How is the concept of "overcoming adversity" communicated in Othello?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In a play as tragic as Shakespeare’s Othello, it is difficult to speak of “overcoming adversity.”  A story in which the main protagonists, Othello and Desdemona, lie dead, the result of Iago’s treachery, it is questionable whether a triumphant note resonates from this play.  One can, however, suggest that the character of Othello, prior to his descent into a murderous rage, had indeed overcome adversity in order to reach the exalted position he had enjoyed in the Venetian hierarchy and, in this, one cannot ignore the issue of race.  Othello, of course, is a Moor, a Muslim whose origins lied in the Islamic Maghreb of northern Africa.  As such, he is ethnically distinct from northern Italy’s natives. A non-Venetian – indeed, a non-Italian – from an Islamic and likely Arabic background, possibly even from sub-Saharan Africa and, consequently, possessed of dark skin, Othello would have had to have been an extraordinary figure to have risen so high in the Venetian social and political hierarchy.  He is a general and a revered figure who presumably overcame considerable adversity to rise so high in a non-native system.  That he, himself, recognizes this is suggested in his final laments following his killing of Desdemona.  In Act V, Scene II, Othello kills his beloved wife, believing her unfaithful on account of Iago’s machinations.  As he comes to grips with the fact that his now dead wife had not, in fact, been unfaithful, and determined now to take his own life, he reflects on his prior triumphs:

“Behold, I have a weapon;
A better never did itself sustain
Upon a soldier's thigh: I have seen the day,
That, with this little arm and this good sword,
I have made my way through more impediments
Than twenty times your stop: but, O vain boast!”

Again, following additional disclosures, Othello references his distinctiveness in the military hierarchy of Venice:

“Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.”

Othello was a brave and resourceful soldier who rose to the peak of his profession despite his ethnicity.  His success at overcoming adversity cannot be separated from his race.  He recognizes that his successes in war were for the benefit of a nation other than his own.  The “impediments” to which Shakespeare refers may or may not refer, at least in part, to his race, but it is worth pondering.