‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.