between Europeans and black Africans took place. Historian Jeffrey B. Russell states:
“The Ethiopian as the Devil, far from being new with Othello or even with the Song of Roland, is found in the writings of the [Church] Fathers . . . There is a deep psychological terror of blackness associated with death and night. The ‘black man’ is also a Jungian archetype of the brute or of the lower natures or drives and is found in this capacity long before any considerable contact between Europeans and Black Africa.”3
While black Satan and the black barbarian only existed in the minds of Europeans during the medieval times, later during the Elizabethan era, increased trade with Africa and an influx of dark-skinned individuals into Shakespeare’s England gave his contemporaries throughout Europe physical incarnations of the terrible black Devil.
Russell notes that the same characteristics assigned to black males by white racists in contemporary times—such as animal strength, hairiness, outsized organs, and great sexual potency—were applied half a millennium ago to the black Devil. As characteristics of blackness and maleness were assigned to the Devil, the traits Russell mentions became attributed to the black man. The devil evolved during this period from a cosmic entity to the treacherous and powerful Prince of Darkness. Othello shows us that these associations have stayed in European unconsciousness during the early modern period. Othello is consistently referred to as the devil or the black devil in the play. Iago urges Brabantio to take action “or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.”4 In the final scene, Emilia tells Othello after Desdemona’s death, “Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil.”5 Othello’s final identity, despite his positions as a general, civil servant, hero and leader, is that of the devil.
Furthermore, besides directly identifying Othello as the devil throughout the play, characters ascribe traits associated with the devil to Othello. Othello’s physical prowess is acknowledged even by Iago and Roderigo, who state that in the Cyprus wars “of his fathom they have none.”6 The other characters consistently describe Othello through animalistic imagery like the “old black ram.”7 Iago states to Brabantio in the same scene, “You’ll have/ your daughtered covered with a Barbary house; you’ll have coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.”8
Another medieval component that added to Satan’s grotesque inhumanity in the people’s minds is the fear of bestiality and the animal within. Medieval thought viewed human nature as something to be feared and susceptible to the evil within, of which bestiality was the greatest evil of them all. Due to the adoption of classical humanism, typical Renaissance works elevated human nature from its unfavorable status. However, the medieval suspicion of human nature still existed. Renaissance thought adopts and builds on the medieval ideas of human fallibility and the omnipresent risk of primitive behavior. Pico della Mirandola’s canonical Renaissance work, Oration on the Dignity of Man, demonstrates this twofold trend of elevation and caution by discussing the duality of the human soul. While human nature is commended of having the capability to imitate divine beings like the seraphim, human nature is still unclean and possesses desires of the lower drives. Through philosophy, one must continuously defend themselves from the temptations of the soul and strive to cleanse themselves of moral filth in order to fulfill their potential to be divine-like.
Shakespeare’s characters share the same belief by painting human nature as something to be feared and susceptible to the evil within. People must consistently mentally defend themselves or else they will fall into their animalistic wants and other deviant sexual desires. Iago tells Roderigo:
If the beam of our lives had not
one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the
blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to
most prepost’rous conclusions. But we have reason to
cool our raging motions, our carnal stings or unbitted
Iago is acknowledging the possibility of falling into carnal desires. Only reason can stop people from falling into these desires and becoming beasts. Othello is already assigned animalistic characteristics that render him a brute with a carnal sinful nature or, as Iago claims, “the lusty Moor” set out to satisfy his sexual craze by stealing and bedding European women.10 In others’ eyes, Othello embraces the moral filth of humankind.
However, Othello is clearly not a brute. Shakespeare painstakingly leads us to realize that Othello is an honorable, well-liked, and levelheaded leader in Venetian society. Lodovico’s surprise at the state of Othello near the end of the play speaks to Othello’s honorable reputation:
Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?11
Othello has adopted the language, religion, and customs of Venice. He has converted to Christianity, speaks the language eloquently, and, as a respected general, holds a high position in Venetian society. Othello thus represents an assimilated person. While he does not have a permanent home, he has adopted Venetian values and integrated into the mainstream society. However, similar to Fanon’s black Antillean who has breathed and eaten the prejudices of racist Europe, Othello’s assimilation comes with the adoption of deeply rooted Venetian prejudices and hatred for blackness that have carried over from medieval times.
Othello is met with constant reminders of his blackness no matter where he turns. Mentioning his blackness is not constrained to the insults made behind Othello’s back. He is constantly referred to as “the Moor” or “the black Moor” in conversation. Even when complimented, Othello is referred to as “the valiant Moor.”12 When the Duke attempts to comfort Brabantio about Desdemona’s marriage to Othello, the Duke states, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack/ Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.”13 Othello is acknowledged as a good and virtuous man, but his goodness must stem from a source fairer than his blackness. Othello, no matter how respected or how much he can claim the privileges of whiteness, cannot escape his blackness. Although Desdemona falls in love with Othello, his blackness is still seen as unattractive to her. She looks past his blackness in order to love him for his mind and character.
When Othello marries Desdemona, white society is outraged by the implications of his interracial marriage. Before the union, Brabantio loved Othello and often welcomed Othello in his home to ask Othello about his past battles and victories. Perhaps Brabantio’s fondness for Othello is partly due to Othello’s exotic appeal, but regardless of his reasons, Brabantio does not dislike Othello prior to the marriage and was in fact quite fond of Othello. Brabantio’s attitude and behavior toward Othello immediately changes when Othello dares to think that he is worthy of marrying into the family. Othello, despite all his great tales, courage and privileges, is not worthy of true whiteness. Brabantio immediately expresses his outrage and makes xenophobic and racist remarks, stating, “For if such actions may have passage free/ Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.”14 His remarks suggest that if inferior people are treated as the white man’s equal, people who belong under white authority will eventually take away the white man’s power.
Othello thus faces reminders of his blackness from his wife, enemies, friends and soldiers. He is in all respects assimilated into Venetian culture. His background is from “men of royal siege”, and he is wealthy, honorable, noble and courageous.15 Othello is higher in the class hierarchy than Iago, Roderigo, Cassio, and many other characters, but Othello is not white. His color will never allow him to acquire the full privileges of whiteness. Othello can be liked and respected, but he can never be a white man’s equal. Blackness determines his permanent place under his peers despite any class or character advantages Othello holds.
Fanon writes, “After having been the slave of the white man, he [the black man] enslaves himself.”16 As Othello continuously faces his blackness and perceives blackness as wickedness, ugliness, barbarism, and immorality, he learns to hate his blackness. Othello’s soul can be white, but his skin is black. Othello’s assimilation can be read as a journey to whiteness, but his journey is hindered by the realization that he is black and thus inferior when he is finally convinced by Iago of Desdemona’s infidelity. It is ultimately Othello’s inferiority complex, formed through his adoption of the white man’s hatred of blackness, that fuels his jealousy and Desdemona’s eventual death. Iago describes Desdemona’s love for Othello as of “foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural,” which makes Othello doubt Desdemona because he believes himself that his blackness is inferior. He states, “Haply, for I am black/ And have not those soft parts of conversation/ That chamberers have.”17,[18.Ibid., 3.3.263-265.]
Iago tells Othello, “Men should be what they seem;/ Or those that be not, would they might seem none.”18 Ironically, the characters in Othello cannot be judged by appearances. Perhaps Shakespeare is criticizing the absolute binaries of black/white and good/evil that existed in society’s subconscious. Although Othello has a good character, he is associated with evil primarily because of his color. While Iago is white and has the appearance of a man with good character, he is the villain of the play. This critique is exemplified in the minor character Bianca. Bianca’s name interestingly means white, but Bianca is not associated with the traditional traits of whiteness. Instead of being associated with purity, goodness and virginity, Bianca is a courtesan, or from Iago’s perspective, Cassio’s whore. While the other characters continuously uphold the binary of whiteness as goodness and blackness as evil, Bianca’s placement in the play seem to question and deconstruct this binary.
The message in Othello is clear: The black man who tries to survive in European society will need to reject blackness and strive for whiteness, but he will never succeed because he will always be black. Whether or not Shakespeare was conscious of this racial dynamic, Othello serves as a critique of the impossible task the white man has prepared for the black man. Othello’s tragedy is one regarding the blackness of his skin and the psychological effects of racist attitudes on the black man.
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 188.
- Ibid., 189.
- Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 114
- William Shakespeare, Othello, edited by Russ McDonald (New York: Penguin Group, 2001), 1.1.90.
- Ibid., 5.2.133.
- Ibid., 1.1.87
- Ibid., 1.1.109-12
- Ibid., 1.3.326-331.
- Ibid., 2.1.292.
- Ibid., 4.1.258-262.
- Ibid., 1.3.47.
- Ibid., 1.3.289-290.
- Ibid., 1.2.98-9
- Ibid., 1.2.22
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 192
- William Shakespeare, Othello, 3.3.233