The Issue of Race in Othello
In his production of Othello for BBC television (1981), Jonathan Miller asserted that Othello's race does not greatly impact his downfall in the play. He maintains that while Shakespeare touches upon the issue of race, the cause of Othello's demise lies elsewhere.1 However, the implications of race in the play directly lead to its tragic ending; it is this issue that impels the characters to set the tragedy in motion. Brabantio would never revolt against the union of Othello and Desdemona if it were not for Othello's blackness. Roderigo could never be motivated to pursue Desdemona were it not for his belief that their relationship is unnatural. By far the most significant racism is Othello's own, racism that Iago brings to the surface by playing upon Othello's racial insecurities. Finally, it is racism that serves as Iago's primary cause in his destruction of Othello.
Brabantio is very selective about suitors for Desdemona, as is evident from his vocal condemnation of Roderigo. After learning it is Roderigo lurking about his window, Brabantio tells him, "The worser welcome! / ... In honest plainness thou hast heard me say / My daughter is not for thee" (1.1.92-95).2 Although Roderigo is a wealthy native Venetian, in Brabantio's eyes he is not worthy of Desdemona. Despite these strict standards, it would seem that Othello could win Brabantio's approval; he holds a lucrative and prestigious position as the general of the army, he is born of a noble background, and he has the respect of the State. In addition, Brabantio has an affinity for Othello, as he explains, "[he] loved [Othello]; oft invited [him]; / Still questioned [him] the story of [his] life" (1.3.128-29). There is no reason for Brabantio to disapprove of Desdemona's union with Othello-apart from his race.
Yet Brabantio begins to take Roderigo seriously only when he informs him, in racist fashion, that Desdemona has fallen "To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" (1.1.123). It is this thought that drives Brabantio to wake his household in search of his daughter. Even though his daughter's husband is Othello, a man whose company Brabantio has enjoyed, he still finds the thought of his daughter eloping with a black man extremely repulsive. He believes that if Desdemona really loves Othello it shows "a judgment maimed and most imperfect / That will confess perfection so could err / Against all rules of nature, and must be driven / To find out practices of cunning hell / Why this should be" (1.3.99-103). Brabantio can not fathom how Desdemona, "a maid so tender, fair, and happy," could run "to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as [Othello]" (1.2.65, 69-70). According to Brabantio, their union is so preposterous and "against all rules of nature" that the only logical explanation is that there is magic involved.
Despite strong evidence of his hostile attitude towards Othello, we must question whether Brabantio's racism...