Throughout "Othello," images of black and white are used as a motif to reflect the pertinence of race in the play and the damaging consequences of racial stereotypes.
In particular, images of black and white in the play are bound up with the dichotomy of good and evil. Specifically through the characters of Othello and Desdemona, images of black and white are used to emphasize the contrast between the characters’ virtue, with whiteness tied up with Desdemona’s faithfulness and blackness with Othello’s violence. In this way, the motif also serves as a way to set up Othello and Desdemona as foils.
Emilia, after Othello kills Desdemona, calls him “the blacker devil,” and the association between Othello’s blackness and sin is referred to multiple times in the play. By contrast, Desdemona’s whiteness is connected with images of purity—“a maid so tender, fair and happy” and an “angel.” Such associations play into dangerous racial stereotypes that prove potent in “Othello.” Iago’s allusion to Othello and Desdemona’s sexual relations through the imagery of an “old black ram” tupping a “white ewe” makes the racial prejudices contained within the play clear from the start.
Black and white imagery is also used by Othello himself, in a way that suggests his own internalized racism. Referring to his belief that Desdemona has betrayed him, Othello says:
Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face
Here, Othello himself ties up images of whiteness and blackness with virtue and vice, and indeed explicitly in the context of skin. Othello’s use of this imagery suggests that he himself may have internalized the racial prejudices of his peers. Such internalized racism may be part of the reason why Othello is so easy to trick, with his own insecurities about his worthiness of Desdemona making her unfaithfulness easier for him to believe.
Emilia’s cynicism functions as a foil for Desdemona’s naivety, emphasizing Desdemona’s honesty and innocence. Emilia’s worldly experience, perceptiveness, and dark sense of humor form a contrast with Desdemona’s purity. This difference becomes apparent in the following exchange:
Desdemona: Dost thou in conscience think—tell me, Emilia—
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?
Emilia: There be some such, no question.
Desdemona: Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
Emilia: Why, would not you?
Desdemona: No, by this heavenly light!
Emilia: Nor I neither, by this heavenly light.
I might do ’t as well i’ th’ dark.
Desdemona: In troth, I think thou wouldst not.
Emilia: In troth, I think I should
Desdemona’s disbelief at the idea that a woman could betray her husband highlights the purity and innocence of Desdemona’s worldview, in contrast to Emilia, who jokes that she would betray her husband, provided it brought enough gains, of course. The dynamics of this exchange, with Desdemona being the questioner, also shows the disparity between the two women’s knowledge, with Emilia being the authoritative figure. This dynamic highlights Emilia’s greater worldliness.
Furthermore, Emilia’s use of wit showcases her cleverness, but also her greater willingness to play with contrivances and double meanings, a quality that contrasts with Desdemona, who always says as she means. Accordingly, Emilia also proves more willing to deceive than Desdemona, stealing her handkerchief in order to please her husband. Desdemona, on the other hand, remains a figure of unequivocal honesty throughout. This difference has similar implications on the levels of perceptiveness possessed by the two women, with Emilia also more able to detect other characters’ duplicity. It is Emilia, after all, who will be the one to work out what has happened and deliver the final revelation to Othello. This perceptiveness simultaneously highlights Desdemona’s naive and over-trusting nature, a trait that will prove fatal.
Shakespeare further presents Desdemona and Emilia as foils by contrasting Desdemona’s submissive and passive nature with Emilia’s independence. Whereas Desdemona idealizes her husband, seeing him as a bastion of honor and truth, Emilia’s attitude towards men contains a more healthy cynicism. Emilia’s final denunciation of her husband, for example, stands in start contrast to Desdemona, who remains faithful and loving to Othello to the last, even after he has killed her.
Shakespeare sets up Iago and Othello as foils of one another, with Iago’s duplicity and control designed to emphasize Othello’s honest and open nature.
Throughout the play, Iago is proven to be a duplicitous, scheming character; he says one thing to one and the opposite to another. Where he tells Othello “I love you” in person, in private he scorns how he hates "the Moor." Iago is a character who knows that things are not as they seem. Indeed, he himself freely admits “I am not what I am.” By contrast, Shakespeare emphasizes Othello’s trust in appearances. He is “of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so”. When needing to know if Desdemona is being unfaithful, Othello demands the “ocular proof”; in other words, Othello believes in what he can see. Othello’s belief in things being as they appear emphasizes Iago’s cynical worldview, where everything is false. By setting up this opposition, Shakespeare simultaneously emphasizes Iago’s capacity to deceive and Othello’s susceptibility to manipulation.
This contrast is reinforced by the differences in how Iago and Othello speak throughout the play. While Othello consistently speaks in blank verse, Iago effortlessly switches between prose and verse depending on who he is talking to. This ease in switching register highlights Iago’s chameleon-like nature, with him able to match his appearance to what is most advantageous for him, while the consistency in style in which Othello talks to everyone emphasizes his honesty and integrity.
This foil is reinforced at the end of the play when everything is found out. While Othello turns to words, expressing his grief with lengthy and open speech, Iago chooses silence:
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.
Iago’s willed silence shows his mastery of control; even when everything is out in the open, he will not speak freely. Whereas Othello’s speech becomes increasingly frantic and babbling, punctuated with multiple “O”s and exclamations, Iago’s remains measured and calculated. His final comment that “what you know, you know” shows his determination that he will remain in control of the narrative until the very end.