The Motif of Black and White in Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.

Trying to arouse Brabantio's anger at Othello, Iago yells at him in the middle of the night, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88-89). "Tupping" (or "topping") is a nasty term for having sex. [Scene Summary]

When Brabantio and his followers try to arrest Othello, Brabantio charges Othello with using magic to seduce Desdemona. This must be so, says Brabantio, because his daughter, "a maid so tender, fair and happy"(1.2.66), would not naturally have "Run . . . to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou -- to fear, not to delight!" (1.2.70-71). The word "fair" means both "beautiful" and "white." [Scene Summary]

After Othello and Desdemona have proved to the Senate that theirs is a love match, the Duke tries to talk Brabantio into accepting the marriage. The very last thing that the Duke says to Brabantio is, "And, noble signior, / If virtue no delighted [delightful] beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (1.3.288-290). "Fair" means "white," but also "beautiful" and "good." The Duke's point is that Brabantio would be much wiser to quit focusing on Othello's color and start appreciating his virtue. [Scene Summary]

In Cyprus, waiting for Othello's ship to arrive, Iago amuses the company with some banter about women. Desdemona challenges him to say something about her, and Iago expresses some reluctance to answer Desdemona's challenge, but Desdemona keeps after him until he starts in again. He says, "If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit, / The one's for use, the other useth it" (2.1.129-130). He means that a woman who is both smart and beautiful will be smart enough to know how to use her beauty to get what she wants. Because Iago is still talking about women in general, this isn't exactly what Desdemona asked for, but she plays along, asking him, "How if she be black and witty?" (2.1.131). "Black" can mean "brunette," just as "fair" can mean "blonde," but here Desdemona is asking about a woman who is smart and ugly. Iago answers, "If she be black, and thereto have a wit, / She'll find a white that shall her blackness hit" (2.1.132-133). The word "white" is a pun on "wight" (a person, a man), and also on the "white" (the center) of an archery target. "Hit" has the same sexual connotation as it does in modern phrases such as "hit on her." Iago is saying that no matter how ugly a woman is, she can use her intelligence to attract a handsome man. [Scene Summary]

After Iago has gotten Cassio drunk and made him lose his job, he advises him to appeal to Desdemona to use her influence with Othello. We know that Iago plans to use whatever Desdemona says on Cassio's behalf as evidence that Desdemona is in love with Cassio, but Iago asks us why we should think he's a villain. He points out that his advice is good advice because Desdemona is a kind-hearted woman and Othello loves her so much he'll do anything she says. How then, Iago asks, can he be called a villain? Answering his own question, Iago gleefully comments, "When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest [tempt] at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now" (2.3.351-353). [Scene Summary]

When Iago has lured Othello deep into the agony of jealousy, Othello reflects on the way his image of Desdemona has changed by saying that "Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face" (3.3.386-388). Diana is goddess of the moon, so "Dian's visage" is the pale and shining face of the moon.

A few minutes later Othello says farewell to love and summons up hate to take its place: "Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell! / Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne / To tyrannous hate!" (3.3.447-449). [Scene Summary]

After Othello berates Desdemona about the handkerchief, Desdemona tries to rationalize his bad treatment of her. She comes up with the idea that some problem on the job "Hath puddled his clear spirit" (3.4.143). "Puddled" means "muddied." [Scene Summary]

At the opening of the last act Othello is looking at Desdemona, preparing himself to kill her. He says,
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,--
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!--
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.   (5.2.1-13)
The "chaste stars" and the flaming candle both help make Desdemona's whiteness shine forth as she lies asleep in the night under the gaze of black Othello.

Almost as soon as he has killed Desdemona, Othello is so overwhelmed with grief that he says, "My wife! my wife! what wife? I have no wife. / O insupportable! O heavy hour! / Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon . . . ." (5.2.97-100). Such an eclipse would cover the whole world in darkness. To Othello, it is as though his wife was the source of all light.

With her dying words Desdemona protects Othello by telling Emilia that she killed herself. After a moment of pretending innocence, Othello says of Desdemona, "She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell: / 'Twas I that kill'd her" (5.2.129-130). Emilia shoots back, "O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!" (5.2.130-131). In Emilia's view, Othello has his morality all turned around; he thinks black is white, and white is black.

Later, after Iago's treachery has been revealed, Othello looks at the body of his wife and says, "Now -- how dost thou look now? O ill-starr'd wench! / Pale as thy smock! when we shall meet at compt, / This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, / And fiends will snatch at it" (5.2.272-275). In death, white Desdemona is a paler shade of white. She is as white as her nightgown, as white as her own ghost, which will hurl Othello from heaven to hell. [Scene Summary]