What is the role of the Duke in William Shakespeare's Othello?

Expert Answers
vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The duke has a number of significant functions in William Shakespeare’s play Othello, including the following:

  • He is a powerful figure whose summons neither Othello nor Brabantio can ignore.
  • He is the central figure in making plans for encountering the Turkish fleet – plans that will immediately affect Othello’s future.
  • He has an authoritative personality and seems well respected by others in the play. His judgment is considered sound – a fact that makes his eventual advice to Brabantio about the marriage worthy of respect.
  • He immediately shows respect to Othello as soon as Othello approaches him; he thus exemplifies the kind of attitude toward Othello that seems to be common in Venice.
  • He immediately seems to show sympathy toward Brabantio, especially when he assumes that Desdemona may be dead. He thus demonstrates a capacity for compassion – an important fact in view of his later judgment of Othello.
  • When he listens to Brabantio’s further explanation, he immediately shows a concern with justice. His double demonstration of compassion and commitment to justice would make him seem an ideal leader in the eyes of many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
  • Even though the duke knows how valuable Othello is to Venice, he does not immediately dismiss Brabantio’s charges or show favoritism to Othello. Instead, he asks Othello to explain his conduct. Once more, then, he seems highly rational and genuinely concerned with justice.
  • He deals rationally and skeptically with Brabantio’s claims that Othello has bewitched Desdemona. Once again his intelligence and commitment to justice are demonstrated.
  • He gives Othello a chance to speak at length when explaining his conduct.
  • He offers wise advice to Brabantio when it becomes clear that Desdemona is committed to Othello:

To mourn a mischief that is past and gone 
Is the next way to draw new mischief on.

  • He remains calm when Brabantio responds to this advice sarcastically. He tries to maintain peace with (and among) all the persons present.
  • In the matter of deciding where Desdemona will stay, he tries to accommodate both everyone.
  • His final, famous advice to Brabantio shows that he values virtue more than mere appearance:

If virtue no delighted beauty lack, 
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

All in all, the duke is a man of very sound judgment and great virtue. He provides a standard against which other characters (such as Iago, Cassio, Othello, and Brabantio) can be judged.