American history is a cornucopia of racial tension, beginning with the slave trade and spanning the centuries to the Ku Klux Klan and to the days of Martin Luther King. There is evidence that racial prejudice was just as prevalent in sixteenth century England as in modern day America. Othello can be seen as Shakespeare’s condemnation of racial prejudice.
The character of Iago uses racial stereotypes both to disparage Othello and to plant the seeds of jealousy in him. Iago calls to Brabantio "an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe." (I,i,96-7) He uses this image to enrage the old man and to denigrate Othello. Later in the scene, Iago refers to Othello as a "Barbary horse," indicating his North African heritage and at the same time conveying a sense of inferiority. (I,i,124) He continues this insulting metaphor by referring to Othello and Desdemona’s future progeny as "gennets," a term for Spanish horses. (I,i,126) This opening scene sets the stage for not only Iago’s hatred of Othello, but for his prejudice against him. In his consolation of Roderigo, Iago calls Othello "an / erring barbarian" whom Desdemona will leave when she is tired of him. (I,iii,377-8) Again to Roderigo, Iago queries "what delight shall" Desdemona "have to look upon the devil?" (II,i,258) While drinking with the men of the watch in Cyprus, Iago raises a toast "to the health of black Othello." (II,iii,30) These remarks eventually are turned on Othello himself as Iago suggests that Desdemona would not love a Moor. Iago claims that all Venetian women are prone to infidelity in his speech:
I know our country disposition well:
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare n...
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...I,iii,507) Before he kills Desdemona, he notes how white her skin is, describing it as "that whiter skin of hers than snow / and smooth as monumental alabaster." (V,ii,4-5) Othello, we know, has been driven to kill Desdemona by his jealousy. However, it is clear that his jealousy is inspired by the racial prejudice that is prevalent throughout the play.
By analyzing this play, we can come to understand the dangers of racial injustice. If I may take the liberty of paraphrasing: "O beware, my lord, of racial prejudice! It is the green-eyes monster, which doth damage the society it thrives in." In the character of Iago, Shakespeare demonstrates the dangers of holding racial prejudices. Othello is the victim of the pervasive social stereotypes which lead to his downfall. This play should serve as a warning of the horrid plague of racism which festers in our society.
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