Rediscovering Shakespeare’s Othello
Shakespeare's classic play Othello (1603) focuses on the dangers of jealousy. We may say this play is a study of how jealousy can be fired by mere circumstantial evidence and destroyed lives.
Shakespeare tells the story of Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army. Othello is married to Desdemona, the daughter of a Senator named Brabantio. We learn that Othello has two major enemies who plot to destroy him: Roderigo, who is also in love with Desdemona, and Iago, Othello's employee, who is upset that another man named Cassio has been promoted over him. Over the course of the play, Iago comes up with a scheme to trick Othello into believing that Desdemona is cheating on him. In the end, the hero submits to jealousy, he murders his wife and then kills himself.
In this play, jealousy takes many forms, from erotic suspicion to professional competition, but it is, in all cases, destructive. Shakespeare proves that jealousy is inherently unreasonable. Besides jealousy, the other major themes in Othello that lead to its tragic conclusion are the theme of racial prejudice, manipulation, and gender.
We see, racial prejudice in Othello, mainly because Othello is black and Desdemona is white. Perhaps, Othello is one of the first black heroes in English /Western literature. A military general, he has risen to a position of power and influence. At the same time, his status as a black-skinned foreigner in Venice marks him as an outsider and exposes him to some pretty explicit racism, especially by his wife's father, who believes his daughter's interracial marriage can only be the result of Othello's trickery. Many times throughout the play, we see the characters using openly racist language to describe Othello, calling him such names as an 'old black ram,' 'a Barbary horse,' and referencing his 'thick lips'. Othello is frequently described as if he were an animal or a hyper sexualized beast, descriptions that reflect the widely held beliefs about black men during that time. For example, when Iago goes to alert Brabantio that his daughter, Desdemona, is being physically intimate with Othello, he refers to them as being animalistic, telling Brabantio that he comes to tell that his daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. Desdemona's father finds it hard to even believe that his daughter could genuinely love a black man, and accuses Othello of using trickery to convince Desdemona to marry him.
Even the play's performance history has been marked by racism. To see a real black man and a white woman kiss on stage was seen as so unacceptable to many viewers that, even in early 20th century America, Othello had to be played by a white man in blackface. When Paul Robeson, a black American and the son of a slave, played Othello on Broadway in the 1940's, the performances electrified a still segregated nation.
Throughout the play, we learn that Iago is a master manipulator. He is able to twist information, and create a false sense of reality that convinces Othello to believe that Desdemona is actually cheating on him, though he doesn't have a bit of actual proof.
It is also found that Gender relations are pretty antagonistic in Othello. Unmarried women are regarded as their fathers' property and the play's two marriages are marked by male jealousy and cruelty (both wives are murdered by their own husbands). Most male characters in Othello assume that all Venetian women are inherently immoral, which explains why female sexuality is a huge threat to men in the play. Othello is easily convinced his wife is cheating on him and feels helpless and humiliated as a result.
So, what turns Othello's love into suspicion? May be it is because of Othello's own insecurities. He knows very well that he is an "outsider" to Venetian society that he has risen to general only because of his bravery in battle. Every day he likely had to deal with prejudice, both because he "looked" different, and because he was only a convert to Christianity. When surrounded by that constantly, he may have begun to doubt his own worthiness, he internalized the hatred that he felt coming from others. Iago simply took those insecurities and re-enforced them so that Othello could not think straight. In this regard, Othello appears very weak indeed. It is one thing to be jealous, but Othello acted on his jealousy and murdered his wife, Desdemona. Othello was taken into a trap. Although he is of high stature and greatness, he makes an error in his judgment against his wife, Desdemona. Othello should have trusted his wife. He trusted the wrong man and his life ended in tragedy. Othello lacked self-control. He could not control his rage. This was a tragic flaw. He allowed his jealousy to consume him. He was totally overwhelmed with jealousy. Rather than trusting his beloved wife, he smothered her out of jealousy and of suspicion. In the end, he takes his own life out of utter hopelessness.
But, Desdemona is not a weak character rather she faces the truth boldly. She is strong and daring from the very
beginning. She defies her father that demonstrates her strength and her bravery even before the duke in the court:
"But here's my husband,
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord" (Act 1, Scene 3).
Desdemona, having the choice of many a more suitable match, chooses a man despite his racial difference. In marrying a black man, Desdemona flies in the face of convention and unapologetically faces criticism for her bold choice.
As Othello explains, it is Desdemona who pursued him after she fell in love with his stories of valour: "These things to hear would Desdemona seriously incline" (Act 1 Scene 3). This also shows that she is not a submissive, passive character in that she decided she wanted him, and she pursued him.
Desdemona, unlike her husband, is not insecure. Even when she is called a "whore," she remains loyal to him and resolves to love him despite his misunderstanding of her. She is resolute and tenacious in the face of adversity:
"That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world: my heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate" (Act 1, Scene 3).
Even, Desdemona remains calm and steady while facing death. She declares that she has not committed any sins except "loves I bear to you" and "I never did / Offend you in my life; never loved Cassio / But with such general warranty of heaven/ As I might love: I never gave him token." She also informs Cassio might "found it (handkerchief) then; / I never gave it him: send for him hither; /Let him confess a truth". She demands to call Cassio to convey the truth to Othello. She requests "Kill me to-morrow: let me live to-night!" or at least to let her live "half an hour!" more so that she can prove that she is not guilty.
In our life we are guided by love and compassion as well as by jealousy and hatred. Yes, the choice is ours whether to be guided by love and compassion like Desdemona or by jealousy and hatred like Othello. In this play, Desdemona is a true lover, she falls in the name of love but Othello is more a valiant fighter in the battlefield than a lover. He fails to understand the depth of love of Desdemona. In a sense, the play Othello helps us to comprehend such subtle sensibilities of human life. Let prevail good sense in all spheres of our life. Let good sense and love prevail.
The writer is associate professor, English department, City University