Perhaps Othello cannot be regarded as the greatest of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, but many readers and viewers have found it incredibly exciting, logical, and most intense of all of Shakespeare’s plays. When performed, Othello is implacable in its drive toward tragedy, drawing spectators into the greatly shocking play of a husband quickly pushed to murder his blameless wife. Moreover, the Afro-American warrior Othello – the only black character in Shakespeare – becomes a husband of a white woman.
Thus, the tragedy also touches on important issues that have become pressing in present period: racial prejudice and attraction to the “Other” (Othello Study Guide). Othello also allows readers to consider such important human issues as the nature of sexual jealousy and the difficulty of feeling certain about anything or anyone in this world. This paper is designed, first, to draw attention to these relevant issues in the play.
Second, it will attempt to analyze these issues by exploring their many contexts so that it is possible to present various ways of understanding Othello from theoretical perspectives. Othello Shakespeare’s chief source for Othello was a story found in Giraldi Cinthio Hecatommithi, a collection of interesting tales where the major topic is marriage (Othello Study Guide). If one compares Italian story with Shakespeare’s, he or she can see English playwright’s incredible skills in transforming an ordinary story into logical and effective drama.
Shakespeare modifies some parts of the story to emphasize dramatic plot and make character presentation much sharper. Further, he makes significant changes in the text, inserting and removing some parts, to dignify his protagonist and turn a melodramatic story into excellent tragedy. Othello is not created on such a huge scale as Shakespeare’s other famous tragedies. The play has neither the superhuman and magical dimensions of Hamlet and Macbeth, where the readers meet Ghost and Witches, nor King Lear’s unceasing feeling of doubt and uncertainty regarding “Nature” and the gods.
Nevertheless, Othello is the only one of the four tragedies to present the reader with two separate countries as locations: civilized world of Renaissance Venice and the island of Cyprus. A. C. Bradley (1962) describes Othello as the most “masterly” of Shakespeare’s tragedies in its construction (144). Bradley stresses the fact that Shakespeare uses virtually no delaying tactics to slow down the action in the play, as, for example, in Hamlet where the hero delays his revenge, and no subplot to develop complicating consequences, as the reader finds in King Lear.
Acts from 2 to 5, taking place in Cyprus, form a persistent sequence without significant interruptions. Further, however, there are some variations in pace – the slower tempo of the willow scene in acts 4 and 3, where Desdemona and Emilia take stock of the situation. In this regard, Ned B. Allen (1968) arrives at a conclusion that the instances of long time, for the most part in acts 3 and 4, are the result of Shakespeare’s sticking to Giraldi Cinthio’s slow-paced tale more densely there than the playwright does in acts 1 and 2 (13-29).
Arguing that “double time” is a skilful device to heighten the credibility of the action, Ridley expresses admiration for Shakespeare’s “astonishing skill” in placing close together allusions to long time with a strong impression of a thirty-three-hour time span on Cyprus (lxx). It is, Ridley believes, a literary technique of lulling the reader into thinking that more time has passed than the action declares. In this manner, the reader does not question why, logically, Othello would be killing his wife for her supposed unfaithfulness the very night after he has brought to completion their marriage.
Interestingly, among Shakespeare’s tragedies, Othello may be regarded as the least connected with social or political developments and transformations. The play does not appear to have been written on the topic of a specific historical event or social movement in the beginning of 1600s. Othello is a domestic tragedy. Thus, it exposes power plays inside relations between representatives of patriarchal society – in particular, in father-daughter and husband-wife relationships.
But not like King Lear, that constantly expresses uncertainty about received “authority” as the king’s status is depreciated, Othello does not deal with the wider political branches of this social power. Nor does Othello take into consideration faults in state power that the reader can observe in Shakespeare’s history plays and Coriolanus. Although Othello is of aristocratic birth, he is not the real or possible leader of his realm (while Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet are all kings), upon whose decisions and thoughts depend the whole state and its people.
At the same time, however, Othello is concerned with important cultural and social issues. Precisely, Othello’s exact color has been much considered with references to racist issues (Shakespearean Criticism). What is important is that Othello is a black warrior, in all likelihood from North Africa, and now dwelling in a white European society. The issue of racial difference is deeply embedded in the tragedy and is very well obvious in performance. How would the character have been considered by the Jacobean public, and how is he understood this day?
Does Othello make effort to incorporate or refuse to accept racist stereotypes of that time? How much does Desdemona, a white upper-class representative, breaks the moral rules of her society by making decision to marry a black warrior, and finally does Othello give approval to or reject her open and bold resistance to authority and power? Taking into consideration these questions, one can analyze ways in which Othello contributes to the discussion on two groups – black African men and white women – that were often made seem unimportant in the beginning of seventeenth century.
Even though it cannot be equated with present day racial discrimination issues, color prejudice appears to have developed in England under Queen Elizabeth and King James. Black was associated with evil, Africans’ dark skins was considered to belong to the devil. Taking into account the racial prejudices of the time, it is unusual that Shakespeare decides to make his tragic hero an Afro-American and his villain the white Iago.
Critic John Salway, for example, considers that Shakespeare introduces the general preconceptions regarding Africans by means of the racist discourse of Iago and Brabantio – Iago glibly utters slander about Othello as “lusty Moor” and “devil”, while Brabantio, who “lov’d” Othello as a warrior, ascribes responsibility to him for winning his daughter’s love through “damned” witchcraft (30). John Salway considers that the playwright does so only to explode these prejudices in the course of the play. In this respect, Othello’s mistake is a natural human weakness rather than a fault coming from his race.
John Salway also acknowledges the long-established medieval tradition, literary and decorative, that connected the black man with lower rank in society and damnation. The author argues, at the same time, that a countercurrent of religious discourse and art, for example, the special importance given to inner holiness over outward appearance and the description of Balthazar, one of the Magi bearing gifts for the infant Christ, as a black man, provided Shakespeare with an opportunity to develop Othello as a “great Christian gentleman” (45).
Salway finds no prove in the tragedy that the character is really savage, since he gains his nobility again after his tragic loss of faith in Desdemona (55-56). Martin Orkin (1987), a South African scholar keenly aware of how Shakespeare’s Othello gives occasion for racist responses, is in basic agreement with Salway’s statements. He believes that Shakespeare works “consciously against the color prejudice that can be seen in “the language of Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio” and denies such prejudices giving emphasis to the “limitations” of “human judgment” in general as the real cause of Othello’s tragedy (170-181).
All this is right from the one side: Shakespeare creates his characterization of “valiant Othello” far beyond that of the traditional stereotype. On the other side, however, there are situations in the play when Othello’s actions do generate the sinful barbarian image. This is specifically the case in act 4, where the character loses his mind in a frantic mania of jealousy (“savage madness” is how Iago gives account of it), promises to “chop” Desdemona into “messes” after overhearing the dialogue that takes place between Iago and Cassio.
Moreover, Othello behaves immorally by making a physical attack on Desdemona in public. Does Shakespeare try to demonstrate color prejudice by making Othello returning again and again to the traditional image of ‘black savage’? One resistance against attack on Othello’s behavior in the play is to claim that it is a victory of Iago’s hard-hearted intrigue with him, combined with the Moor’s dramatic readiness to consider as true the negative, oversimplified stereotype of himself. It seems that Othello’s humiliating performance is almost destined to cause the audience to become unfriendly, both Jacobean and present.
By the concluding part of the play, Othello is divided between the individual characteristics he has attempted to maintain as an honorary white in Venice – where the Senate has allowed him military services and even more, in contrast to Brabantio, forgave his relationship with a white woman – and his strong inner sense of himself as an African “Other”. In being fatally overwhelmed by jealousy and murdering his wife, Othello eventually describes himself as more related by blood to the ignoble Judean and the malicious Muslim Turk than to the civilized and noble Christian.
Some readers and viewers may feel that Othello compensates his rank as an inspiring tragic hero in the culmination, while others may dissent in opinion. And while it is right to claim that Othello does not give approval to the deeply felt prejudices of an Iago, how does the audience feel about Emilia’s racist comments in the final part of the play? Emilia becomes the center of tragic attention when she reveals Othello’s dreadful mistake and dismantles any “just grounds” for his believing that Desdemona committed sexual intercourse with other man.
Preoccupied with her frank truth-telling, the spectators are encouraged to become accomplices of her views even though they are full of racial intense dislike. Emilia refers to Othello as the “blacker devil” describing his behavior as “ignorant as dirt” and feels sorry that Desdemona was “too fond of her most filthy bargain”. These examples demonstrate the difficulty of reaching an exact decision where the play stands regarding Othello’s blackness and racial prejudice.
Because of the fact that the balance of dramatic sympathies shifts from episode to episode, readers are likely to agree with Emilia’s angry release of prejudice while rejecting Iago’s coldly malicious racism, in spite of the close relationship he has established with the reader. In this regard, one can compare Othello with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Just as The Merchant of Venice may at the same time destroy anti-Semitic prejudice (in Shylock’s probing speech “Hath not a Jew eyes?
” and support it (with Shylock’s absurdly incongruous behavior and wish that his daughter “were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin! ”), it can be stated that Othello stimulates discourse regarding the racist stereotypes of the sixteenth-century life even though it supports them to some extent. It should be observed, however, that to be totally free of racism and any discrimination, the playwright would have to invent a new language with no words containing a hidden implication, no unfair treatment of a color character, and no connection in the play between blackness and evil, whiteness and good.
Expressing the same idea but differently, Othello cannot go beyond the language and traditions of its culture. According to Juliet Dusinberre (1976), if black-skinned men were considered as the “Other” in the sixteenth-century Europe, then women could be also called as a painful Other in patriarchal communities. The Reformation in England is at times thought as a period when attitudes and views toward female roles, at least inside marriage relations, were becoming more liberal and humanistic (Dusinberre 3-5).
Puritans encouraged an equal marriage partnership, in contrast to the accepted without question subordination of wife to her husband, and valued married chastity above celibacy. However, it can be supposed that this elevation of the married relationships might have served as a method to contain women’s uncontrollable desire rather than to encourage a real self-dependence for them. It is easy to see that Desdemona is committed to the ideal of married chastity, but she is also a woman who tries to rebel.
Obviously, her courageous rejection of her father’s wishes (and, globally, those of the Venetian upper class) so that it is possible to marry a black warrior and her honest desire to follow the “rites” for which she married Othello create behavior not conforming to accepted rules and standards in Venetia. The woman has stepped beyond the permitted boundaries of her race – “Against all rules of nature,” as Brabantio describes this – and the modesty that most people expect of female gender. Shakespeare, in spite of her faults, presents the rebellious and disobedient Desdemona as a character deserving admiration.
Her powerful and effective language in explaining why she chose Othello despite her father’s unwillingness, her brave strong passion for the Moor, and her spirited and powerful (even though unreasonable) defense of Cassio are all probable to win the sympathies and admiration of the readers. Desdemona’s boldness, as well as Othello’s initial approval and praise of it (he describes her as his “fair warrior” when he comes to Cyprus), all say about a marriage with mutual love and respect for each other.
When living in Cyprus, however, Desdemona becomes more isolated and open to temptation and persuasion. Once Othello incorporates Iago’s views, interpreting the meaning of Desdemona’s behavior as unfaithful and indiscriminate actions, the woman has no means of opposing her husband’s violent desire to control her life. It would seem, taking into consideration these issues, that there are contradictory messages present throughout the play about what behavior is right for women.
The uncontrollable female who calls into question her place in the male-dominated community is given some capacity for independent action but ironically is then punished, primarily because Othello misinterprets her actions, but also, the drama may suggest, because of her desires going beyond acceptable boundaries of taste and convention of the time. Like with the issue of racism regarding Othello’s personality, Emilia’s role emphasizes the contradictory treatment of women in the tragedy.
Her passionate defense of wives in act 4 produces the double sexual standard by which relationships between men and women are determined: And have not we affections? Desires for sport? and frailty? as men have? Then let them use us well; else let them know, The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. Since Emilia expresses a convinced belief that women are men’s equals in desire and have the full right to live and act like their husbands, her declaration is potentially ungrounded in its denial of gender qualities that work only to the advantage of men.
At the same time, however, the meaning of the speech, as well as what the reader knows of Emilia so far, tends to decrease the power of the statement. Emilia has the similar gender of Desdemona but not social position. As a result, Shakespeare’s readers might make little of the sense of her statements, justifying them as fitting for serving women but not actual for upper-class women. Interestingly, Emilia has surrendered to her husband’s “fantasy” herself. She subordinated herself to his fanciful idea and thus affirmed the opposite of her philosophy of independence — by presenting him the gift. Conclusion
Regarded by many scholars as one of Shakespeare greatest tragedies, together with Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, Othello has a traditional tragic plot, tracing the hero’s fall from splendor and combining together human qualities of nobility with actins and decisions that lead to unavoidable suffering and loss. Othello is, at the same time, one of Shakespeare’s most emotionally touching works. The driving power with which the extremely effective but destructive series of events develops creates an exciting sense of chaotic violent and confused movement that captivates both readers and viewers almost as much as it drives the characters.
Shakespeare’s character development and his incorporation of difficult issues in the play produced an incredibly complex play that considers a number of important moral and social questions. Works Cited Allen, Ned B. “The Two Parts of Othello”, ShS, 2, 1968, in Honigmann, E. A. J. Othello. Cengage Learning EMEA, 2001. Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1962. Dusinberre, J. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976. Orkin, M. Othello and the Plain Face of Racism, SQ, 38. 2, 1987.
Othello Study Guide. Available from: http://www. shakespearefest. org/Othello%20Study%20Guide. htm Othello. Shakespearean Criticism. Available from: http://www. enotes. com/shakespearean-criticism/othello-vol-68 Salway, J. “Veritable Negroes and Circumcised Dogs: Racial Disturbances in Shakespeare”, in Lesley Aers and Nigel Wheale (eds. ), Shakespeare in the Changing Curriculum (London and New York: Routledge, 1991). Shakespeare, W. “Othello, the Moore of Venice”. Shakespeare Homepage. Available from: http://shakespeare. mit. edu/othello/full. html