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The narrative of Shakespeare’s Othello is driven by the skillfully interwoven elements of doubt, speculation and posturing that are present and intensified throughout. Though the play is filled with sympathetic characters, Iago and Roderigo being the only two whose intentions are known to the audience as malicious, each character is uniquely flawed and the playwright makes this apparent in even the most pedestrian exchanges. As the focal point of the plot’s manipulation of its well-intended characters and the unseen catalyst of the ire rising between friends and lovers with no true trespasses toward one another, Iago is brilliant at exploiting such imperfection.
Iago uses the highly charged convergence of race and sexuality to act upon his own jealousies.
Acting upon the marriage of Desdemona and Othello, a military hero promoted above Iago, the villain would deceive all parties to induce Othello toward the jealous murder of his faithful wife. The dramatic resolution is underscored by the progressive discussion engaged by Shakespeare on race and sexuality in Jacobean England.
In the opening scene, when Iago demands Brabantio’s attention to his daughter’s deflowering, he immediately inducts the audience into a key principle of the world which the characters inhabit. Depicting to his advantage a circumstance in which some form of violation has occurred, Iago tells Brabantio that “Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul / Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe.” (1.1, 85-87) This is the first recognition of the theme of race, with Othello’s Moorish ethnicity inciting hostility from Iago. His jealous and deceptive ancient, Iago uses this characterization to draw a distinction between Othello’s sexual congress with Desdemona as opposed to that of a white man.
A theme that would be explored throughout the work, this is a demonstration of the lascivious sexual character which society attributed to blacks. More a means of differentiation than reality, Iago uses it in this context to inspire indignation from Brabantio over the transgression of his daughter’s purity. The base terms in which he chooses here to describe Othello’s relationship with Desdemona are indicative of the attitude which pervades the order of men through the play’s five Acts regarding race, sexuality and the dynamic of power amongst all three. And it is also telling to the perspective of the play itself that Iago’s racism provides the first set of eyes through which we are allowed to observe events and individuals. As one critic notes of the conflict in the play, “we find out what it is for the first time only through Iago’s violently eroticizing and racilalizing report to Brabantio.” (Adelman, 25) This helps to manipulate events right before the audience’s eyes.
Such a dynamic is further reinforced by Brabantio’s response:
“Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds
By what you see them act. Is there not charms
By which the property of youth and maidhood
May be abused?” (1.1, 168-170).
Here, Brabantio seems to address the audience, admonishing them of the guile which even young women are capable of. It is unclear at this early juncture of the play whether it is Shakespeare’s intention to voice his estimation of the female mystique or whether he is beginning to establish what would flourish into a full-fledged lampoon of the vulnerabilities which men suffer to their women. In the case of Brabantio, it is at least perceptible that he recognizes his susceptibility to manipulation, and that the soft and disarming charms of his beautiful daughter had clouded him of his judgment.
This is a recurrent theme throughout the play. Shakespeare straddles an obfuscating line through the narrative that divides the audience in its perception of his views on gender and race relations. Without assigning blame to one gender more than the other, he sharply assails both men and women for their vagaries in lust and envy. The manifestation in Othello is an unending cycle of suspicion and resentment. In the author’s universe, the yielding and delicate exterior of woman plays easily on the resolution to justice which embodies his men. For both sexes, this sets off a destructive pattern of deception and misperception. The insertion of race into this dynamic creates something of the explosive situation which Iago exploits.
Brabantio in particular is a character who is peculiarly incapable of protecting himself from the manipulative ends of those around him. It is perhaps of some central importance to the play that much of his consternation and confusion centers around his skewed perspective on sexuality, which he typically characterizes as an act of natural transgression. Proving himself most permeable to Iago’s suggestions, which wisely prey on the Senator’s sexual complex, Brabantio is equally inclined to view men as capable of deception. Hurling an accusation at Othello over the violation of his daughter, Brabantio quickly shifts from a misogynistic mode to one of egalitarian mistrust:
“Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!
For I’ll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealth, curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t’incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou.” (1.3, 63-70)
Beyond another explicitly racist sentiment which Brabantio expresses here, there is a complicated set of views on gender, gender roles and the value system which he uses to contextualize the relationship between men and women. His emphasis here on Desdemona’s rejection of men with great affluence, rank and reputation, especially in favor of the Moorish Othello, as justification for his scurrilous accusations is based not on a sense of who his daughter is, who Othello is or necessarily even the role that race plays in the matter. More, Brabantio is inclined to an understanding of gender relations which centers on the material rule of society. In this way, his perspective represents a conservative conception of how the sexes and races are intended to interact. As another critical perspective denotes, “Othello is one play, moreover, that intermixes the differences of race and sexuality as the specters of performance.” (Murray, 93)
This is to say that the provocative questions there associated are pitched about with a remarkable candor in a play composed in 1622. Ultimately, even as Othello becomes an aggressor and his own worst enemy, Shakespeare evades the easy connotations of race and sexuality that seem to be at the basis of Iago’s deceit, weaving instead a deeply nuanced outlook on a very complex subject.