“Othello” by William Shakespeare
The Elizabethan era (1558-1603) saw a magnificent bloom in many aspects of English culture. Society was at its peak during this time, its higher echelons even more so. Many enjoyed prosperity and abundance of works by great innovators whose legacies resounded throughout the ages. Unfortunately, not all received the same enjoyment. Rife – and even heightened – here is racial prejudice and discrimination, as slavery was still in motion and at large at the time. Some authors wrote works that allude to the racism of their time – one of whom is the world renowned dramatist William Shakespeare, who wrote the tragedy “Othello.” Believed to be written in the year 1603, “Othello” follows the events revolving the treacherous schemes of Iago who attempts to enact vengeance upon his Moorish superior, the titular character Othello who is venerated as a decorated general and a nobleman of high esteem. Racial prejudice is most clearly manifest in the marriage between Othello and Desdemona, the sole daughter of a Venetian senator, Brabantio, who expresses how the marriage is appalling to him because Othello is a Moor. This essay argues, however, that the prejudice runs deeper than this. Aside from being a device that rouses Brabantio’s resentment, racial prejudice and jealousy constitute the engine of the entire tragedy, as it is what led Iago to enact his devious plan to usurp Othello.
Before discussing the racial nuances of the “Othello,” some pertinent details about the structure of the tragedy must be exhibited which will consolidate into the foundation on which the discussion to follow will lie. The tragedy is entitled “Othello,” yet the majority of the lines are spoken by Iago. In terms of perspective, the reader is led to give the most attention to Iago and his introspection – rivalling or even besting Othello himself when it comes to the focus of the story. The events of the tragedy as a whole took place because Iago’s schemes. Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and the other characters serve as nothing more than reactionaries to the devious nobleman for much of the story. Iago is the sole character with the most agency. He actively imposes his will; he directs the story. Yet, he is the main antagonist – a flat character, to say the least. Despite being passive for nearly the entire story, it is still Othello who is the tragic hero, as he bears many noble characteristics but possesses a tragic flaw – unrelenting jealousy – that leads to the cathartic climax where he is stripped of his rank and forever deprived of his loved one. It may be said that Othello is still the central character of the tragedy because he is the sole object of hatred for Iago; nevertheless, it is by the latter’s active presence in the story that drives it in motion, consolidated into two motives for vengeance against the general.
One of Iago’s motives is found in the first scene of Act 1. Iago expresses to Roderigo his hatred against Othello because he has a poor judgment of character. Instead of Iago, who has notable experience in the field of war, Michael Cassio is chosen by Othello to be his lieutenant, despite being a bookkeeper who otherwise has no real experience. Iago himself is delegated to a lowly position as an ensign. The other motive is found in a soliloquy in the first scene of Act 2, where Iago speaks of an overbearing thought that his wife Emilia has had an affair with Othello.
These two motives are what drive Iago to enact his vengeance by leading Othello to murderous jealousy. Yet, a question can be raised whether such motives are justifiable, this being answerable in the character of Othello. To say that racial prejudice is found primarily in Brabantio’s reservations to the marriage is an understatement. In that scenario, it is secondary at best. When Othello is observed under the lens of the above mentioned motives, what can be surmised is that Iago himself holds racial prejudice against Othello, stemming from jealousy – the very thing that led to Othello’s moral deterioration. This manifests in jealousy in power by how Iago wishes to strip Othello of his position as general. It also manifests in jealousy in sex by how Iago despises Othello because he feels that he slept with his wife.
If inspected closely outside of the context of racism, these two jealousies are unfounded by reason. The circumstances for Iago’s jealousy in power towards Othello cannot simply be convenient. There are higher powers, such as Senator Brabantio or Montano, than Othello who may be considered greater objects of jealousy for Iago, yet he bears a jealousy in Othello in particular. On the other hand, Iago’s jealousy in sex bears no weight at all; it is a thought, and only that.
What most feasibly drove Iago to form such motives, therefore, is racial prejudice. Iago is jealous of Othello, a Moor, holding a higher position than him. This jealousy is so overwhelming that Iago had thought Othello to have had an affair with his wife. Though there is little textual proof for this, evidence can be found in the structure of the tragedy itself. To say the least, it is a role reversal: Othello, a man of position and nobility, is degraded to a “subhuman,” while Iago, a man of cunning and deviousness, uses his wit for vengeance.
Perhaps Shakespeare intended the tragedy to be structured as such. He attempted to chronicle the social stratum in response to non-Europeans in power. Iago represents the envious nobleman who seeks to strip the Moor nobleman of his power, because Moors are undeserving of such prestige. Though the tragedy seems to greatly empower Iago to gain the upper hand over Othello, in truth both Iago and Othello bear an overwhelming weight on their shoulders – jealousy, the heart of the engine of the story.