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.
Shakespeare makes it plain from the start that it’s not just Iago the newly-weds are up against, but the status quo and a view of the world which Iago merely embodies in its most lethal form.
For it’s not just Iago whose speech is infected with contempt for ‘the Moor’ (as he repeatedly refers to Othello), though the intensity of his loathing is unrivalled.
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.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. The basic idea of the play is so well known that it’s easy to forget the startling boldness of Shakespeare’s decision to take Cinthio’s brief tale of a doomed mixed-race marriage and transform it into a heart-breaking tragedy.In a country where few people outside London would ever have seen a black person, and centuries before the problems that fuel the tragedy became as ubiquitous and pressing as they are today, Shakespeare produced in The tragic sequence of events is triggered by the elopement of Othello and Desdemona.‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe’ (1.1.88–9), he cries to Brabantio in the opening scene.Roderigo derides Othello too as ‘the thick-lips’ (1.1.66), while Brabantio, in his public confrontation with Othello, finds it inconceivable that his daughter should desire to ‘Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou’ (1.2.70–1) without being drugged or bewitched.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).And it underscores the fact that Othello's proprietorial relationship with Desdemona as husband and wife is typical – that it’s extraordinary only in the fatal consequences it leads to in this particular case, not in its essential character.Othello's dread of cuckoldry and the misogyny that feeds it are perfectly in tune with the patriarchal culture of a city where his colour makes him feel like an alien, but where he’s entirely at home as a man.