One of the most commonly noted factors in Othello is the presence of racism, and often asked is how Shakespeare himself felt about the black Moor of Venice ; certainly by the end of the play Othello has embodied the stereotypes of the day, but I believe the Bard of Avon did this simply to please audiences, and only after stating his own stance of tolerance.
Let us consider the way in which Othello is introduced as a character. He is not in the first scene, instead we meet Iago. Iago is the tool that draws audiences in, so they’ll be willing to accept a black hero. He does this, actually, in much the same way as he spurs Othello to jealousy: by saying the opposite. Iago starts off the play by describing the Moor in unflattering terms, many of which are based solely on Othello’s skin color. Audiences of the day were used to seeing black characters as villains, and so nodded their heads and said “yes, of course.” Shakespeare lures us into a false belief that Othello is bad, so that prejudiced viewers will not be offended and leave.
Soon, however, it becomes abundantly clear that Iago is not a character to be trusted, and our feelings slowly go out to the black general. Before we ever actually meet Othello, other characters describe his nobility and courage; these are characters that are more reliable than Iago, and Shakespeare uses them to ease us in to the fact that Othello is, in fact, a hero. Elizabethan England was a predominantly white society, and it is probable that theater-goers would not have accepted a black man coming on stage in the first scene and committing heroic deeds. This is a new idea; Shakespeare gives it to us a little bit at a time.
By the time that we actually meet the Moor of Venice, we are ready to accept him at his word. Even though he is a black man married to a white woman, (the horror!) any objections sound hollow. An Elizabethan audience begins to see that perhaps no, black people aren’t all that bad. Othello’s a cool guy, after all —
It is not the only time Shakespeare defends minorities. Remember the character of Shylock the Jew in Merchant of Venice. He is undoubtedly the villain of the play, yes, and Shakespeare’s white Christian audience goes into hysterics as Shylock is dragged away to be baptized. But in his most famous speech, Shylock asks “hath not a Jew eyes?” and goes on to explain that he too is a man like everyone else. The fact that he is a villain does not detract from our ability to sympathize with him: his humanity is specifically spelled out for us. When Shylock loses his little game, I picture Shakespeare making a slight bow to the theater-goers as if to say, “Now I have made my point, we can finish on a light note.” He does the same thing with Othello, portraying him at first as a likable good guy. Shakespeare wants his patrons to question their own racism; though in the end, he will not blatantly cross them.
During the Renaissance, a black character on stage was usually symbolic of the Devil, or some other form of evil. Black members of society were thought to be extremely sexual and violent. Othello is none of these things. The Bard wants us to look at Othello and see him as someone we can relate to. Then finally, even as Shakespeare bows to the stereotypes of the day, it is Iago who is the true villain of the play. And let us remember, after all, that it is a tragedy.