Black and white

Moral associations with colour

Deriving from the Bible, the colours black and white carry the associations of doom (2 Peter 2:17) or victory, of judgement (for sin) or being made clean from sin (Psalms 51:7), and therefore of hell or heaven (Revelation 3:5). From these associations developed the moral connotations of black (evil, hiddenness, threat, and therefore moral and physical ugliness) and white (innocence, purity, virtue, and therefore moral and physical beauty). These became common associations throughout Western culture.
In the era in which Shakespeare was writing, English society was predominantly white, and had only more recently been exposed to people of colour through the exploration of colonisers such as Sir Walter Raleigh. Intrigued and sometimes threatened by the perceived exoticism of coloured people, native English citizens were not always successful in overcoming their ingrained associations with black and white. 
In Othello, Shakespeare plays with both the physical reality of - and the cultural assumptions about - black and white.

Physical appearance

OthelloWe discover that Othello is black from the beginning of the play, when Iago refers to him as ‘an old black ram,’ although it is interesting that he only refers to Othello’s skin when he is trying to incense Brabantio against the idea of his daughter marrying a black man. Before that, although Iago was furious at being passed over for promotion, he did not refer to Othello in racist terms. 
However, the idea of inter-racial sexual union stirs deeper resentments. Brabantio refers to Othello’s ‘sooty bosom’ in Act 1 Scene 2 and he is convinced that his daughter could never willingly ‘fall in love with what she feared to look on!’- a clear reference to Othello’s appearance. He cannot comprehend how ‘perfection so could err / Against all rules of nature’. The ingrained assumption that the colours/races should not be mixed is used later by Iago to taunt Othello with the idea that Desdemona would have been much better off with someone ‘Of her own .. complexion’ (Act 3 Scene 3) – clearly trying to give Othello an inferiority complex because he is not white like his wife.
In contrast, the whiteness of Desdemona’s skin colour is referred to. Her husband calls her ‘a pearl’ (a symbol of perfection and purity because of its whiteness). He is drawn to her pale skin despite himself when he is preparing to murder her: 
Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
(Act 5 Scene 2)     

Symbolic significance

The terms black and white are also used as metaphors for good and bad. Roderigo makes the racial assumption that a black man’s embraces are ‘gross’ and ‘lascivious’ (Act 1 Scene 1). In Act 1 Scene 3, Iago claims that ‘These Moors are changeable in their wills,’ implying that Othello is animal-like in his appetites and will soon tire of Desdemona. 
Even though the Duke compliments Othello on being ‘far more fair than black,’ (Act 1 Scene 3) he is in fact saying that his general has demonstrated virtues surprising for someone of his colour - his compliment is unwittingly a racist slur. Similarly, the banter between Desdemona and Iago in Act 2 Scene 1 about the merits of a woman’s appearance versus her character (‘How if she be black and witty?’) acknowledges that a person’s dark colour is regarded as a handicap which needs to be overcome: ‘If she be black and thereto have a wit, / She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.’)

Moral blackness

Once Othello believes his wife to have sinned against him, he feels that:
Her name, that was as fresh 
As Dian's visage,
is now begrimed and black
As mine own face. (Act 3 Scene 3)     
The equation between blackness and evil deeds is made clear by Othello’s summoning of ‘black vengeance’, a direct consequence of Iago’s ‘blackest sins’ covered by his ‘honest’ persona (Act 2 Scene 3).
It is after Othello has descended to the depths of Iago’s malevolence, that Emilia justly refers to him in Act 5 Scene 2 as: ‘you the blacker devil’ and laments her mistress’s ‘most filthy bargain.’ Both of these statements are focused more on Othello’s moral character, rather than his complexion. 
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