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...
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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, "Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation, where each second / Stood heir to the first." (I.i.36-38 ). As a motive for his hatred of Othello, Iago's complaint is weak, amounting to a labor dispute. Moreover, while he focuses upon the Moor's rejection of his suit for advancement, Iago also tells us that Othello's choice is consistent with the whole civil culture of Venice, with the system so to speak. In fact, while railing against favoritism, Iago himself has used the agency of special pleading through great ones. On the surface, the source of Iago's animus toward Othello is a mere career problem, and this is not the stuff that moves great villains.
Customarily, Shakespeare's great villains, Richard III or Edmund the bastard of King Lear are given the opportunity to...
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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). This admonition surfaces again in the "deception" scene as Iago uses it to spur Othello's suspicions, Brabantio's prominent reference to "eyes" resonating with the Moor's demand for "ocular proof" of his wife's infidelity. We are told in Act V that Brabantio has died of grief over his daughter's betrayal. Desdemona does not...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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