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In other words: ‘Don’t ask Much has been made of Iago’s ostensibly ‘motiveless malignity’ ever since Coleridge coined his famous phrase 200 years ago.But there's surely no great mystery about what makes this villain tick.
In a vain attempt to placate Brabantio, the Duke assures him that ‘If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black’ (1.3.289–90).
So endemic to Venetian culture are such attitudes that Othello and Desdemona can’t help absorbing them too: ‘I saw Othello’s visage in his mind’ (1.3.252), Desdemona declares to the Senate, oblivious to the unintended insult that brave declaration implies.
As Iago sees it, a black African has had the gall to court and marry a white Venetian beauty as if he were the equal of a man of her class and colour.
And she has had the gall to prefer ‘a lascivious Moor’ (1.1.126) to her own kind and defiantly proclaim her love for this ‘erring barbarian’ (1.3.355-6) in public.
The fact that they are obliged to elope makes the illicit nature of their relationship in the eyes of Venice immediately clear.
But in their eyes and in Shakespeare’s there’s nothing illicit about their love, to which they regard themselves, and the play regards them, as fully entitled.Undeterred by the paternal wrath and widespread disapproval they are bound to incur, Othello and Desdemona act as if a black man from Africa and an upper-class white woman from Venice have every right to fall in love, marry and be left to live happily together.They act, in other words, as if they were already free citizens of a truly civilized future, instead of prisoners of a time when racial prejudice and sexual inequality are so ingrained that even their heroic hearts are tainted by them.When Othello’s faith in Desdemona’s love for him begins to crumble, his complexion is the first thing he blames: ‘Haply, for I am black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have’ (3.3.263–5).And he instinctively employs his own blackness as a metaphor for his wife’s alleged depravity: ‘Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black / As mine own face’ (3.3.386–8) The grounds of the tragedy can’t be fully explained, however, by pointing to the deep-seated racism that poisons the Venetian view of Othello and even Othello's view of himself.Above all, Iago himself betrays the same toxic disposition, when he fastens automatically on sexual jealousy as a pretext for provoking it in Othello and revenging himself on Cassio: ‘I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leap’d into my seat; the thought whereof / Doth (like a poisonous mineral), gnaw my inwards’; ‘I fear Cassio with my night-cap too’ (2.1.295–7, 307).Although none of them is as consumed by jealousy as Othello, all these characters fall prey like him to ‘the green-eyed monster’ (3.3.166) that stalks any society in which the sexual desire of one human being is regarded as the property of another.As a result, Othello and Desdemona find unleashed upon them, in the shape of Iago, the venomous rage of a society whose foundations are rocked by the mere fact of their marriage.‘For if such actions may have passage free,’ Brabantio warns the Venetian Senate, ‘Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be’ (1.2.98-9).The reason why Iago is so quickly and spectacularly successful in persuading Othello to swallow the vile tale he spins round Desdemona is that Othello is primed to believe it by the warped view of women and female sexuality that he shares not only with Iago but with other men.When Iago reminds Othello that Desdemona ‘did deceive her father, marrying you’ (3.3.206) as proof of her capacity to hoodwink her husband too, he’s merely echoing the parting words with which Brabantio sought to sow the same seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind in Act 1: ‘Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; / She has deceived her father, and may thee’ (1.3.292-3).