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Race in Othello

Othello’s intended ethnicity is in some dispute. ‘Moor’ is a name applied to the Arab and Berber peoples of North Africa who inhabited medieval Spain. Thus, Othello may be connected with the Moors who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492 until a later expulsion in 1609, [1] or with the people of ‘Barbary’ in North Africa. Iago calls Othello a ‘Barbary horse’ [2] (1.1.110), referring to the famous horses of the Arab world, but also playing on the associations of ‘barbarian’ with paganism and savagery. One contact with Moors of which Shakespeare could have known came in 1600, when an ambassador from Barbary came to London with his colleagues to discuss a possible alliance against Spain: it was observed that the delegation followed their own religious rituals, and they were called ‘barbarians’ and ‘infidels’. [3] The Moor, like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, was a religious outsider, and could be associated with unbelief and vice rather than with Christian virtue. However, Othello does not seem to be a Muslim, speaking insultingly of a circumcised Turk (5.2.353). The term ‘Moor’ could also indicate a nonwhite person who was not necessarily a Spanish or North African Muslim; black Africans could be referred to as ‘blackamoors’. Yet when Queen Elizabeth desired the removal of ‘negars and blackamoors’ from Britain in 1601, she seemed to be referring to Moorish refugees from Spain. [4]

Whichever of these categories Othello fits into, it is clear that Shakespeare portrays Othello’s race as setting him apart in some respects from the predominantly white European society in which he lives. Although Othello is respected for his military prowess and nobility of character, he inhabits a culture in which underlying racial tensions, in particular anxieties about the mixing of races through intermarriage, can be exploited. In Othello, racial stereotypes are both evoked and problematised. The racial divide between Othello and Desdemona is portrayed in intentionally shocking language: Iago tells Brabantio that ‘an old black ram/ is tupping your white ewe’ (1.1.87-8). In calling Othello ‘Barbary horse’ and ‘black ram’, Iago associates carnality and animality with Othello and blackness. Yet as much as Iago’s rhetoric, and Othello’s own later self-construction, makes Othello carnal, exotic or monstrous, he is also human and sympathetic, vulnerable to Iago’s machinations partly because his difference makes him an easy target.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare explores a rhetoric of ‘blackness’, but always with an ironic distance. When Desdemona believes that the sun has drawn away Othello’s jealous ‘humour’ (3.4.31), she refers to black bile, one of the four ‘humours’ that were thought to affect human emotion. Othello uses ‘black’ to refer to Desdemona’s fraught reputation, ‘begrimed and black/ as mine own face’ (3.3.390-1), and also talks of ‘black vengeance’(3.3.450). Yet, Shakespeare problematises the use of ‘black’ as a negative signifier. Desdemona’s name is not in fact ‘begrimed’, because she is innocent, and only believed to be guilty by Othello; neither is Othello’s face ‘begrimed’, since it is naturally dark. The association of blackness with staining or impurity recalls Iago’s attempt to portray Desdemona as being polluted by Othello’s love, and yet their love is strong and wholesome until Iago interferes. ‘Black’ vengeance is associated with Iago himself before Othello seeks vengeance on Desdemona. Ultimately, we are made aware that it is Iago, a white character, who is guilty both of causing Othello’s descent into ‘dark’ emotions, and of evoking Othello’s difference in racially charged rhetoric.

Karen Kay


1. Cf. Barbara Everett, ‘ “Spanish” Othello: the Making of Shakespeare’s Moor’, in Shakespeare and Race, ed. by Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), pp. 64-81. Return to text

2. Act, scene and line references are from William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. by E. A. J. Honigmann, the Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edn (London: Thomson Learning, 1997, 2004). Return to text

3. Cf. Bernard Harris, ‘A Portrait of a Moor’, in Shakespeare and Race, pp. 23-36; quotes p. 31. Return to text

4. Cf. Othello, Introduction, p. 29, citing Historical Manuscripts Commission, Hatfield House, Part XI (1601) (1906), 569. Return to text





General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello