Othello's Difference

In the first scene of the play, Roderigo, Iago, and Brabantio all emphasize Othello's difference by referring to him only as "the Moor." The first occurrence is in Iago's speech about how Othello denied him promotion to lieutenant. At the end of the speech, Iago sarcastically comments that the undeserving Cassio got the job, while he has to remain as "his Moorship's ancient [ensign] " (1.1.33). "His worship," is a term of respect, so Iago's pun, "Moorship," mocks both Othello's race and his character.

Later, when Iago and Roderigo are trying to get Brabantio angry over the elopement of Othello and Desdemona, Iago shouts out, "I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (1.1.115-117). A moment later Roderigo does his part to emphasize the dangerous sexuality of Othello; he tells Brabantio that his daughter has fled "To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" (1.1.126). Roderigo then goes on to describe Othello as an "extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and every where" (1.1.136-137). [Scene Summary]

When Brabantio and his posse catch up with Othello, Brabantio accuses Othello of using magic and drugs on Desdemona. To Brabantio's way of thinking, she wouldn't have naturally fallen in love with someone so different. She was innocent, happy, and so opposed to marriage that she "shunned / The wealthy curled darlings of our nation" (1.2.68). Brabantio is a little scornful of the "darlings," but to him it seems natural that Desdemona would be attracted to them. (After all, this is an age in which men wore lace and used curling irons on their long hair, so everyone thought an attractive man had the sort of juvenile sweetness that inspires American 13-year old girls to say "really, really, cute!") But it's unnatural, says Brabantio to Othello, for Desdemona to run from her home "to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou -- to fear, not to delight" (1.2.70-71). [Scene Summary]

Preparing to defend himself against Brabantio's charges before the Senate, Othello emphasizes his difference from everyone else in the room. He says that he has been a soldier since he was seven years old, "And little of this great world can I speak, / More than pertains to feats of broil and battle, / And therefore little shall I grace my cause / In speaking for myself" (1.3.86-89). Nevertheless, his speech is very persuasive. It is easy to see how his difference makes him attractive to Desdemona; he has had a life of danger and adventure, seen strange sights, and been in the company of strange people, such as "the Cannibals that each other eat, / The Anthropophagi and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders" (1.3.143-145).

Near the end of the same scene Iago tells Roderigo that "These Moors are changeable in their wills" (1.3.346-347), and that Othello and Desdemona will soon fall out of love with one another. Therefore Roderigo will have a chance to bed Desdemona, especially with Iago's help, because Iago is sure that he can get the best of an "erring barbarian" (1.3.356). "Erring" means "wandering," and Iago is describing Othello as an uncivilized vagabond. [Scene Summary]

After everyone is in Cyprus, Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona will soon tire of Othello because "Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil?" (2.1.225-227). In Shakespeare's time, devils were portrayed as black, not red, as they are today. A little later, Roderigo protests against Iago's claim that Desdemona is in love with Cassio by saying that "she's full of most blessed condition." At this, Iago exclaims, "Blessed fig's-end! the wine she drinks is made of grapes: if she had been blessed, she would never have loved the Moor" (2.1.251-253). To Iago's way of thinking, Desdemona's love for Othello is unnatural. [Scene Summary]

In the course of stirring up Othello's jealousy, Iago tells him that he should keep an eye on Desdemona, especially when she's speaking with Cassio, because "I know our country disposition well; / In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience / Is not to leave't undone, but keep't unknown" (3.3.201-204). Since Othello is the outsider, and Iago is his honest Venetian friend who knows Venetian women, all Othello can answer is, "Dost thou say so?" (3.3.205).

A little later Othello declares that he thinks that Desdemona is honest, but then says, "And yet, how nature erring from itself--" (3.3.227). He's probably thinking that Desdemona is naturally honest, even though she could make a mistake, but Iago doesn't let him finish the thought. Iago interrupts him with his own interpretation of Desdemona's nature:
Ay, there's the point: as--to be bold with you--
Not to affect
[consider] many proposed matches [possible husbands]
Of her own clime
[region], complexion, and degree [social station],
Whereto we see in all things nature tends--
Foh! one may smell in such, a will most rank
[rotten, stinking],
Foul disproportions
[abnormalities], thoughts unnatural.(3.3.228-233)
In other words, because Desdemona married Othello instead of a nice white Venetian boy, she must be a slut. This is almost certainly what Iago really thinks, but he senses that he has gone too far and says that he wasn't really talking about Desdemona personally, it's just that he's afraid that she might "match [compare] you with her country forms [appearances of the men of Venice] / And happily [perhaps] repent" (3.3.237-238). Here Iago appeals to the fear that lives at the heart of jealousy, the fear that we are not attractive, not really good enough to deserve the love that makes us happy. Because he is so different from Desdemona, Othello is particularly susceptible to this fear.

Othello sends Iago away and tries to think things over. In Othello's soliloquy, we see how much Iago's views have taken root in Othello's mind. Iago told him that Desdemona might start comparing him to white Venetians, and now Othello says, "Haply [perhaps], 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" (3.3.263-267). "Soft parts of conversation" are the abilities of men who are used to being in chambers (e.g. parlors, ballrooms and such); such men would know how to make small talk and how to flatter a lady. Othello is used to the field of battle, not chambers. Besides that, he's black and approaching the age of thirty-five. Earlier in the play, when he spoke before the Senate, Othello knew that Desdemona loved him because he was not a chamberer, because he was different, because he had had adventures. But now, under Iago's influence, Othello thinks that those very qualities that made her love him have made her leave him.

At the end of the scene Othello forswears his love for Desdemona and embraces vengeance and hatred. Iago teasingly suggests that he may change his mind. Othello answers,
Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up   (3.3.453-460)
We now call the "Pontic sea," the "Black Sea," and the "Propontic," the "Sea of Marmora," and the "Hellespont," the "Dardanelles." The Black Sea is the very large sea, almost a lake, north of the Aegean Sea, which is the northeastern arm of the Mediterranean. The Black Sea flows into the much smaller Sea of Marmora, which passes through the straits of the Dardanelles into the Aegean. Most Europeans would have only heard of these places on the far fringes of the civilized world; Othello talks as though he's been there. [Scene Summary]

Desdemona says to Emilia that if it weren't for the fact that Othello is not the jealous type, the loss of her handkerchief might be enough to make him jealous. When Emilia expresses doubt that Othello can't be jealous, Desdemona seems confident that because he came from a different place, he has a different nature. She says, "Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him" (3.4.30-31).

Later in the scene, Othello, enraged that Desdemona doesn't have the handkerchief, tells her just how different it is from an ordinary handkerchief. He says "That handkerchief / Did an Egyptian to my mother give; / She was a charmer [one who could cast charms], and could almost read / The thoughts of people"(3.4.55-58). He also says that there is magic in the handkerchief, and that "A sibyl, that had number'd in the world / The sun to course two hundred compasses, / In her prophetic fury sew'd the work" (3.4.70-72). [Scene Summary]

In front of Emilia and Iago, Desdemona weeps because Othello has called her "whore" over and over. Iago tries to get her to stop crying, but Emilia says indignantly, "Hath she forsook so many noble matches, / Her father and her country and her friends, / To be call'd whore? would it not make one weep?" (4.2.125-127). A "noble match" for Desdemona would be a rich, handsome, and well-connected Venetian husband, not Othello. In Emilia's view Desdemona has made a great sacrifice in giving up all that she has known for the stranger, Othello. [Scene Summary]

Just before Othello commits suicide he gives a speech about who he is, and what he has done. In the speech he makes comparisons which evoke the distant and strange. He says he is "one whose hand, / Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe" (5.2.346-348). And he says that his eyes "Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinal gum" (5.2.350-351). He also tells a brief story about how, "in Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduced the state" (5.2.353-354), he killed the Turk. Aleppo, in northern Syria, just a few miles from the border of present-day Turkey, was Venice's easternmost outpost. There Othello, general of Venice, but not a Venetian, killed on behalf of a Venetian and Venice. [Scene Summary]