Racism is one of the many problems today’s society faces. Though we have much to improve upon, equality has significantly improved compared to the last few centuries. We can better understand the state of racism during Elizabethan era by looking at one of its famous play writers, Shakespeare, and his play Othello. The play follows Othello during his change from a respected military general to a man who murdered his own wife. Is the root cause of his downfall racism? Although Othello compares himself to a “Turbaned Turk” (IIIII.ii.349) moments before his suicide, his death is not is downfall. His downfall started when he decides to trust Iago. In order to see if Othello’s downfall was indeed due to racism, one must look at Iago, the perpetrator of Othello’s downfall. Though racism is a part of Iago’s motivation at first, it soon becomes irrelevant as he reveals his true motives: Othello promoting Cassio instead of him, and his hidden sadistic personality.
One of his leading motivations is Othello promoting Cassio to Lieutenant, despite Iago having more experience and talent. Iago, through his talent in deception and manipulation, proves that he has qualities fit for a Lieutenant. In Greenblatt’s analysis on Iago, he says that Iago is:
fully aware of himself as an improviser and revels in his ability to manipulate his victims, to lead them by the nose like asses, to possess their labor without their ever being capable of grasping the relation in which they are enmeshed. Such is the relation Iago establishes with virtually every character in the play. (Greenblatt 38).
Skills like improvisation, manipulation, deception and intelligence, are skills Iago has mastered through his long career which are necessary for leading position, making him an obvious candidate as Othello’s Lieutenant. He proves his talent when he puppets “virtually every character in the play,” while maintaining their trust. As the play progresses and Othello blindly trusts “honest” Iago and loses the respect of the entire audience as his empty-headedness becomes intolerable, giving reason to Othello’s downfall. Iago’s competitor Cassio is introduced as:
A great arithmetician, / One Michael Cassio, a Florentine / A fellow almost damned in a fair wife / That never set a squadron in the field, / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster – unless the bookish theoric, / Wherein the toged consuls can propose / As masterly as he. Mere prattle without practice / Is all his soldier ship (Shakespeare I.i.15-21).
In other words, he is introduced as a mathematician that has no knowledge or experience when it comes to fighting wars and has failed to even earn the respect of his own wife. Cassio, predictably, falls into every one of Iago’s traps while trusting him with all of his plans, similar to Othello. Throughout the play, Othello and Cassio’s stupidity is emphasized while Iago develops into a cunning character, making the audience question whether Iago is indeed the villain or protagonist. Iago’s experiences can be compared to a talented individual working a full-time job to get a promotion, not being recognized for their talent and having their boss promote a young, inexperienced, and untalented person instead. Although racism is partially explored in the play through innuendos or double meanings like “When devils will the blackest sins put on,” (Shakespeare II.ii.351) Iago’s anger and frustration towards Othello for promoting Cassio is the primary motivations Iago has for taking down Othello.
Another reason Iago pursues the downfall of Othello is because of his well-hidden sadistic personality enjoys hurting others for the sake of it. Iago, a very round character, is famous for being two-faced. The face he shows in the presence of other characters is friendly and loyal which he uses to gain trust. His second face is manipulative and hateful and is only revealed during his soliloquies. He demonstrates his two-faced personality during one of his soliloquies:
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear: / That she repeals him for her body’s lust: / And by how much she strives to do him good, / She shall undo her credit with the Moor. / So will I turn her virtue into pitch. / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all. How now, Roderigo? (II.ii.356-362).
As Iago reveals his immoral plans, he also reveals his second face and its sadistic personality. He plans on exploiting Desdemona’s kindness to make Othello mistake her kindness for defiance. How much eviler can Iago get when he plans to trick Othello into killing his newly wedded wife Desdemona for a crime she’s innocent of on their honeymoon? Apparently, he still isn’t satisfied with the amount of harm done. He takes all of Roderigo, a Venetian Noble’s, money before stabbing and killing him. He then proceeds to create a murder fiesta with ends up in the death of Desdemona, Emilia and Othello. The question that remains is, why Iago ends up in jail if this was his plan? Auden says:
“So far as Iago’s plot is concerned, there is nothing Roderigo does which Iago could not do better without him. He could easily have found another means, like an anonymous letter, of informing Brabantio of Desdemona’s elopement and, for picking a quarrel with a drunken Cassio, he has, on his own admission, other means handy” (265 Auden).
The only explanation for Iago’s behavior is that he simply enjoys being responsible for the pain he brings to others. Iago could have killed Emilia before she reached Desdemona’s room, or fatally wounded Cassio instead of stabbing him in the leg in order to remain unsuspected. Othello’s downfall isn’t brought by Iago’s racist ideas, but by his desire to ruin peaceful lives.
Iago, the man responsible for Othello’s downfall was motivated by revenge for not being promotes to Lieutenant and by his sadistic and almost psychotic personality. Therefore, Othello’s downfall was not caused by Racism, but his trusting personality.
- Auden, W H. “The Joker in the Pack.” Encounter.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Improvisation of Power.”