To what extent do the two main protagonists in Othello and Macbeth reflect the period of transition of the early modern age?I have been reading a fair bit on the Elizabethan/Jacobian History of...

To what extent do the two main protagonists in Othello and Macbeth reflect the period of transition of the early modern age?

I have been reading a fair bit on the Elizabethan/Jacobian History of England and wanted to look deeper into the psyche of the English playwrites of the time, particularly Shakespeare. I read with fascination the contrasts between the plays Othello and Macbeth and the lives of the common people of the age the plays were penned. I was wondering if anyone could add anything to the question i have created, it would be good to see if anyone comes up with the same conclusions i have formulated.

Thank you in advance

Expert Answers
mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare is one of the first to focus on villains as the lead characters.  Othello, a wife-murderer, and Macbeth, a king-killer (among others), are both presented as heroic early in the plays (Act I), and then they turn to the dark sides of their natures (Acts II-V).  In this way they are alike as transition figures in literature, for they presage the modern tendency in picaresque novels to focus on villains and anti-heroes as protagonists (i.e., The Invisible Man, Notes from Underground, Catcher in the Rye).

However, Macbeth is more the villain as lead, whereas Othello is more a tragic figure corrupted by a separate villain, Iago.  These are the two early formulas for presenting modern anti-heroes, (with Macbeth's villain as lead the more infrequently used).  Subsequent examples of a hero turning villain are Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights and Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein.

Not only this, but Shakespeare used both plays to bring taboo subjects front and center onto the stage: Macbeth focuses on witchcraft, and Othello shows interracial bedroom scenes.  Both plays focus on violence, Macbeth more so.

As you know, early Greek theater was religious in nature, and there was no sex or witchcraft; all violence was done offstage (Oedipus stabbing his eyes; Jocasta hanging herself).  The Roman playwright Seneca was the first to bring violence onto the stage, and Shakespeare took this pagan aspect to new artistic heights, as used stylized violence to elicit catharsis from the audience.

Since Shakespeare opened Pandora's pagan box, novelists and playwrights have followed suit, my favorites being Cormac McCarthy (known for his violence), Edgar Allan Poe (known for his Gothic horror), and D. H. Lawrence (known for his fascination with the human body).