The play of Othello revolves predominantly on the idea of race and culture, where the character of Othello, a Mauritanian descendant, is highlighted as the protagonist in a stage dominated by European descendants. This promulgates the distinction between Othello and the other characters in the play, where he is completely separated and almost alienated, giving reason for his insecurity in his own self that underlines the series of episodes leading to the hero’s tragic downfall.
Othello’s blackness is a recurring aspect within the play, where the mention of his complexion is presented in both the beginning and the ending of the play, highlighting how intermixed it is within the play’s meaning and subtext. Shakespeare begins with a tumultuous opening, where, like many of his openings in other plays, we find a conversation between two characters that serve as an expository factor, where we learn that the daughter of a Venetian lord has eloped with a black nobleman – something that instantly strikes against the Catholicism rules of the Renaissance period. The notion of skin and bodily features are exemplified by both Roderigo and Iago, where even before Othello is allowed an entrance into the play, we see how largely dominating his skin colour is and the grotesqueness in which he is presented through this. Roderigo refers Othello as ‘thick-lips’ where we understand that Roderigo does not directly refer to Othello’s body features, rather has generalised the features normally attributed to individuals of dark complexion, thus deterring Othello’s individuality to surface in the play. Iago, on the other hand, has more revolting pictures of Othello which vilifies him, to a certain point, as Iago details the act of sex and parallelises it with animal imagery, ‘an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe’. The fact that Othello is a general, and a respectable one at that, is marginalised by the representations of his skin colour, making this aspect of Othello stand out more in the first Act, than the actual character himself. Brabantio also shares the nominal ideology of the black-villain as when he hears that Othello had married his daughter in secret, he believes this to be the work of witchcraft, or black magic, ‘Is there not charms/ By which the property of youth and maidhood/ May be abused?’ Othello’s blackness does not merely serve as a skin complexion, rather it derogates and isolates him, almost dethroning him from his respectable nature and this is something that manifests gradually within Othello himself later in the play.
When Othello enters the stage, he is instantly pronounced a hero in the way which he presents himself through his first few dialogues, restricting the act of war from taking place and encompassing the role of a peace-maker, ‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.’ This mere sentence unlaces the derogation that his character had suffered in the opening, where we find him rising above the monstrosity presented by Iago regarding his skin and body to the spiritual beauty of his mind presented by Othello. However, Brabantio still denounces him and goes to the Senate for a hearing of the matter, where Desdemona finally enters the stage and reinforces Othello being more than just his skin colour, ‘I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, / And to his honours and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.’ The Duke also adds to this idea of Othello’s nobility when he says this to Brabantio as a comment of comfort – ‘If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.’ However, Brabantio’s specific mention of Othello’s blackness being something utterly inconceivable to love integrates the element of insecurity within Othello about his own skin colour which develops more prominently later in the play, ‘A maiden never bold; / Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion/ Blushed at herself; and she, in spite of nature, / Of years, of country, credit, everything, / To fall in love with what she feared to look on!’
Othello’s blackness also denounces his position as a lover, where Iago believes that that Desdemona would tire from loving Othello, mainly due to his complexion, where he references it as something Satanic, ‘Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil?’ He believes that due to his complexion, he is ‘defective’ in the act of love, where his complexion alienates him as it symbolises his foreignness and his inability to mix with the domestic, that is the European culture, which is also something that Iago mentions directly to Othello, thus establishing his outcast-ness in this society. This could also be the reason that Othello trusts Iago so much, where he feels familiarised with Iago, especially regarding that he is his ensign, and thus gives in to his words completely.
Iago uses Othello’s vulnerability to manipulate him, as he does with all the other characters in the play, where he understands that Othello is almost a cultural pariah in the stage and has no one to rely on, where he had removed Cassio from his position as lieutenant and hadn’t consummated his marriage with Desdemona to form a complete bond with her. When Iago instils in Othello the ‘green-eyed monster’ of jealousy, he references to his skin colour which he is aware is Othello’s ultimate weak point, stating it is natural for Desdemona to love someone of her own complexion, ‘Ay, there’s the point! As – to be bold with you – / Not to affect many proposed matches/ Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, / Whereto we see in all things nature tends –‘ The idea that Desdemona has done something that is not expected from her, that is to marry into an interracial marriage, is also vocalised by Brabantio as well, where he states that Desdemona had received many suitors, describing them as ‘the wealthy curled darlings of our nation’ which is a stark contrast to Othello who is neither wealthy, nor the usual dandies that someone like Desdemona is expected to marry and which Cassio embodies.
Othello does, however, believe that his blackness is a key factor to his last action of murdering his wife as well as his own downfall where in the denouement of the play, we see him calling himself a ‘base Indian’ and a ‘circumcised dog’ which highlight his body. Yet, to the audiences who have seen firsthand the mastery in which Iago manipulates all the other characters who are all white as well, we understand that Othello’s blackness does not contributes chiefly with his downfall, rather it’s his insecurity of the self that does it. Othello cannot be blamed for his downfall, because it was the ‘motiveless malignity’ of Iago and his overwhelming, next to Satanic, power of evil that sets about the tragic ending of the play.
For Shakespearean contemporaries, Othello’s blackness is a key identifier of his self and can be reasoned to be the cause for his fall, highlighted by responses made by 17th century critics such as Thomas Rymmer. The black complexion was a significant factor where up until the 20th century, the large majority of Othello’s productions were played by white men with black paint on, but to the modern reader, Othello’s race does not wholly define him, rather is simply a body attribute. Therefore, Othello cannot be held completely responsible for his downfall, because we understand that when the power of evil – the power of greed, jealousy, inferiority complex- is too heightened, too unmatched with, the fall of innocents is the likely result.