In Act I, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s play, Othello, the early exchange among Roderigo, Iago, and Brabantio about the alleged love between Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, and Othello, the black Moor, alludes the degree to which race will become an important motif and influence on the development of the plot. From the outset of this Shakespeare play the dialogue among these men reveals that they never see Othello as a man, but rather as a beast. Shakespeare’s Othello is described as a “Barbary horse" (Act I, Scene 1, l. 120) by Iago, and he stirs up Brabantio’s anxiety, rage, and the will to take action by vulgarly stating, in one of the important quotes from Othello that Desdemona and Othello “are now making the beast with two backs" (Act I, Scene 1, l. 125). This reference Shakespeare includes is obviously intended to evoke the image of the camel, thereby reinforcing Othello’s country of origin. He is not a compatriot or a fellow countryman. He is a strange foreigner, and his dark skin is threatening to the existing social hierarchy. This early conceptualization of Othello by Shakespeare is that of a man whose only characteristic important in the eyes of others is his race, affects all of the relationships and actions in the play, including, ultimately, how Othello comes to view himself.

Throughout the play Othello by Shakespeare, Iago’s crass speech about Othello and his successful conquest of Desdemona’s love and affection is the catalyst that sets the rest of the play into motion. Note that the reader of this Shakespeare play has not been introduced to Othello himself directly. Because he is introduced by Iago, clearly an unreliable, malicious source with ulterior motives, Othello is immediately cast as a suspicious character whose trustworthiness must be proven. Iago knows that he himself will be viewed by Brabantio and the reader as a source lacking credibility, and he attempts not to dispute this, but to insist that the failure to hear him and consider his warning will result in Desdemona’s demise. Iago says along the lines of this theme in Othello, “Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians,/ you’ll have your daughter covered…." (Act I, Scene 1, ll. 118-120). He goes on to enumerate the terrible consequences should Brabantio fail to listen to him: “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have/coursers for cousins and gennets for germans" (Act I, Scene 1, ll. 121-122). In short, the esteemed Senator Brabantio’s pure familial pedigree will be polluted irrevocably with all sorts of deformed offspring. Again, the reference to animal imagery is crucial, for it reinforces the idea that Othello is nothing more than an animal that will bring savage ruin upon Brabantio and his family.

This sense of danger is both established and reinforced by Iago’s insistence upon referring to Othello using base animal imagery repeatedly throughout this Shakespeare play. Not content with just introducing one animalistic symbol, Iago bombards Brabantio and the reader with multiple images, thereby intensifying the stakes and increasing Brabantio’s fears exponentially. Nothing about Othello’s human versus “animal” qualities is observed or included in the speech. By denying Othello his humanity, Iago is ensuring that Othello is viewed, both by Brabantio and the reader, as a threatening force who must be restrained using any means available. The result achieves Iago’s desired ends. Although Brabantio rails against Iago as a “profane wretch" (Act I, Scene 1, l. 123) and a “villain" (Act I, Scene 1, l. 126), he is ultimately convinced by Iago’s report, which is supported, of course, by Roderigo’s more tempered and restrained observations. Roderigo serves as the important counterpoint to Iago’s impassioned plea, as he appeals to Brabantio’s ego by saying, “Do not believe/That, from the sense of all civility,/I thus would play and trifle with your reverence" (Act I, Scene 1, ll. 139-141). Roderigo is so convinced of the rightness of his position that he invites Brabantio to “Let loose on me the justice of the state" if he and Iago have led Brabantio astray (Act I, Scene 1, l. 148). Stirred up by the animal imagery, and convinced by Roderigo’s valiant claims, Brabantio is so disturbed by the possibility that his illustrious pedigree will be diluted that he acts swiftly and decisively, sending out a search party for the eloped Desdemona.

What is important about this early scene in Act I of this play by Shakespeare is that it establishes the tone that will characterize the characters’ treatment of Othello. The animal imagery that is used to describe Othello and refer only to his race, as opposed to any other personal attributes of character, skill, intelligence, experience, or accomplishment, is pervasive throughout the play. Othello is later described by Iago as a black ram, and later, a baboon, one of the most enduring and perhaps most painful of all animal symbols associated with black people. What is still more disturbing, however, is that Othello internalizes the oppression of Iago and the others, and begins to view and describe himself in similar animalistic terms. He begins to believe that he is not capable of some of the most basic skills that distinguish human beings from other animal life, namely speech. Later in the play, in Act I, Scene 3, Othello states that his speech is crude and that he is disconnected from the concerns of most men. The irony, of course, is that he goes on to offer a thoughtful and intelligent speech; he simply seems to be unaware of the abilities that he possesses, as reduced as he has become by others’ unfairly negative views of him.

The treatment of race in Shakespeare’s Othello is masterful. Building upon the motifs and images established in the earliest lines of the play, Shakespeare deftly portrays how a man can be defined and judged based solely on his race and not on any of his personal abilities or merits. The outcome, of course, is among the most tragic in all plays by Shakespeare. Othello ultimately kills himself because it is the only way that he can recapture his honor and dignity. He has been utterly reduced by others’ perceptions and treatment of him, which was set into motion with Iago’s distasteful comparison of Othello with beastly images in Act I, Scene 1. Shakespeare skillfully portrayed this terrible treatment that only became more characteristic of race relations over time. When one looks at the history of literature since Shakespeare’s time, similar animalistic motifs used to engage the idea of race are employed. The use of animal imagery is a dehumanizing but effective technique to portray people as different and, therefore, as worthy of discrimination and persecution.

Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Perceptions of Race in Othello by ShakespeareThe Power of Words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and OthelloSin and Villains in Doctor Faustus and Othello Prejudice in Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice