A cursory reading of the first act of Othello would lead the reader to believe that it is an inherently racist text since there is no description of the protagonist given other than his racial difference. There are several disparaging terms used to define Othello and instead of being referred to by his name, he is only mentioned as “the Moor” or other more directly racist monikers. With such an opening to the play, the reader is poised to read it as a text that is infused with racist ideologies common in Shakespeare’s time, but what is most surprising is that in many ways this is not a racist story at all. As the play progresses and Othello’s character is more developed it is clear that he does not fit the limiting and racist description given to hi by Iago and Roderigo at the beginning and it also becomes evident that many of those around Othello consider him to be an equal—albeit a peer with an interesting and exotic history and heritage. In short, the racist overtones are counterbalanced through the development of Othello’s character. Although it remains impossible for the reader to forget that Othello is different, particularly in terms of race when performing aclose reading of passages in Othello that are most attuned to this theme, it is equally impossible to view him in the base and insulting terms given to him by Iago and Roderigo. In the end, this is not a text about race (or even racism) but is the tale of a man that fell victim to and committed terrible acts.
The play opens in the darkness as two characters—one of whom we will discover to be a villain—discuss their enemy, Othello. Strangely, there is no mention of Othello’s name and the reader can only define him by the terms they use to describe him. In this opening scene, Roderigo and Iago frequently refer to him merely as “the Moor” but also imply that by his race he is not even human or worthy of a name. Roderigo calls him “thick-lips” (I.i.61) which puts a grotesque image in the reader’s mind and later goes on tell Desdemona’s father in one of the important quotes from Othello by Shakespeare, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you” (I.i.106-110). Between these two images, the reader, unfamiliar with Othello’s “true” stature would be more likely to equate him physically to an actual horse, especially since horses have big lips. By stating that he would have grandsons that would become half-horses due to this “animal” blood is absurd and frightening and it would seem that these two characters consider Othello to be nothing more than an ill-formed animal.
The theme of the parallels of animals with those of a darker race is further solidified when Iago follows Roderigo’s description on the “dangers” of Desdemona’s union with Othello by saying that the act of this union (sex) between the two forms the “beast with two backs” (i.i.112). Before the reader is ever given a clue about the identity of Othello, there are only the images of animals and beasts. This is also relevant because it demonstrates a perceived parallel between black men and animals—that they are not fully human, thus undeserving of the humanizing use of a name instead of such images. There is certainly an element of savagery and a lack of civilization that is infused into such description and although it becomes apparent later that Othello is in fact, quite civilized, well spoken and language-oriented, and respected, the reader is forced into the same racist mindset of the characters simply because of the descriptions they offer.
Closely associated with the racism in the play at the beginning is a more generalized fear of the unknown—in this case race is the otherness that separates Othello. Characters such as Brabanzio, after being startled by the news of his daughter’s affair with “the Moor” is convinced that this foreigner is using trickery and dark magic to engage Desdemona. Even though at this point he does not even know that Roderigo and Iago are referring to Othello, he knows that since it is a colored man they are speaking of that some dark “savage” arts must be at work. He accuses Othello (here the unknown man of color) of witchcraft and wonders how, “against all rules of nature” his lovely daughter could have fallen “in love with that what she feared to look on” (I.iii.98). As one of the more revealing quotes about race in Othello by Shakespeare, this is a particularly revealing statement about how race might have been viewed by contemporaries of Shakespeare. The distraught father considers such a union to be against the laws of nature and never considers that love does not always recognize color and cultural bounds. Using the information that the Moor is a black man, it is obvious that it may have been common to associate black men with dark magic and seduction and furthermore, it comments on the idea that black and whites should not be allowed to marry or associate in any other way romantically—that somehow this is not natural.
It is also important to point out that Brabanzio seems to view allowing those of a different race “access” to their society would lead to a slippery slope, as he states on one of the important quotes from “Othello” by Shakespeare, “For if such actions may have passage free, / bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (I.iii.98). This reveals that Brabanzio does not believe that blacks are true men, but merely “bondslaves and pagans” that have no place in white society. Strangely, although he seems very defensive about the position of those of a different race in his world, he is quite accepting of Othello once he figures out who the man in question is. This leads to further questions about how Othello’s character as a Moor is developed since he seems to fit very well into white society because he speaks, dresses, and acts—especially in his leadership capacity—in much the same way the other white men do. As the play progresses it is clear that Othello is a man like any other in the text, the only difference his race. While evil characters such as Iago refer to him simply and disparagingly as “the Moor” those who actually know him refer to him instead as “the valiant Moor” making his race part of who he is—a respected and revered man who is, quite circumstantially a Moor.