In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago attacks Othello with extremely racist remarks and a thought provoking amount of animal references to dehumanize him and fuel the illusion that he is worthy of discrimination and persecution. Act I, Scene I of Othello by William Shakespeare, Roderigo, Iago, and Brabantio engage in conversation about the alleged love between Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, and Othello, the black Moor, alludes the degree to which race will become an important motif and influence on the development of the plot. From the very beginning of the play, the dialogue among these men reveals that they never see Othello as a man, but rather as a beast. Iago tells Brabantio that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe…the devil will make a grandsire of you (1.1.9). Iago is using the racist notion that black men have an animal-like, hyper-sexuality to speak of Othello in the most offensive manner possible. He creates a vivid image of blackness dirting something while and pure.
Iago describes Othello as “thick lips” (1.1.68) and a “Barbary horse” (1.1.120). This sparks Brabantio’s anxiety, rage, and the initiative to vulgarly state that Desdemona and Othello “are now making the beast with two backs” (1.1.125). This reference is meant to evoke the image of the camel - reinforcing the concept that Othello comes from an exotic land as he is not white. He is not a compatriot or a fellow countryman. Rather, he is the opposite: a strange foreigner whose dark skin is threatening to the social hierarchy. This early conceptualization of Othello by Shakespeare is that of a man whose only characteristic important in the eyes of others is his race, affects all of the relationships and actions in the play, including, ultimately, how Othello comes to view himself.
Throughout the play, Iago speaks very offensively of Othello and his successful conquest of Desdemona’s love and affection. It is this forbidden love that is the catalyst that sets the rest of the play into motion. Because he is introduced by Iago, clearly an unreliable, malicious source with ulterior motives, Othello is immediately cast as a suspicious character whose trustworthiness must be proven. Iago says, “Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse….” Iago uses the term “Barbary Horse” to reference to the famous horses of the Arab world, but also playing on the associations of ‘barbarian’ and the words association with savagery (1.1.118-120). He goes on to specify the terrible consequences should Brabantio fail to listen to him: “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have/coursers for cousins and gennets for germans” (1.1.126-127). Here, Iago has threatened that the esteemed Senator Brabantio’s pure familial pedigree will be polluted an assortment of deformed offspring. It is important to note the repetitive references to animal imagery as it reinforces the idea that Othello is nothing more than an animal that will bring savage ruin upon Brabantio and his family.
This sense of danger is both established and reinforced by Iago’s insistence upon referring to Othello using base animal imagery repeatedly throughout the play. Not content with just introducing one animalistic symbol, Iago goes on to present multiple more images, thereby intensifying the stakes providing more reason for Brabantio to be scared. Iago never takes the chance to mention any of Othello’s human qualities. Iago is denying Othello his humanity with every interaction concerning Othello. Iago’s mission is to have Brabantio in fear of and disgusted by Othello, and this is the result he achieves. Although Brabantio protests at first by calling Iago a “profane wretch” (1.1.123) and a “villain” (1.1.126), in the end he is convinced by Iago’s report. Stirred up by the animal imagery, and convinced by Roderigo’s valiant claims, Brabantio is so disturbed by the possibility that his illustrious pedigree will be