Respect does not equal acceptance. Othello is a prime example of a character revelling in admiration from his society, however still held captive by the constraints of his colour. He is a black man in a white Venetian society. Othello is both an insider and outsider. He is a man from North Africa who has climbed his way to the top of the Venetian Military, guard to a powerful Italian city-state, commanding respect from the Duke and the Senate. However, being a black Moor and foreigner in Venice also subjects Othello to overt racism, which is first introduced by Iago, his ensign, in the beginning scenes of the play. Shakespeare reveals this idea of the insider/outsider character through Othello’s nobility of character, his racial disparity and fierce jealousy that may well be his fatal flaw.
The context of Othello in its entirety is based on a story of outsider turned insider. King James the first was a foreign man, of The Stuarts, who was set to take the British throne, succeeding the death of Queen Elizabeth the first. Preceding his arrival, there had been much uncertainty filling the streets of England about this foreign man who was set to lead the empire. People, in human nature, were resistant to change, specifically the conversion to a different royal leader, and there was substantial questioning as to his integrity as a King of the British Empire, having come from Scotland. However, on the 24th of March 1603 James became King of Britain and his arrival was met with great approval, his subjects flocked to him, relived that his succession has caused neither unrest nor invasion. Othello, The Moor, is a symbol for King James; an outsider at first, from a distant land with which the nations people were unfamiliar, each character is met with uncertainty and assumptions, yet both succeed in being accepted into society, King James into the society of England and Othello into the Venetian Army. Shakespeare characterized Othello around this 17th century king to highlight the fact he was an outsider, yet creates calmness and shows his courage, intelligence and skill, and becomes an insider all too soon. Like King James, it was Othello’s ethnicity that provided a barrier between inner circles of Venice and the nobility of each that allowed them acceptance.
The initial obvious reference to Othello’s unacceptance into Venetian Society is introduced in Act 1, Scene 1 when Iago uses racist slurs and animalistic imagery when attempting to awaken Brabantio to alert him that his daughter, Desdemona, has eloped: ‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe’. In Iago’s reference to ‘old black ram’, the negative connotations are derived from the phrase itself, yet Shakespeare is also playing on Elizabethan notions that black men have an animal-like, hyper-sexuality. Shakespeare uses this device to emphasise the racist perceptions the society still had towards, when put abruptly, black coloured people, one of which is the fear of miscegenation that existed in the tight circles of Venice. These issues imply that Othello is very much still an outsider in Venetian society. However, a contrast is shown by Shakespeare in Act 1, Scene 3 when the Duke speaks to Othello: ‘Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you’. This reference to Othello as a brave and heroic soldier is repeated throughout the play and constructs a different view of him altogether. It is evident that the Duke and the Senate have a great respect for Othello that indicates these noblemen have accepted Othello into a group of some of the most upper-class citizens in Venice.
These racial tensions are again explored in the play a short time later when Brabantio is