Racism, misogyny and ‘motiveless malignity’ in Othello

Racism, misogyny and ‘motiveless malignity’ in Othello

The causes of the tragedy of Othello are more complex and disturbing than they might at first appear, Kiernan Ryan contends.

A play for today

Anyone who doubts that Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies were written from an imaginative standpoint far ahead of his time need only think of Othello. The basic idea of the play is so well known that it’s easy to forget the startling boldness of Shakespeare’s decision to take Cinthio’s brief tale of a doomed mixed-race marriage and transform it into a heart-breaking tragedy. In a country where few people outside London would ever have seen a black person, and centuries before the problems that fuel the tragedy became as ubiquitous and pressing as they are today, Shakespeare produced in Othello a searing critique of racial and sexual injustice, which is more powerful now in the 21st century than it could ever have been at the dawn of the 17th.

Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, an Italian source for Othello and Measure for Measure

Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi

Shakespeare took the idea for Othello from a tale of doomed mixed-race marriage in Cinthio’s De Gli Hecatommithi, 1565.

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The tragic sequence of events is triggered by the elopement of Othello and Desdemona. The fact that they are obliged to elope makes the illicit nature of their relationship in the eyes of Venice immediately clear. But in their eyes and in Shakespeare’s there’s nothing illicit about their love, to which they regard themselves, and the play regards them, as fully entitled. Undeterred by the paternal wrath and widespread disapproval they are bound to incur, Othello and Desdemona act as if a black man from Africa and an upper-class white woman from Venice have every right to fall in love, marry and be left to live happily together. They act, in other words, as if they were already free citizens of a truly civilized future, instead of prisoners of a time when racial prejudice and sexual inequality are so ingrained that even their heroic hearts are tainted by them.

Draft proclamation on the expulsion of 'Negroes and Blackamoors', 1601

Draft proclamation on the expulsion of 'Negroes and Blackamoors', 1601

A draft proclamation of 1601 asked for the deportation of black people from England.

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Usage terms Reproduced courtesy of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

‘Haply, for I am black’

As a result, Othello and Desdemona find unleashed upon them, in the shape of Iago, the venomous rage of a society whose foundations are rocked by the mere fact of their marriage. ‘For if such actions may have passage free,’ Brabantio warns the Venetian Senate, ‘Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be’ (1.2.98-9). Brabantio perceives at once that there’s much more at stake in this interracial union than the violation of his honour as Desdemona’s father. If we turn a blind eye to this outrage, Brabantio argues in effect, we’re treating our inferiors as our equals, which means there’s nothing to stop the subhuman underclass or the heathen outcasts of society taking our place and having power over us. Shakespeare makes it plain from the start that it’s not just Iago the newly-weds are up against, but the status quo and a view of the world which Iago merely embodies in its most lethal form.

For it’s not just Iago whose speech is infected with contempt for ‘the Moor’ (as he repeatedly refers to Othello), though the intensity of his loathing is unrivalled. ‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe’ (1.1.88–9), he cries to Brabantio in the opening scene. Roderigo derides Othello too as ‘the thick-lips’ (1.1.66), while Brabantio, in his public confrontation with Othello, finds it inconceivable that his daughter should desire to ‘Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou’ (1.2.70–1) without being drugged or bewitched. In a vain attempt to placate Brabantio, the Duke assures him that ‘If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black’ (1.3.289–90). So endemic to Venetian culture are such attitudes that Othello and Desdemona can’t help absorbing them too: ‘I saw Othello’s visage in his mind’ (1.3.252), Desdemona declares to the Senate, oblivious to the unintended insult that brave declaration implies. When Othello’s faith in Desdemona’s love for him begins to crumble, his complexion is the first thing he blames: ‘Haply, for I am black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have’ (3.3.263–5). And he instinctively employs his own blackness as a metaphor for his wife’s alleged depravity: ‘Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black / As mine own face’ (3.3.386–8)

Painting of Ira Aldridge as Othello

The Moor' painting of Ira Aldridge as Othello by James Northcote

This painting, A Moor by James Northcote (1826), shows Ira Alridge as Othello. He was 17 when he first played the role in 1825 – the first black actor to do so in Britain.

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Usage terms © Bridgeman Art Library / Manchester Art Gallery

‘the green-eyed monster’

The grounds of the tragedy can’t be fully explained, however, by pointing to the deep-seated racism that poisons the Venetian view of Othello and even Othello's view of himself. The colour of Othello’s skin is obviously a crucial factor in his downfall, because his visibly alien racial identity makes him and his bride far more vulnerable to the machinations of Iago than if he were an equally accomplished and indispensable white man. Their defiance of the Venetian taboo against such marriages locks them from the outset into a defensive posture, which predisposes Othello to the insecurity and doubt that grip him so swiftly at Iago’s prompting. But Othello’s vulnerability as a black outsider, who unconsciously shares the white perception of his blackness, is inseparable from his thraldom to a patriarchal concept of masculinity and a misogynistic concept of marriage that are just as endemic as racism in Venetian culture, and that play an equally crucial role in sealing both Desdemona’s fate and his own.

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

Niccholes’ Discourse of Marriage and Wiving (1620) gives man-to-man advice about how to deal with women. It warns against putting your trust in friends or giving into ‘idle jelousie’.

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Thus sexual jealousy is shown to be the rule in Venice rather than an exceptional emotional disorder to which Othello is especially prone to succumb. Roderigo’s infatuation with Desdemona makes him intensely jealous of both Othello and Cassio. The same emotion flares up in Bianca, when Cassio gives her Desdemona’s handkerchief: ‘You are jealous now’, says Cassio, ‘That this is from some mistress, some remembrance’ (3.4.185–6). Above all, Iago himself betrays the same toxic disposition, when he fastens automatically on sexual jealousy as a pretext for provoking it in Othello and revenging himself on Cassio: ‘I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leap’d into my seat; the thought whereof / Doth (like a poisonous mineral), gnaw my inwards’; ‘I fear Cassio with my night-cap too’ (2.1.295–7, 307). Although none of them is as consumed by jealousy as Othello, all these characters fall prey like him to ‘the green-eyed monster’ (3.3.166) that stalks any society in which the sexual desire of one human being is regarded as the property of another.

As the handkerchief, the ‘ocular proof’ (3.3.360) of infidelity, passes from Othello to Desdemona to Emilia to Iago to Cassio to the courtesan Bianca, it links the three couples together to highlight what they have in common. It draws an implicit parallel between the despised kept woman Bianca and the respectable wives Desdemona and Emilia, revealing the true nature of the married woman’s role by erasing the distinction between them. And it underscores the fact that Othello's proprietorial relationship with Desdemona as husband and wife is typical – that it’s extraordinary only in the fatal consequences it leads to in this particular case, not in its essential character.

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

A blindfolded man is led into a bedroom by a courtesan, from Moyses Walen’s friendship album, 1605–15.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Italian handkerchief

Italian handkerchief

Fine linen Italian handkerchief, c. 1600. In this period, handkerchiefs were exchanged as lovers’ gifts and displayed as fashion accessories.

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Held by© Victoria and Albert Museum

Iago: ‘What you know, you know’

Othello's dread of cuckoldry and the misogyny that feeds it are perfectly in tune with the patriarchal culture of a city where his colour makes him feel like an alien, but where he’s entirely at home as a man. The reason why Iago is so quickly and spectacularly successful in persuading Othello to swallow the vile tale he spins round Desdemona is that Othello is primed to believe it by the warped view of women and female sexuality that he shares not only with Iago but with other men. When Iago reminds Othello that Desdemona ‘did deceive her father, marrying you’ (3.3.206) as proof of her capacity to hoodwink her husband too, he’s merely echoing the parting words with which Brabantio sought to sow the same seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind in Act 1: ‘Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; / She has deceived her father, and may thee’ (1.3.292-3).

Iago differs from his fellow Venetians only in the ferocity with which he espouses their values and the deadly extremes to which he resorts to vindicate them. His devious stratagem works so well because it works by reflecting his victims’ own beliefs, by confirming their suspicions and fulfilling their expectations. When Emilia begs him to deny that he duped Othello into murdering Desdemona, Iago replies: ‘I told him what I thought, and told no more / Than what he found himself was apt and true’ (5.2.176-7). And when Othello asks Cassio to ‘demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body’, Iago brusquely interjects: ‘Demand me nothing; what you know, you know’ (5.2.301-3). In other words: ‘Don’t ask me why, ask yourselves, because you know as well as I do’.

Painting of Santiago the Moor-slayer

Painting of Santiago the Moor-slayer

15th-century Spanish painting of Santiago the Moor-slayer, mounted triumphantly on a white horse and trampling the heads of Moors beneath him.

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Usage terms Altarpiece with St. James in the central panel. Chapel of the Alcazar of Segovia. Spain. / Photo © Tarker / Bridgeman Images

Much has been made of Iago’s ostensibly ‘motiveless malignity’ ever since Coleridge coined his famous phrase 200 years ago. But there's surely no great mystery about what makes this villain tick. As Iago sees it, a black African has had the gall to court and marry a white Venetian beauty as if he were the equal of a man of her class and colour. And she has had the gall to prefer ‘a lascivious Moor’ (1.1.126) to her own kind and defiantly proclaim her love for this ‘erring barbarian’ (1.3.355-6) in public. As if being passed over for promotion by the Moor in favour of Cassio – in contempt of loyal service and the right of precedence, of ‘old gradation’ (1.1.37) – wasn’t outrageous and insulting enough! Othello and Desdemona have made a mockery of the principles of social, sexual and racial hierarchy on which Iago's very identity and sense of self-worth depend. So he hatches a plot and tells a tale designed to put them in their place: to turn ‘The divine Desdemona’ (2.1.73) into the ‘subtle whore’ (4.2.21) he thinks every woman really is, and to turn the noble, eloquent Othello into a deranged wife-killer, who proves the racist’s worst fears fully justified.

The really disturbing thing about Iago is not that he’s an unfathomable psychopath, but that he's pathologically normal and theatrically irresistible. Although he initiates and engineers its catastrophe, Iago is not the fundamental or sole cause of the tragedy, which could plainly have erupted in a similar form for the same reasons without his intervention. To grasp that fact is to pluck out the heart of Iago’s mystery, which is dispelled by the realisation that his malignity is not a monstrous deviation from the Venetian norm but its mirror image. The patriarchal, racist universe of Othello confronts in ‘damned Iago’, the ‘inhuman dog’ (5.1.62), not its demonic antithesis but its grotesque epitome.

Shakespeare has no intention of letting the audience off the hook either. Iago talks directly to us throughout the play and takes us into his confidence, assuming that we share his views, understand his reasoning and admire his ingenuity. Othello, in marked contrast, is kept at a distance from us by Shakespeare, who denies his tragic protagonist the profound rapport with the audience that Hamlet and Macbeth forge through their soliloquies. Iago exploits his devilish charisma and seductive intimacy with the audience to make us complicit with him, to implicate us in his hatred and entrapment of Othello, whether we like it or not. So when he retorts unfazed in his final speech ‘Demand me nothing; what you know, you know’, refusing point blank to explain his malevolence, we can be sure every word of that barbed line is addressed, disconcertingly, to us too.

  • Kiernan Ryan
  • Kiernan Ryan is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, an Emeritus Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon. He is the author of Shakespeare (3rd edition, 2002), Shakespeare’s Comedies (2009), Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution (2015) and the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of King Lear (2015). His next book, Shakespearean Tragedy, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.

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