As Iago sees it, a black African has had the gall to court and marry a white Venetian beauty as if he were the equal of a man of her class and colour.
And she has had the gall to prefer ‘a lascivious Moor’ (1.1.126) to her own kind and defiantly proclaim her love for this ‘erring barbarian’ (1.3.355-6) in public.
The fact that they are obliged to elope makes the illicit nature of their relationship in the eyes of Venice immediately clear.
But in their eyes and in Shakespeare’s there’s nothing illicit about their love, to which they regard themselves, and the play regards them, as fully entitled.
As a result, Othello and Desdemona find unleashed upon them, in the shape of Iago, the venomous rage of a society whose foundations are rocked by the mere fact of their marriage.
‘For if such actions may have passage free,’ Brabantio warns the Venetian Senate, ‘Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be’ (1.2.98-9).Brabantio perceives at once that there’s much more at stake in this interracial union than the violation of his honour as Desdemona’s father.If we turn a blind eye to this outrage, Brabantio argues in effect, we’re treating our inferiors as our equals, which means there’s nothing to stop the subhuman underclass or the heathen outcasts of society taking our place and having power over us.But Othello’s vulnerability as a black outsider, who unconsciously shares the white perception of his blackness, is inseparable from his thraldom to a patriarchal concept of masculinity and a misogynistic concept of marriage that are just as endemic as racism in Venetian culture, and that play an equally crucial role in sealing both Desdemona’s fate and his own.Thus sexual jealousy is shown to be the rule in Venice rather than an exceptional emotional disorder to which Othello is especially prone to succumb.When Emilia begs him to deny that he duped Othello into murdering Desdemona, Iago replies: ‘I told him what I thought, and told no more / Than what he found himself was apt and true’ (5.2.176-7).And when Othello asks Cassio to ‘demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body’, Iago brusquely interjects: ‘Demand me nothing; what you know, you know’ (5.2.301-3).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.Roderigo’s infatuation with Desdemona makes him intensely jealous of both Othello and Cassio.The same emotion flares up in Bianca, when Cassio gives her Desdemona’s handkerchief: ‘You are jealous now’, says Cassio, ‘That this is from some mistress, some remembrance’ (3.4.185–6).