There is no consensus over Othello's race. E.A.J. Honigmann, the editor of the Arden Shakespeare edition, concluded that Othello's race is ambiguous. "Renaissance representations of the Moor were vague, varied, inconsistent, and contradictory. As critics have established, the term 'Moor' referred to dark-skinned people in general, used interchangeably with similarly ambiguous terms such as 'African', 'Ethiopian', 'Negro', 'Arab', 'Berber', and even 'Indian' to designate a figure from Africa (or beyond)." Various uses of the word 'black' (for example, "Haply for I am black") are insufficient evidence for any accurate racial classification, Honigmann argues, since 'black' could simply mean 'swarthy' to Elizabethans. Iago twice uses the word 'Barbary' or 'Barbarian' to refer to Othello, seemingly referring to the Barbary coast inhabited by Berbers. Roderigo calls Othello 'the thicklips', which seems to refer to European conceptions of Sub-Saharan African physiognomy, but Honigmann counters that, as these comments are all intended as insults by the characters, they need not be taken literally.
Michael Neill, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare edition, notes that the earliest critical references to Othello's colour (Thomas Rymer's 1693 critique of the play, and the 1709 engraving in Nicholas Rowe's edition of Shakespeare) assume him to be Sub-Saharan, while the earliest known North African interpretation was not until Edmund Kean's production of 1814. Honigmann discusses the view that Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish ambassador of the Arab King of Barbary to Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, was one inspiration for Othello. He stayed with his retinue in London for several months and occasioned much discussion. While Shakespeare's play was written only a few years afterwards, Honigmann questions the view that ben Messaoud himself was a significant influence on it.
Othello is referred to as a "Barbary horse" (1.1.113) and a "lascivious Moor" (1.1.127). In III.III he denounces Desdemona's supposed sin as being "black as mine own face." Desdemona's physical whiteness is otherwise presented in opposition to Othello's dark skin: V.II "that whiter skin of hers than snow." Iago tells Brabantio that "an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88). In Elizabethan discourse, the word "black" could suggest various concepts that extended beyond the physical colour of skin, including a wide range of negative connotations.
Othello was frequently performed as an Arab Moor during the 19th century. He was first played by a black man on the London stage in 1833, by Ira Aldridge. The first major screen production casting a black actor as Othello did not come until 1995, with Laurence Fishburne opposite Kenneth Branagh's Iago. In the past, Othello would often have been portrayed by a white actor in blackface or in a black mask: more recent actors who chose to 'black up' include Ralph Richardson (1937); John Gielgud (1961); Laurence Olivier (1964); Anthony Hopkins (1981) and Orson Welles. Ground-breaking black American actor Paul Robeson played the role in three different productions between 1930 and 1959. The casting of the role comes with a political subtext. Patrick Stewart played the role in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's 1997 staging of the play and Thomas Thieme, also white, played Othello in a 2007 Munich Kammerspiele staging at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford. Michael Gambon also took the role in 1980 and 1991; their performances were critically acclaimed. Carlo Rota, of Mediterranean (British Italian) heritage, played the character on Canadian television in 2008.
The race of the title role is often seen as Shakespeare's way of isolating the character, culturally as well as visually, from the Venetian nobles and officers, and the isolation may seem more genuine when a black actor takes the role. But questions of race may not boil down to a simple decision of casting a single role. In 1979, Keith Fowler’s production of Othello mixed the races throughout the company. Produced by the American Revels Company at the Empire Theater in Richmond, Virginia, this production starred African American actor Clayton Corbin in the title role, with Henry K. Bal, a Hawaiian actor of mixed ethnicity, playing Iago. Othello’s army was composed of both black and white mercenaries. Iago’s wife, Emilia was played by the popular black actress, Marie Goodman Hunter.