Black & Sub-Human, White & Fair
A close reading of Othello reveals how color-conscious the titular character is. In Act 1, Scene 1, as Othello faces accusations of witchcraft, a senator says to Brabantio, „Your son in law is far more than black.“
This is the only instance of Othello being characterized as „fair,“ and this particular usage dichotomizes „fairness“ with „blackness.“ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, „fair“ was used antithetically with ‚foul‘ as early as 888 AD. One definition of „fair“ is „clean, pure, unsoiled, unstained.“
These usages of „fair“ and „black“ refer to character and virtue, rather than skin color; however, this is not to deny that skin color is a salient matter. The adjective „fair“ is applied to Desdemona nine times in the duration of the play, and toward the end of the play, ‚blackness‘ and other synonyms are used to characterize her as her virtue is stained in Othello‘s eyes as Iago feeds him lies. I only found one instance where direct reference is made to Desdemona‘s skin color: [Othello:] „Yet I‘ll not shed her blood; Nor scar that whiter skin of her than snow, and as smooth as monumental alabaster.“
At this point in the play, Othello has expressed his contempt for her by calling her „the cunning whore of Venice“ in Act IV, Scene ii and implied her loss of virtue by likening her to the begrimed visage of Diana (goddess of virginity, and the hunt): „…as Dian‘s visage is now begrimed and black as mine own face.“
Iago baits Brabantio by telling him that „old black ram tupping a white ewe.“ Here Iago utilizes the stereotype of the animalistic sexual nature of the African man. The image is as abhorrent as its user. Another definition of „fair“ is „clean, pure, unsoiled, unstained.“ The latter makes sense when understood in the context of Desdemona and Othello‘s clandestine marriage- without Senator Brabantio‘s assent, Othello has ‚violated‘ the Senator‘s virginal daughter, thus the contrast is clear. This term has a very gendered usage when used to describe people, and some of it‘s oldest (and more archaic) usages referred to the female visage and body, ascribing to them the characteristic of being „beautiful to the eye, of pleasing form or appearance.“
A later, more contemporaneous (to Shakespeare) meaning referred to the quality of being of benign character, referring to equity in conditions and a neutral state.
This may very well apply to Desdemona. As a member of the „weaker, fair sex“, she embodies a neutral state until she exercises agency in choosing a mate without her father‘s consent. Then she poses a threat to her father‘s social standing as a Senator- after all, if he cannot control his daughter, how can he control his political arena? This is what Iago appeals to when he hearkens to the ‚neighs‘ of Brabantio‘s would-be mockers after the news of his daughter‘s elopement to a „Barbary horse.“
As the play progresses, the word „fair“ is used less frequently to describe Desdemona; in fact, in Act II, Scene ii, Iago questions whether she was ever fair by saying „She never was foolish that was fair.“
In Act II, Scene iii, Iago states „She shall undo her credit with the Moor. So I will turn her virtue into pitch.“
The wording implies that Desdemona‘s virtue in it‘s original state was the opposite of „pitch.“ Pitch is a synonym for „blackness,“ dating back to 1225 AD. Pitch is „a sticky, resinous, black or dark brown substance,“ the same secretion of coniferous trees used to seal ships in the 1000s.
(The use of „pitch“ is apt here also because Othello is a General in the Venetian Armed forces, which includes extensive fleets of ships.) The conflation of darkness with the loss or lack of virtue is not a new phenomenon.
The word „black“ has an complicated etymology. It is a hue, as well as a word that denotes a state of uncleanliness, also referring to African-descended peoples with darker skin (this use dates to 1570).
In another context, a „black“ refers to a black horse (see Iago‘s reference to the black Barbary horse in Act 1, Scene ii); however tempting this one is, the earliest date of use for this term is 1846.
In the play, ‚black‘ is often not far from references to sorcery (‚black‘ magic), beasts and the devil. In Act 1, Scene i, Brabantio and Iago both imply that Othello coerced Desdemona with „spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.“
Othello mourns his perceived cuckolded state in Act IV, Scene i by exclaiming „A horned man‘s a monster and a beast!“
(This makes an interesting comparison to Brabantio‘s fears of ridicule in Act 1). In Act II, Scene ii, Iago asks Roderigo, „Her [Desdemona‘s] eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil [Othello]?“ In Act II, Scene iii, Iago states „when devils will the blackest sins put on…“ with reference to deceiving Othello about Desdemona and stoking the flames of his jealousy (perhaps the devil is Othello, and his sin is jealousy).
A telling example of the coupling of ‚black‘ with ‚devil‘ is when Emilia curses Othello upon finding Desdemona‘s strangled form: „O more angel she and you the blacker devil!… Thou art a devil!“
In response, Othello further besmirches Desdemona‘s virtue by calling her a whore once again. While Desdemona loses virtue apparently through insinuation and lies, Othello loses his through his reactions to the jealousy induced from Iago‘s lies. Briefly after, Iago pledges to turn Desdemona‘s „virtue into pitch.“ Interestingly enough, most of the uses of „black“ come from Othello.
1 Othello, I, i, 291
2 „fair“, adj. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press 26. Oct. 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50081751>
3 Othello, V, ii, 1-5
4 Othello, III, iii, 44
5 Othello, I, i, 89
6 „fair“, adj. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press 26. Oct. 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50081751>
7 „fair“, adj. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press 26. Oct. 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50081751>
8 Othello, I, i, 110
9 Othello, II, ii, 130-136
10 Othello, II, iii, 364
11 „pitch“ adj., n.The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press 26. Oct. 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50180231>
12 „black,“ adj. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press 26. Oct. 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50022921
13 Othello, I, iii, 58-59
14 Othello, IV, i, 64
15 Othello, II, iii, 367
16 Othello, V, ii, 130-4