The most striking difference between Othello and Shakespeare's other tragedies is its more intimate scale. The terror of the supernatural is not invoked, as it is in Hamlet and Macbeth; extremes of psychological derangement, as in King Lear, are not present. Kingdoms are not at stake, and the political consequences of the action are not emphasized as they are in varying degrees in all of the other tragedies. Here, Shakespeare focuses on personal rather than public life; Othello's plunge into obsession occurs mostly in private—only he and lago know it is happening—and he murders Desdemona in the seclusion of their bedroom. The play has been described as a domestic comedy gone wrong. Its tragedy lies in the destruction of the happy personal lives of the general and his bride by the perverse malice of a single unsatisfied man. Yet Othello is profoundly social, for the human quality that lago lacks and that he destroys in Othello is trust, the cement that holds people together. Jealousy, the play's central motif, is simply a particularly virulent form of interpersonal distrust. The tragedy of Othello is that a noble man loses faith and is reduced to a bestial frenzy. As a result, a love and a life are destroyed, and this loss inspires horror in the audience, which, combined with our pity for Desdemona, gives the play tremendous power. Significantly, Othello stands out as one of Shakespeare's plays that has been altered very little over the centuries by its producers, for its capacity to overwhelm audiences has always been recognized.
The central dynamic in Othello is the hero's change in attitude towards Desdemona. At first the couple are happily matched; when they defend their elopement, in 1.3, they establish themselves as mature lovers whose passion is both spiritual and sexual, mutually satisfying and based on self-knowledge. But Othello's weakness destroys his happiness as his trust in his wife turns to jealousy and then murderous hatred under the influence of lago. On the other hand, his trust in his aide never flags until he is finally exposed. Othello comes to see love through Iago's eyes rather than Desdemona's. In a sense, lago and Desdemona represent internalized features of the hero: he rejects his loving and generous self—that aspect of humanity that makes society possible—in favor of the dark passions of his self-centered ego. In the end, the forces of trust and love regain their strength as Othello finally recognizes the goodness of Desdemona, and lago is formally condemned, but in the meantime the action of }the play has demonstrated the power of evil.
The motif of trust destroyed dominates the interactions of lago and Othello on one hand and Othello and Desdemona on the other. Othello is placed between lago—who cannot trust or love—and Desdemona—who offers an ideal, unconditional love. |his situation closely resembles the traditional Morality Play, whose central character, usually symbolic of the human soul, is placed between an angel and a devil who each demand his loyalty. This dramatic form was still familiar to Shakespeare and his audience, and Othello reflects it in its distinctly allegorical quality. Iago is associated with the devil several times, and Desdemona—in her martyrlike acceptance other entirely undeserved end—may be seen as a symbol of; Christian love and resignation to the will of God.
In its structure Othello continually focuses our attention on its main theme, jealous mistrust. The relationships of Othello to lago and Desdemona are paralleled in those between several minor characters in the play. For instance, Othello's credulousness is foreshadowed in that of Roderigo, whose victimization by lago is established in the opening scene, and makes clear the nature and extent of his villainy from the outset. Similarly, later in the play, Cassio's disastrous reversion from distrust to trust of the villain echoes the development of the main plot. Also, Cassio's admiring recognition of Desdemona's virtues offers the opposite image to Othello's loss of perception, while her appreciation of Cassio reflects ironically on Othello's mistaken opinion of lago.
Perhaps most striking are the two 'marriages' paralleling that of Othello and Desdemona. Cassio is linked with Bianca, and while they are not formally married, a comparison is irresistible because lago substitutes Bianca for Desdemona when he deceives Othello about the handkerchief, in 4.1. More pointedly, Bianca's jealousy of Cassio—expressed in her complaint that he has avoided her, in 3.4, and her anger when she thinks that he has been given Desdemona's handkerchief by another woman—echoes Othello's emotion but in a context where jealousy seems justified. Iago and Emilia's marriage, while plainly lacking affection, let alone love, is not immune from sexual jealousy. lago remarks several times that he is suspicious of his wife's adultery with either Othello in 1.3. 385-386) or Cassio (2.1.302). His assumption that his wife's lover was Othello sounds intended only to justify his campaign against the general, but he seems to have some cause for suspicion: Emilia clearly states that she would indeed commit adultery, in 4.3.70-76, 84-103, as she believes that unfaithfulness is a woman's only weapon against a bad husband. The mutual distrust in which these two live offers another instance of the play's major motif, jealousy. All three marriages, with their stress on this emotion, demonstrate abundantly the fragility of trust between humans.
Iago's jealousy is particularly significant, as it suggests that when he misleads Othello he is simply transferring his own psychic ailment. In fact, Iago's jealousy extends beyond a purely sexual context; he is motivated in large part by envy, the jealous sense that others have advantages over him. He fears that the free and virtuous natures of the other characters, especially Desdemona, may demonstrate his own worthlessness. It is precisely Othello's 'constant, noble, loving nature' (2.1.284) that he cannot endure, and he recognizes that Cassio 'has a daily beauty in his life, /That makes me ugly' (5.1.19-20). He accordingly proposes to 'out of [Desdemona's] goodness make the net / That shall enmesh 'em all' (2.3.352-353).
The parallels that reinforce the theme of jealousy illustrate the craftsmanship of the playwright, and indeed, Othello is a particularly well-constructed play. Most strikingly, Shakespeare introduces—and then contrives to disguise—what seems to be a serious defect of the plot, namely that Desdemona's infidelity should be utterly implausible to Othello for the simple reason that she has had absolutely no opportunity for it. Iago presents this fictional 'love affair' as though it had been going on for some time, while in fact Othello and Desdemona have only been married a few hours when they depart for Cyprus—on different ships, with Cassio on a third—and once there, Othello passes the first night with Desdemona and kills her on the second. The haste with which the plot unfolds contributes tremendously to its almost unbearable tension, and for this reason Shakespeare chose an unrealistic time span rather than a weeks-long scenario in which an adulterous affair could evolve realistically. He carries it off by means of a clever device that critics refer to as 'double time'. While the two days' development is nonsensical, it is effectively disguised by a number of strategic references suggestive of a different time frame. For instance, lago speaks of... how oft, how long ago, and when' (4.1.85) Cassio and Desdemona have made love, and Othello later justifies her murder with the claim that this love-making had occurred 'a thousand times' (5.2.213); Emilia says that lago has asked her 'a hundred times' (3.3.296) to steal Desdemona's handkerchief, and she suggests that Desdemona has had 'a year or two' (3.4.100) to become acquainted with Othello; Cassio is said to have been absent from Bianca for a week, with the implication of established relationship before that; orders recalling Othello to Venice arrive, reflecting time enough for news of the situation on Cyprus to have reached Venice and the orders returned. These hints, among numerous others, serve to keep before us a convincing sense that more has transpired than could actually be the case.
However, 'double time' is unworkable for exposition, and Act 1 differs from the rest of the play in being performed in real time. Here, in Venice, we are introduced to the characters and their world under more realistic circumstances. Events are not compressed into a short time for before the main action is underway the playwright does not need to deceive us about the pace of events, and he can properly establish the nature of his characters, especially lago. In the long interchanges between him and Roderigo in 1.1 and 1.3, in his lie that opens 1.2, and especially in his soliloquy that closes the Act, Iago's villainous nature and his enmity towards Othello are made clear, and we are primed for the developments to follow.
Act 1 also differs from the rest of the play in its setting. This is very telling, for Othello's place in the society of Venice plays an important, if subtle, role in his downfall. As Brabantio's response to Desdemona's marriage makes abundantly clear, Venice is a closed society, racist in its distrust of Othello. Also, Venice is seen to be influenced by inhumane commercial values. lago exploits the degraded values of Roderigo, who thinks love is a commodity, and many commentators have seen a satire on mercantile society—Venetian and English, both—in Iago's repeated advice to Roderigo to 'put money in thy purse' (beginning at 1.3.342). This is a world that cannot appreciate Othello's virtues. The general is thus isolated from the world he has married into; lago can convince him that Desdemona might 'repent' the 'foul disproportion' (3.3.242, 237) of a mixed marriage, and Othello lacks the assurance of a respectable social position that might temper the fear of rejection that his jealousy feeds on.
The racial bias of Shakespeare's Venice is important and quite prominent, especially in Act 1. Brabantio's belief that Desdemona could not love 'the sooty bosom / Of such a thing' (1.2.70-71) is based on the racist assumption that such love would be 'against all rules of nature' (1.3.101). lago and Roderigo have stimulated Brabantio's rage with labels, such as 'old black ram' (1.1.88), 'Barbary horse' (1.1.111), and 'lascivious Moor' (1.1.126), associating race with animals, sex, and the devil, characteristically racist ploys, even today. No one disputes Brabantio's statement that Desdemona has subjected herself to 'general mock' (1.2.69) by marrying a black man; prejudice is plainly widespread in Venice.
Othello is the earliest sympathetic black character in English literature, and the play's emphasis on prejudice must have had particular impact in Shakespeare's London, which was a distinctly biased society. Though Africans were present in London in some numbers beginning around 1550—especially once the English slave trade got underway in the 1560s—little distinction was drawn between North African and sub-Saharan blacks. Africa and Africans had figured in English drama from an even earlier date; dozens of 16th-century plays made use of African settings or characters, though virtually all of them were wildly inaccurate and blatently racist, depicting Africans in simple stereotypes as idle, lustful, and likely to be treacherous. Not surprisingly, the biases of English society as a whole was equally blatant. In 1599 and 1601 the government made an effort to deport all of the 'Negars and Black-amores which [have] crept into this realm'.
The Venice of Othello, like London in its greed and racism, has another aspect, however. As represented by the Duke and the Senators, the society offers a model of trust and co-operation. In 1.3 we see these figures arriving through consensus at a collective response to the Turkish threat, and in the same workmanlike spirit they insist that Othello be permitted a defense against Brabantio's charges. They recognize his innocence and accept him as their general, and Brabantio agrees entirely, accepting his society's collective judgment. On the whole, Venice is not a promising milieu for Iago's purposes; significantly, Shakespeare removes the action from Venice when the main plot is to get under way. On Cyprus the action is isolated; no social or political distractions remove Othello from Iago's influence, and Desdemona can have no recourse to advice or intervention. It is only when Venetian envoys come to Cyprus that the truth can be unfolded, though too late.
In another manipulation of time, Shakespeare tightens the tension rapidly as we approach the play's climax by subtly increasing the pace with which things seem to occur. As lago puts it, 'Dull not device by coldness and delay' (2.3.378). For instance, when Iago first makes Othello desire revenge against Desdemona and Cassio, the general demands Cassio's death 'within these three days' (3.3.479) and Desdemona's death is not scheduled. But when the matter is next discussed, Othello insists on killing Desdemona 'this night . . . this night' (4.1.200-202) and lago promises to kill Cassio 'by midnight' (4.1.207). This sudden acceleration creates an effect of heightened tension that reflects Othello's mental state. It also diverts attention from the illogicality of time's so-swift passage while increasing the pace.
Only once, and in a very telling manoeuvre, does Shakespeare slacken the pace of events—in the famed 'willow' scene (4.3), in which Desdemona prepares for bed and, unknowingly, for death. This lull prepares us for the final storm of Act 5's violence. Desdemona's melancholy at Othello's changed and angry manner yields a morbid fantasy that is, in effect, a slow, grand elegy of her innocence and virtue. She imagines herself dead, shrouded in her wedding sheets, and she remembers her mother's maid, who died of love, singing 'a song of "willow", / An old thing [that] express'd her fortune' (4.3.28-29). Ominously, Desdemona sings it herself, and its plaintive sadness soothes her even as it chills us with its portent of her death. Her calm and beautiful acceptance of fate is contrasted atthe scene's close with Emilia's cynical speech on adultery. Our appreciation of Desdemona in this scene makes the approaching climax all the more horrible, Despite its languid tone, this brilliantly conceived interlude actually succeeds in heightening our anxiety.
Through a simple plot with minimal comic relief, Shakespeare avoids distractions that would permit the audience to recuperate temporarily from the increasing tension into which they are drawn. The few diversions from the main plot are mostly anxiety-producing disturbances. The midnight brawl of 2.3 that results from Cassio's drunkeness; Othello's cruel rudeness as he pretends to take his wife's bedroom for a bordello, in 4.2; another fight scene, in which Roderigo wounds Cassio and lago kills Roderigo—all of these events offer the reverse of comic relief, tightening our emotional screws for the next stage of Iago's plot against Othello. Even at the play's close, the tension is similarly maintained as the eerie privacy in which the murder of Desdemona takes place is followed by the raucous tumult in which lago kills Emilia and Othello wounds lago and kills himself. Only in the very last lines of the play is there relief when Lodovico disposes of practical matters in the wake of the death of the Venetian commander on Cyprus.
Not only is the rule of society re-established at the close, but Iago's triumph over Othello is undercut by the hero's recognition of his error. The trust that had been violated is at least acknowledged in the end In the world of tragedy, death and defeat are inescapable, thus mirroring the tragic aspects of human existence. Othello is not a hero through triumph, but because he is an incarnation of basic human energies both good and bad. When he joins Desdemona in death he offers recompense for his grievous self-centeredness earlier, and while this compensation is obviously useless to her, it offers us a cathartic sense of reconciliation with tragedy. The lives—and deaths—of Othello and Desdemona are in the end transcended by their involvement with each other. She sacrifices herself to her love and he himself to his grief that he was inadequate to it. Without the support of his love for Desdemona, Othello could only say, 'Chaos is come again' (3.3.93); with his recognition of his error order is implicitly restored as the ethical meaning of the story is revealed.
To view other Othello sections:
To view the other Plays click below:
To view other Shakespeare Library sections:
Send mail to email@example.com with questions or comments about this web site.
[Home] [Upcoming Shows] [HSC Venues] [Past Productions] [Articles] [HSC Programs]