Othello

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Themes and Colors
Prejudice Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Jealousy Theme Icon
Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Othello, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Prejudice Theme Icon

The most prominent form of prejudice on display in Othello is racial prejudice. In the very first scene, Roderigo and Iago disparage Othello in explicitly racial terms, calling him, among other things, "Barbary horse" and "thick lips." In nearly every case, the prejudiced characters use terms that describe Othello as an animal or beast. In other words, they use racist language to try to define Othello not only as an outsider to white Venetian society, but as being less human and therefore less deserving of respect. Othello himself seems to have internalized this prejudice. On a number of occasions he describes himself in similarly unflattering racial terms. And when he believes that he has lost his honor and manhood through Desdemona's supposed unfaithfulness, he quickly becomes the kind of un-rational animal or monster that the white Venetians accuse him of being.

Yet racial prejudice is not the only prejudice on display in Othello. Many characters in the play also exhibit misogyny, or hatred of women, primarily focused on women's honesty or dishonesty about their sexuality. Several times, Othello's age is also a reason for insulting him. In all of these cases, the characters displaying prejudice seek to control and define another person or group who frighten them. In other words, prejudice works as a kind of strategy to identify outsiders and insiders and to place yourself within the dominant group. And Othello himself seems to understand this—he concludes his suicide speech by boasting that he, a Christian, once killed a Muslim Turk, a "circumcised dog" (5.2.355) who had murdered a Venetian citizen. Othello tries to use religious prejudice against Muslims to cement his place within mainstream Christian Venetian society.

Prejudice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Prejudice appears in each scene of Othello. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Prejudice Quotes in Othello

Below you will find the important quotes in Othello related to the theme of Prejudice.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid, so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight."
Related Characters: Brabantio (speaker), Othello, Desdemona
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 1.2.82-90
Explanation and Analysis:

Brabantio and his men have arrived at the inn where Othello is staying. Iago has advised Othello to go inside in order to avoid a confrontation with Brabantio, but Othello has decided to stay, declaring that he is a loyal soldier and husband to Desdemona and thus he has nothing to be ashamed of. Brabantio, having learned about his daughter's marriage, accuses Othello of enchanting Desdemona and binding her in "chains of magic"; he claims there is no other explanation for why she would choose to marry Othello. He uses racist language to describe Othello, calling him a "thing" with a "sooty bosom," and saying that it would make more sense to fear him as opposed to love him. 

This speech is a pertinent example of the racial prejudice directed at Othello by the other characters. Brabantio's words reflect the widespread idea that Othello is not a normal human, but is either an animal-like "thing" or a fantastical being with supernatural powers. Note that Brabantio's horror emerges in particular from the thought of his daughter, whom he describes in terms that evoke pure white womanhood ("a maid, so tender, fair, and happy"), being intimate with Othello ("run... to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou"). Desdemona is presented as de-sexualized, an innocent child, whereas Othello is suggested to have sinister sexual powers akin to magical enchantment. As well as indicting Othello, this idea robs Desdemona of agency; Brabantio considers it impossible that she has chosen to marry Othello of her own free will. 

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Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
"The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
And will as tenderly be led by th' nose
As asses are."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Othello
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 1.3.442-445
Explanation and Analysis:

Roderigo has confessed to Iago that he is miserable at the thought that he has lost Desdemona to Othello; Iago has told him not to indulge these sentimental emotions, and has promised to help Roderigo win Desdemona if Roderigo pays him. Alone onstage, Iago reflects on his own hatred of Othello and details his plan to bring about Othello's downfall. In this passage, Iago notes that Othello is an open, trusting person, and that because of this, manipulating him will be easy, like leading a donkey by the nose.

This is one of the many instances in the play in which Othello is compared to an animal. Iago's reference to an ass (donkey) in particular highlights that the racist view of Moors as animalistic is closely entwined with the idea that Moors are naturally subservient and unintelligent. Iago's view that Othello is feebleminded is clearly false; Othello has already demonstrated that he is not only a highly skilled soldier, but also talented in rhetoric. On the other hand, Iago's observation that Othello is overly trusting is correct. Indeed, Othello's readiness to believe in appearances is the fatal flaw that––as Iago predicts––ultimately leads to his downfall.

However, the extent to which this trusting nature is actually a flaw remains ambiguous. Othello's "free and open nature" is contrasted with Iago's duplicitous cunning, and although Shakespeare shows that gullibility is dangerous, it is still presented as morally preferable to selfish scheming and deceitful appearances.

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
"I'll [...] make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me
For making him egregiously an ass."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Othello
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 2.1.330-331
Explanation and Analysis:

Having established a plan with Roderigo to provoke Cassio into a fight, Iago is once again left alone and delivers another soliloquy about his evil scheme. He has proclaimed that winning Desdemona for himself would be the best possible form of revenge against Othello, but that he will settle for driving Othello mad with jealousy by tricking him into thinking Desdemona has been unfaithful. Iago finishes his speech with the alarming boast that he will make Othello "thank me, love me, and reward me" for making a fool out of him, again using the racist imagery by saying he will turn Othello into an ass (donkey).

This passage is a reminder of Iago's scheming nature––he wants to destroy Othello not only for the pleasure of vengeance, but also for the "reward" of advancing his own career. It also reveals the truly perverse, sadistic extent of his desire for revenge. It is not enough for Iago to ruin Othello; he wants Othello to "thank" and "love" him for it. 

Act 3, scene 3 Quotes
"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."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Desdemona
Page Number: 3.3.304-3.3.308
Explanation and Analysis:

Still alone, Othello reflects on his conversation with Iago and frets that perhaps it is unrealistic to expect Desdemona to truly love him, considering he is black, uncivilized in speech, and older than she is. Here we see the result of Iago's tactic of reverse psychology; while Iago encouraged Othello not to think too much about the situation before there was more evidence, Othello is left in a fretful, paranoid state, trying to evaluate if he is good enough for Desdemona. It is also clear from Othello's words that his fears are far more emotional than rational, and are rooted in the incoherent logic of racism.

This is the second time that Othello has referred to himself as a crude and unskilled speaker, and yet all evidence points to the falseness of this statement. Meanwhile, the fact that he is older than Desdemona is hardly significant, considering it was common for young women to marry older men at the time. The only objective fact that in this speech is that Othello is black; however, at no point in the play does Desdemona express even the slightest concern over this fact. On the other had, Othello's experience of racism at the hands of the other characters is frequent and severe. Thus, regardless of what Desdemona thinks, he cannot escape the internalized racist idea that their racial difference makes their marriage unviable. 

Act 5, scene 2 Quotes
"When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this.
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker)
Page Number: 5.2.401-417
Explanation and Analysis:

Thanks to Emilia, Othello has finally discovered Iago's scheme, and after Iago kills Emilia, Othello stabs Iago, wounding him but not killing him. Lodovico, meanwhile, has told Othello that he must accompany him back to Venice and give up his position of general. In response, Othello delivers a speech in which he asks the other characters to describe him in the future as he is and not to exaggerate either his good or bad qualities. He admits that, due to being "perplexed in the extreme," he threw away something more precious than anything else. At the end, he asks that they remember the time he killed a Turk with a sword, and parallels the act by stabbing himself. 

Othello's final speech is complex, and betrays Othello's ambiguous judgment of himself and the situation. His request that he neither be overly praised or condemned after death suggests that he is frustrated by a lifetime of being judged according to racist stereotypes, in addition to the pressure of maintaining an honorable reputation. His use of the word "base" in the reference to the Judean who threw the pearl away shows that he blames his own misjudgment for having killed Desdemona. At the same time, however, he notes that he is not "easily jealous" by nature and thus emphasizes Iago's role in misleading him.

Othello's final words about killing the Turk indicate that he wishes to be remembered as a loyal Venetian soldier; by comparing that act to stabbing himself, he implies that his suicide is almost a kind of service to the state of Venice. This aligns with the narrative arc of classical tragedy, which dictates that once the tragic hero has died, a proper, stable hierarchy of power can be restored.