The Role of Race in Othello
The historical development of racial relations between Shakespeare's time and our own has virtually compelled twentieth-century critics of Othello to consider the title character's status as a black man in a predominantly white society. Some modern interpreters of the play have focused on Othello's race as a causal or, at the very least, aggravating factor in the tragedy that befalls him. Others have gone so far as to assert that Shakespeare's Moor is the victim of racial discrimination, if not directly at the hands of Iago's, then indirectly at the hand of the play's author. This, in turn, has generated substantial historical research into the racial attitudes of Shakespeare and of Elizabethan England at large. The results of this effort have been ambivalent: in all probability, white Englishmen of the early seventeenth century (including the Bard) saw themselves as inherently superior to non-Europeans, but they were not racial bigots in our contemporary sense of that word. What can be said for certain is that instances of actual contact between Elizabethan Englishmen and non-whites were exceedingly rare, that the New World slave trade had not yet emerged, and that Shakespeare (and his audiences) looked upon Africans (and other racial "minorities") in a decidedly different light than we do.
Othello is not the only or even the first black character in Shakespeare's stage works. Prior to his composition of Othello, Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, an early Roman tragedy in which the character of Aaron, described like Othello as a Moor, acts as a secondary villain to Titus himself in a work so bloody that its attribution to Shakespeare has occasionally been questioned. But Titus Andronicus was undoubtedly written by Shakespeare and the Moor Aaron is unquestionable evil. Indeed, on the cusp of his execution, Aaron repents of any good deed that he might have inadvertently done! There is a strong implication here that Aaron's evil has a genetic basis. The child whom he sires through Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, is described by the Nurse who acts as midwife as being "as loathesome as a toad" among the fair-faced race of ancient Rome. The strength of the blood connection between Aaron and his offspring is underscored by his exceptional fondness toward his infant son and the scheme to substitute a white baby for the Moor's progeny.
Despite having a black forerunner in Aaron, Othello's presence on the stage as...
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The Villainy of Iago
Shakespeare assigns the final say in Othello to the relative minor character of Lodovico, a representative Venetian nobleman, a blood relative to Desdemona, and the moral arbiter of the play. He turns directly to Iago, places full responsibility for the carnage at hand (including Othello's suicide) upon the "Spartan dog" before him whom he then characterizes as a "hellish villain" (V.ii.368). Throughout the tragedy, Iago himself uses figurative language that connects him to Hell, the demonic and the archfiend Satan. He promises that Roderigo will enjoy Desdemona "for my wits and all the tribe of hell" (I.iii.357), expounds upon the "Divinity of hell!" in Act II, scene iii (ll.350ff), and remarks that the poison of his dangerous conceits "burn like the mines of sulphur" (III.iii.329). And, right before he wounds Iago, Othello cries out, "If thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee" (V.ii.288). This strand of Satanic imagery magnifies Iago and the enormity of his crimes to mythic proportions, furnishing him with a stature akin to Shakespeare's Richard III, for example.
Nevertheless, upon close scrutiny, we find that Shakespeare deliberately undercuts Iago's implicit claim to being a great villain. There are, to begin, other characters and even inanimate substances that evoke the language of the demonic. In Act IV, scene i, the raging Othello curses out "Fire and brimstone" at his wife and calls Desdemona "Devil" as he strikes her (l.240). Earlier Cassio rues his bout with the "invisible spirit of wine" (II.iii.273), saying of it "[I] call thee devil" (II.iii.274). Iago, then, is not the only "devil" in the play, and is, in fact, more a villain of words than of substance.
In the play's first scene, Iago spells out his grounds for hating Othello to Roderigo (and the audience) and they seem comparatively petty. Iago explains that his ill will toward the Moor stems from Othello's decision to pass over Iago and name Michael Cassio as his second in command. Iago gives some point to his grudge by contrasting the "bookish theoretic" nature of his rival's qualifications with his own credentials as a proven military officer. He tells Roderigo that three "great ones" of the city pressed his suit to Othello, but that their petition was of no avail, Iago stooping to mimicry of the Moor's replay, "'I have already chose my officer.'" He then denounces the "modern" (and presumably corrupt) Venetian system of career advancement,...
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Why does Desdemona Marry Othello?
In the last scene of Othello, Desdemona recovers long enough from the smothering that her jealous husband has inflicted upon her to pronounce her complete innocence, and with her last breath tells Emilia, "A guiltless death I die" (V.ii.120). Plainly, Iago has deceived Othello into believing that his beautiful young wife has committed adultery with his once-trusted second in command, Cassio. That being so, Desdemona is clearly innocent of the charges embodied in Iago's cunning innuendoes, and is a victim who does not deserve the tragic end that she suffers. Nevertheless, Desdemona has put herself in a position to be a victim by virtue of her decision to marry the Moor and to go with him to the isolated, embattled post of Cyprus, where Othello possesses not only the moral authority of a spouse but also the legal powers of a governor. The question naturally arises: Why does Desdemona make these tandem choices?
By the time that we first see Desdemona in the middle of Act I, scene iii, we have been told that she is a young Venetian noblewoman, the beloved daughter of Senator Brabantio, who has married the military hero of the city-state without her father's consent or foreknowledge. Desdemona certainly realizes that her elopement with Othello and her sharing of honeymoon quarters with this "Barbary horse" at the unsavory sounding Sagittary Inn is bound to evoke her father's wrath. Indeed, when we first hear Desdemona speak her "divided duty" defense (I.iii.180-189), she appears to have anticipated the need to make her case to both Brabantio and the ruler(s) of Venice. Her plea is tightly reasoned and pivots upon a straightforward analogy between her own situation and that of her mother. Desdemona's speech is largely devoid of emotional appeal and rests upon the natural precedent of married women transferring their first loyalties from fathers to husbands. What she conveniently omits is that she has chosen to wed outside her station, to a man who is much older than she, of an entirely different race and, despite the accolades he has received, very much an outsider in Venice. Moreover, she has done all this under the pretense of being a mere listener to the stories of her father's invited guest. Realizing that the Duke will follow the expedient course and rule in favor of the newlyweds, Brabantio utters his warning to Othello: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see / She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee" (I.iii.292-293)....
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Why Does Othello Change His Mind About Desdemona's Fidelity?
Until the midpoint of Othello, the title character comports himself in a dignified manner and expresses unbounded faith in the transcendent love that he shares with Desdemona, a bond that reaches over differences in race, age, and social status. Nevertheless, Othello begins to change his mind about his young wife in the corruption scene of Act III, scene iii, and by the start of Act IV he literally collapses at Iago's feet in a babbling trance. From this point forward, Othello is completely preoccupied with the mission of avenging himself on Desdemona and Cassio for an adulterous affair of which they are entirely innocent. The proximate cause of Othello's change of heart is the poisonous deceits that Iago pours into his ear. But Othello's insecurity about his marriage is rooted deeper than Iago's machinations. Upon realizing that he has been deceived by the honest Iago, Othello loses his sense of self, his identity, and refers to himself as "he that was Othello" (V.ii.285). It is not the power of Iago's magic that transforms Othello into a jealous, raging beast, but the Moor's own shortcomings masked by his role as the military hero of Venetian society, a status that is subject to sudden reversal.
Long before he so quickly succumbs to Iago's treachery in the corruption scene, Othello displays fatal chinks in the armor of his social identity. Othello exhibits an unlimited self-confidence in his civic role, asserting that his name can "out-tongue" Brabantio's complaint to the Duke. But when we compare the two characters, we realize that the Moor is actually insecure about his identity in Venetian society and uncertain about its ways. As a representative of the Venetian aristocracy's old guard, Brabantio naturally looks askance on the credibility and the motives of those beneath him. Hence, he actively challenges and insults the reports of his daughter's elopement with Othello as they are relayed to him from the street by Iago and Roderigo in Act I, scene i. This stands in sharp contrast to Othello, who is all too willing to believe the word of his subordinates and whose status in Venice is not a matter of hereditary class but of military prowess. Othello takes his cues about the marital customs of Venice from others, being an outsider who must rely upon feedback from native Venetians to operate within that culture.
This feedback, however, is cut off when Othello moves to Cyprus, an island that is beyond the scope of...
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The Women of Othello
Shakespeare's Othello presents us with a male world in which women have an especially rough time. Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are all rejected by their respective partners, and all three love their men unselfishly and unreservedly, even when confronted by behavior that we would deem grounds for divorce at the very least. All the women are engaged in unbalanced partnerships: they feel more for their self-centered men than the men are capable of reciprocating. However, the women also display genuine emotions toward each other that is not reflected in any of the male-male relationships.
Emilia and Desdemona are both wives to men that have made the military their lives. Desdemona is the new wife, innocent and inexperienced in the ways of the world despite being raised in one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan of the Italian city-states, Venice. By contrast, Emilia has been married for some time. She is wise to the habits of soldiers, yet she will believe only so much of what her husband tells her. Although Emilia has been with Desdemona since the first Act, we do not get an intimate view of her psychology or her relationship with Desdemona until the Willow Scene in Act Four.
During this scene, Emilia shows genuine concern for Desdemona and the problem she is having with Othello. Desdemona tells her that even when Othello is angry with her, she still finds "grace and favour" (IV.iii.21) in his looks. She adds that if she should die before Emilia, Emilia should wrap her body in the wedding sheets now on the bed. Of course, Emilia thinks this is only a bit of girl-talk, but Desdemona continues to tell her about a song she has learned from her mother's maid, the Willow Song. This is a moment of intense personal inter-reaction between the two women. Emilia is unpinning Desdemona's hair and her dressing gown, preparing the girl for bed as if she were a surrogate mother. Such tenderness and tactile expressions of affection are a strictly female domain in this play. It is the men, not the women, who perpetrate the violence.
The conversation maintains this tender, maternal tone through to the end of the scene, but it is most noticeable when Desdemona exclaims, "O these men, these men!" (IV.iii.59). Desdemona cannot believe that women cheat on their husbands and asks Emilia, "Wouldst thou do such a thing for all the world?" (IV.iii.67). Although she tries to offer a light-hearted answer, Emilia knows full...
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Geography's Role in Othello
While the focus of Shakespeare's Othello is often on the domestic conflict of Othello and Desdemona, these events are purposefully fixed in specific geographic locations: Venice and Cyprus. Shakespeare creates a comparison of Venice with Cyprus that permeates the play, and the influence that geography has on the play can be vital to understanding why the plot progresses the way it does.
The comparison begins, oddly enough, with the title of the play, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. "Othello" as a name is neither Italian (which would be "Otello") or Moorish. In addition, while Othello could possibly be "the Moor of Venice," the title does not identify him as the only Moor from Venice. It fixes him through geographical identification as a definite part of Venice, not as a native Venetian, but as a stranger in and of the city. Othello has adopted Venice as his city, their Christian code of behavior as his code, his marriage to a white woman as his bond to this place. Nonetheless, Othello does not "belong" to this culture, nor can he ever be considered a Venetian. Interestingly, the nationalism of the Venetians surfaces during Iago's opening comments about Cassio. Cassio is a Florentine, a fact that Iago takes as extremely distasteful. The comments cause us to wonder that if Iago can so hate a fellow Italian, then his antipathy towards a Moor is indeed frightening.
The play opens in Venice, one of the most powerful city-states of 16th century Italy. Located in the northwest corner of the country on the Adriatic Sea, Venice was a thriving port and a very important exchange point for goods between Europe, north Africa, and the Near and Far East. It is without a doubt a formidable naval power to be called in to protect an island some distance away. In addition to trade, Venice was noted for the pleasures it offered travellers in the way of arts, music, and freely available sex. From Shakespeare's point of view, Venice was part of his own familiar world (the West), a world that did not include Cyprus (the East).
Venice's government is headed by a Duke and a council (or senate) comprised of nobles and wealthy merchants who brought their complaints and their squabbles to the Duke for resolution. The Duke's double function as leader and judge is succinctly presented in I.iii, where Brabantio, Desdemona's father, presents his charges against Othello while the Duke is commissioning Othello to...
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Opposites Attract: Othello and Desdemona
Frequently drama teachers will explain to their students that the essence of drama is conflict. In Shakespeare's Othello, conflict on the social and political levels are an essential part of the story. Yet within the relationship of Othello and Desdemona, one that should be conflict-free, we find the most important and the deepest rifts. The difference that has received the most attention in recent years is their interracial marriage. During the trial of O. J. Simpson, media used the play as a comparison. But there are other factors at work in their relationship that go beyond racial difference, for example, age, experience of life, and a lack of knowledge about sex, love, and each other. The convention of an older man in love with a much younger love interest had been a staple of comedy since the days of Aristophanes, and had survived through much English literature, as in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for instance. Shakespeare, however, takes the theme and twists it, affixing it as tragic motif to this mismatched couple.
In the play's opening act, Othello relates how he and Desdemona began their relationship. Brabantio had invited Othello to his house and during those visits, Othello told stories
of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth 'scapes i' th' imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence
And portance in my travailous history
and other marvellous adventures. A young, motherless girl in charge of her father's household must have been impressed by this man who had lived such a risky, exciting life outside Venice. In addition to be physically different from "the wealthy, curled darlings" (I.ii.68) that made up her social circle, Othello is older than Desdemona and undoubtedly a father figure for her. It would not be unreasonable for her to feel the security she had with her father with this man. It is perhaps this comfort that allows Desdemona to declare her love for Othello because of "the dangers I had passed" (I.iii.167). Logically, an experienced general like Othello should have known better than to mistake hero worship for true love, but possibly because he had denied himself a meaningful and committed relationship to pursue his military career, he was more than susceptible to Desdemona's...
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The Use of Humor in Othello
By the time Othello was produced, Elizabethan theater-goers were accustomed to the conventional elements of comedy and knew what to expect from a comic play: a story of love and courtship with some deceptive twist of plot, all worked out to a happy ending through good fortune and human ingenuity. But in Othello, comedy appears as a precursor to tragedy. It presented the audience with the expected comic conventions gone awry.
Although Othello is a tragedy, a miniature comedy is played out until Act II, scene i, where the reunion of Desdemona and Othello takes place. First we are given the frustrations of Roderigo, who is paying Iago to convince Desdemona that she should love Roderigo. Apparently Roderigo has already failed to do this for himself, so he comes across as a fool. This impression is compounded by the fact that Iago is taking Roderigo's money but doing nothing in return. Next we are given the villain Iago and his own set of frustrations. At this point in the play, the extent of Iago's evil is not known; he appears to be an example of another comedic element familiar to Elizabethan audiences: the Vice, one who caused mischief but was essentially a fool.1 Roderigo and Iago carry their grumblings to Desdemona's house, hoping to cause trouble by telling her father, Brabantio, of her elopement with Othello.
This elopement introduces another set of comic elements. The marriage is considered a mismatch, since there is a vast difference in age, race, and cultural backgrounds between the lovers. Such mismatches were common targets of Elizabethan comedy, with special emphasis put on the image of the cuckolded husband, betrayed because he is too old to satisfy his wife's needs. An additional comic touch is the response of the irate father of the bride, in this case, Brabantio, who flaps hysterically about the street in his nightshirt when he learns of the elopement. He continues his ravings at the emergency meeting of the Senate, where he asks for punishment for Othello. Good fortune comes through, however, in the form of the suspected Turk attack on Cyprus. The Senate finds it more expedient to stand behind Othello in hopes that he will defeat the Turks.
Good fortune comes through again when a storm averts the necessity for battle, destroying the Turks’ ships, but leaving Othello's and Desdemona's ships safe so they can reunite in Cyprus. A happy ending—another comedic...
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Motivations for Characters' Actions in Othello
In a discussion of the causes or motivations of the play, it is helpful to understand the primary motifs of the great tragedies. Shakespeare emphasized the problems of good and evil, sin and redemption. He was not particularly interested in the public sides of people, but whether they were good people inside. This can be easily seen in Othello, for all the action revolves around successful deception. Even Othello, a basically noble and honest public figure, shows an irrational and violent side to his nature at the end.
Shakespeare seemed interested in how the characters responded to certain situations. He believed that the action of tragedy occurred in the soul. The characters in this play are sensitive: morally, philosophically, and aesthetically. They all have imaginative consciences, and are able to step out of their situation and reflect on their behaviors. They realize they are involved in a moral structure and must evaluate. They are engaging in this evaluative process when they speak about their causes, reasons, explanations, rationalizations, or motivations in the play.
In Othello there is metaphysical poisoning going on. Minds and characters are being destroyed and corrupted with the poison of jealousy—what Shakespeare refers to as "the green-eyed monster." Iago is jealous of Cassio's new promotion, and vows to seek revenge on Othello for granting it to him. Iago uses the natural jealousy between men and women, and gives Othello a very bitter pill—one that threatens his pride and his manhood. When a person's pride is severely threatened, they can be driven into desperation and will do irrational and harmful actions. The use of the theme of jealousy places characters in situations where they must respond to it. Each character shows a different response, and each response determines what happens to each character.
Othello is completely naive about his relationships with women. As for love, he is stupid and good-hearted, and falls head over heels in it, unthinkingly. Unfortunately, he falls "out of love" just as quickly and thinks with his heart instead of his head. When he runs into trouble, he never meets it head-on, but allows it to ferment and rot his character.
It is his hurt pride that eventually causes his downfall, but he doesn't see it as such. Othello believes himself to be a rational person who judges situations based on facts. He does not see himself as one who could be...
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An Analysis of Four Shakespearean Villains
Shakespeare's plays have been the focus of critical analysis for centuries. Part of the reason that his works are so widely read is that his characterization of both protagonists and antagonists is well developed. In the course of this essay, four of Shakespeare's villains will be compared: Macbeth, King Claudius, Iago and Edmund. Finally, some general conclusions will be drawn.
Some Shakespearean critics attempt to justify Macbeth's evil behavior by contending that his actions were forced on him by an external power. However, A. C. Bradley argues that Macbeth was not controlled by the Witches, their "masters," or Hecate. He continues to explain that the prophecies of the Witches are presented simply as dangerous circumstances with which Macbeth has to deal.1
Bradley states that when Macbeth heard the first prophecies he was not an innocent man. He contends:
Precisely how far his mind was guilty may be a question; but no innocent man would have started, as he did, with a start of fear at the mere prophecy of a crown, or have conceived thereupon immediately the thought of murder.2
Upon analyzing Macbeth, it becomes evident that the natural death of an old man could have fulfilled the prophecy any day. The idea of fulfilling it by murder was Macbeth's idea entirely.3
When Macbeth sees the Witches again, after the murders of Duncan and Banquo, a significant change can be detected in his character. They no longer need to seek him out, rather, he seeks them out. "He has committed himself to his course of evil."4
Unlike many villains, Macbeth experiences a profound sense of guilt after committing his evil deeds. Bradley states that the "consciousness of guilt is stronger in him than the consciousness of failure." As a result, Macbeth is in a perpetual state of agony and restlessness. "All that is within him does condemn itself for being there."5
Macbeth suffers from a distorted sense of logic when he begins his plot against Banquo. He develops a strange idea in his mind that Banquo's murder will not haunt him if the deed is done by other hands. Unfortunately, for Macbeth, this deed haunts him as much as his other, evil actions.
Unlike Macbeth, who feels guilt after committing his crimes, Claudius (a character in Shakespeare's Hamlet) enjoys his sinful life. He...
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Deception in Othello
Othello is, at heart, a play about deception, and the emotional turmoil and mental anguish it can cause. Although Iago aptly demonstrates all that is evil through his malevolent manipulation of others, he is not the only practitioner of deception in the play. Othello himself can also be regarded as a study in deception, albeit of a much more subtle variety than that of the gleefully fiendish Iago; for Othello engages in self-deception – less obvious, but eventually just as destructive. Indeed, the only character above reproach is the guileless Desdemona; enmeshed in a web of steel through the deception of others, she nevertheless continues in her sweetly innocent way, ultimately attaining a heroic stature through her refusal, in sharp juxtaposition to Othello and Iago, to blame others for her suffering.
Othello is an outsider in Venetian society. He is a black man among white men, and a soldier among civilians. To the Venetians, he is simply ' the Moor' (I,iii,47), a description that neatly encapsulates his state as a foreigner. The term is indelibly associated with negative racial connotations – Iago describes Othello as ' an old black ram' (I,i,88) and ' the devil' (I,i,91), while Rodrigo calls him ' gross' and 'lascivious' (I,i,126). Othello, while unaware of the slanders of Iago, is only too aware of his precious position in the Venetian power structure. Hence, he creates for himself a new identity, a new sense of self that transcends the...
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The Relationship Between Othello and Iago
At the start of Othello, Iago makes very clear to Roderigo the apparent cause for his hatred of the general. His lack of promotion to lieutenant leads him to declare:
… be judge yourself,
Whether I in any just term am affin'd
To love the Moor.
Such a motive is not a grand-scale one, nor one which might cast Iago as the Universal Villain. His secondary motive, however, provides a different insight into his character, and provides the first instance of the theme which will dominate this play—sexual jealousy:
I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets
He's done my office;
More than this, however, it is the very fact that he acknowledges the nature of the suspicion (rumor) and then dismisses it from his mind that shows the inherently insecure nature of this villain. He has fallen into the same trap over Cassio ("For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too" [II.i.302]), and his jealousy is attested to even by his wife:
Some such squire he was,
That turn'd your wit, the seamy side without,
And made you suspect me with the Moor.
The deep—rooted cause for this combination of insecurity and jealousy lies deep within his psyche. We must remember...
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