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Othello: Racism and Shakespeare

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  • 0:05 The Tragedy of…
  • 3:19 Acts I and II: Iago's…
  • 8:20 Acts III and IV:…
  • 13:44 Act V: Tragic Action
  • 15:44 Themes: The…
  • 19:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this video, we'll give an overview of the plot of Shakespeare's 'Othello.' We'll discuss the motivations of his wicked ensign, Iago, and address the racial issues brought to light by Shakespeare's writing.

The Tragedy of Othello

If you've seen Aladdin, which I hope you have, you probably remember the parrot 'Iago.' If you haven't seen Aladdin, go away right now and watch it because you haven't had a proper childhood yet. (It's on YouTube in installments last time I checked, but you didn't hear that from me...) So now you've seen Aladdin, you know that Iago is the parrot belonging to the evil grand vizier Jafar. But what you might not know is that Iago isn't just a wise-cracking evil parrot sidekick with Gilbert Gottfried's voice.

The name comes from (I think this may be a record for how far I've gotten into a video without actually talking about the actual topic of the video) Othello! Iago comes from Othello. He's the bad guy - the main antagonist in this play. Othello is the good guy, unlike some of Shakespeare's other plays where the bad guy is the title, like Macbeth or Richard III. And none of them are parrots. (I suppose you could do a production in which some of them are parrots... I've seen more absurd Shakespeare productions than that, but no one's done it yet!)

The full title of Othello is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. What's a Moor, you might ask? When I was little, I thought that it just referred to that hilly, rugged climate that people run around in England when they feel desperate - a moor, a marsh kind of land. But it's also a term that, at least in Shakespeare's time, referred to people who were from North Africa.

So Othello is a 'Moor,' again, someone from North Africa. It's spelled m-o-o-r, but it's pronounced 'more' like, 'more money, more problems.' A lot of Shakespeare's plays are set in England, so they probably won't have a ton of racial diversity. You probably haven't seen many people of other races in Shakespeare so far, but the areas around the Mediterranean, which is where Venice is (remember, he's the Moor of Venice), actually had a lot more Moors because Italy and North Africa are pretty close to each other.

So while a Moor in Venice is not an unheard of thing - there definitely were some - it's still important enough that Shakespeare includes that in the title of the play. He wants to indicate Othello's ethnicity right off the bat. Macbeth isn't called The Tragedy of Macbeth, the Crazy Scotsman in the same way that this is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.

We'll get into what happens, and how significant Othello's ethnicity ends up being, and what Iago does that's so awful, in a second. First we're going to introduce the cast of characters.

Characters

OTHELLO: the Moor who's a Venetian general in the army.

IAGO: who is technically called an ensign (basically a rank of soldier) and he serves under Othello.

DESDEMONA: who is Othello's new wife.

EMILIA: who is Iago's wife and Desdemona's servant.

CASSIO: who is Othello's lieutenant who he ends up promoting over Iago, which upsets Iago as you can imagine.

We'll introduce others as they come along, but these are the most important ones. As you can tell by the short list of important characters, it's going to be more of an intimate drama than a political state intrigue kind of thing.

Act I

So what happens? Why is Iago such a bad dude? He hates Othello because Othello promoted Cassio instead of Iago. He's also convinced (maybe - this is a little unclear if he really believes this) that Othello might be sleeping with his wife Emilia... maybe. He's sort of cagey about whether he really thinks this. Iago's motivations have been up for debate for quite a while.

Samuel Coleridge, who's a Romantic poet (you might have heard of him), famously called Iago the 'motiveless malignity.' What he meant by this was basically that Iago's ostensible motivations - the reasons he says he's trying to destroy Othello - don't really hold up. Coleridge saw them more as justifications than motivations. His point is that Iago's hatred seems to just be there, and then there have to be these reasons to back it up. This is just his take on it, but it's an interesting one to keep in mind as we go through the play.

Iago sees his opportunity to ruin Othello's life when he finds out that he has eloped with Desdemona. There's this guy named Roderigo who was totally into Desdemona. He's upset when he finds out that Othello snagged her, and he complains to Iago about it. He's like, 'He took my girl!' Iago promises he's going to go tell on Othello to Desdemona's dad, who's a Venetian senator. He's kind of gross about it when he tells him - I don't think any father likes to hear that his daughter is off 'making the beast with two backs,' which is how Iago very tastefully puts it.

Meanwhile, Othello's being called in to see the Duke of Venice to deal with a potential military problem out in Cyprus. Desdemona's dad crashes the meeting, gets really upset, and calls Othello a thief. He basically says that she couldn't fall in love with him because she's afraid of Othello, which in general seems to be a reference to Othello's race and general Other-ness that we have gotten a sense of already in the play.

But the Duke likes Othello and takes his side. And Desdemona comes forward and says she married him freely, not corrupted by 'spells and medicines' as her father accuses Othello of doing. She says she fell in love with him because of his crazy life story. He told her how he got to where he is, and she was like, 'Oh, that's amazing,' and then she felt attracted to him.

So that's settled. The Duke is satisfied with this and decides to send Othello to Cyprus and is going to send Desdemona with him because she doesn't want to have to go stay at her dad's house now that all this stuff has gone down. So that's Act I.

Act II

They all go off to Cyprus, but Desdemona's actually traveling on a different ship, and she gets there early. She goes off to chat with Cassio - remember, he's one of Othello's lieutenants who's been promoted above Iago - and Iago sees that Cassio takes her hand as they walk off. He's like, 'Ding, ding, ding! Idea! I know how to ruin Othello.' He's going to spread the rumor that Desdemona is sleeping with Cassio. He's very opportunistic in his evilness. He didn't have this plan in his mind - he just thought, 'Oh, sure. Great! I'll use this.'

Othello gets there, and they have a big party to celebrate their military successes and also to celebrate the marriage because they haven't gotten a chance to do that yet. The happy couple sneak away to celebrate in their own fashion ('beast with two backs' again, I suppose). And Iago starts to put his plan into action.

Othello had told Cassio to be on guard duty at the party - bouncer or something like that - and not to get drunk. 'Just don't get drunk, Cassio. Don't do it.' So of course, this is where Iago starts. He gets Cassio super drunk. He gets all disorderly. Cassio's running around chasing people and being obnoxious, and he actually ends up stabbing someone - one of his fellow military people. Our office holiday party gets a little out of control sometimes, but no one ever stabs anybody. This is clearly on a different level of craziness, partying it up in Venice.

This means Othello has to leave the sexytimes and come down and deal with the situation. He fires Cassio immediately after hearing the story from Iago. Iago then convinces Cassio that Cassio should appeal to Desdemona, since Desdemona's got Othello wrapped around her little finger, which might seem like a nice suggestion from Iago, but Iago basically turns to the audience and says, 'Nope, it's not nice. I'm setting him up to have Othello think that he's sleeping with his wife.' Because he's going to spend more time with Desdemona, begging her to appeal to Othello to get him back into his service.

Act III

We've got Cassio desperately trying to win Othello's favor again. He decides to send musicians to play under his window, which is kind of the ancient-day equivalent of sending an email with a funny YouTube video and going, 'We good now?' They're not good - Othello sends the musicians away. To be fair, it's probably pretty irritating. Like those singing a cappella valentines that people send each other in high school.

So Cassio goes to talk to Iago's wife, Emilia (who, remember, is Desdemona's servant), so he can eventually talk to Desdemona. Emilia informs him that they've all been talking about him, and Othello really doesn't think he can reinstate him because the guy he stabbed is a little too popular, and they might lose favor with the people on Cyprus.

Emilia does work it out, though, so they can all talk, and Desdemona tells Cassio that she's going to do everything she can. But while they're chatting, Othello and Iago enter the room. Cassio scuttles away guiltily because, again, he's feeling a little embarrassed, having stabbed somebody when he was drunk.

Othello asks Iago if that was Cassio, and Iago says, 'What, that guilty-looking guy? No way!' And Iago begins his plan in earnest now. He starts insinuating that the affair is happening. We're going to take this to the stage and hear their conversation and how really awesome Iago is at being a manipulative bad guy.

OTHELLO: What dost thou say, Iago?

IAGO: Did Michael Cassio, when you woo'd my lady, Know of your love?

OTHELLO: He did, from first to last: why dost thou ask?

IAGO: But for a satisfaction of my thought; No further harm.

OTHELLO: Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO: I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

OTHELLO: O, yes; and went between us very oft.

IAGO: Indeed!

OTHELLO: Indeed! Ay, indeed: discern'st thou aught in that? Is he not honest?

IAGO: Honest, my lord!

OTHELLO: Honest! Ay, honest.

IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.

OTHELLO: What dost thou think?

IAGO: Think, my lord!

OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, he echoes me, As if there were some monster in his thought Too hideous to be shown.

So basically Iago's implying that Desdemona is cheating on Othello. He's kind of saying, 'Oh, yeah. She knew Cassio? Oh, she did? Oh, okay...' He's asking all these questions and then getting Othello to admit that they knew each other well and all this stuff. Then has the nerve to warn Othello about being jealous.

IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on;

'Green-eyed monster'! That's where it comes from - the phrase about what jealousy is comes from Othello. Fun fact. Of course Othello thinks her alleged unfaithfulness is all his fault because he's not young enough or witty enough or white enough, honestly. He says:

OTHELLO:

Haply, for I am black

And have not those soft parts of conversation

That chamberers have, or for I am declined

Into the vale of years,--yet that's not much--

She's gone. I am abused; and my relief

Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,

That we can call these delicate creatures ours,

And not their appetites!

So basically, he's decided that she's probably cheated on him and thinks that's just a horrible condition of marriage - that's she's his - these delicate creatures are ours (men's, is what he's saying) - but not really his because she can still want to sleep with guys who aren't him. The whole owning her thing is a little creepy.

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