Othello in Giraldi’s tale In Giraldi’s tale, Othello is taken back to Venice and tortured and refuses to confess to crimes of killing Des. However, in Shakespeare’s, Iago is the one who refuses to ‘speak word’. In Shakespeare’s, Othello has anagnorisis (discovery of something) and he is more tragic – we feel more pathos for his self discovery that he has done wrong. Aristotle said there had to be a discovery or denouement in tragedy. However, critic F.R. Lewis says no real catharsis is created as the audience doesn’t feel pity for Othello, particularly as he speaks about himself in third person, keeping the audience at a distance
Originally written by Baroque Italian writer Giraldi
Emilia in Giraldi’s tale In his, Emilia is fully aware of her husband’s villainy, but too afraid to speak out. In Shakespeare’s, she is Iago’s unwitting aid (maybe he wanted to make her look stronger than Desdemona to contrast), acting as a Greek chorus, explaining the tragedy in Act V
Hugh Quarshie (Othello actor) said Shakespeare ‘isn’t that interested in Othello’s psychology’. Iago has twice as many soliloquies. In Iago’s, he engages with audience (ponders whether he can do ‘double knavery’ by stealing Cassio’s position and using him to hurt Othello). However, in Othello’s speeches, he says things like ‘put out the light’ (before smothering Desdemona). Not addressing the audience – just a prop
Quarshie’s ideas on distance from Othello We feel some distance from Othello – 1600s audiences were less familiar with black people. We never see his true motives like with Iago. Shakespeare possibly did this because people had their own stereotypical views on Moors – didn’t have to explain Othello’s character. Is Othello racist? Possibly not – Othello maybe wanted to create Othello at a distance to fit with Aristotle’s ideas on mimesis – to create a cathartic reaction, there needs to be a mirroring of reality, but at some distance
Caryl Phillips on pathos We feel pathos for Othello as ‘Life for him is a game in which he does not know the rules’ – even if black people were noble, conscientious soldiers like Othello, they were looked down on by white people. Othello’s naivety in expecting to be treated equally was his hamartia
Race tension between Othello and Desdemona At the start, Othello doesn’t see why dating Desdemona would be a problem – he too fetches ‘my life and being from men of royal siege’. Also he stresses that Desdemona ‘had eyes and chose me’. However, as Iago begins to poison Othello’s mind, he notes that Desdemona is of a different ‘clime, complexion and degree’, and thus it is odd for her to marry someone like him. Othello becomes her binary opposition – rigid dichotomy. By the end , Othello begins to believe that they are not at all compatible, his race is a problem
Thomas Rhymer on tragedy Refused to believe it was a great tragedy – the ‘defect’ of Othello is that it doesn’t have a moral lesson, except possibly that young maidens should not run away with ‘blackamoors’. However, some say that’s not Shakespeare’s intention – Othello is good, but driven to evil by a white man. Appearance is not an indicator of personality – don’t judge a book by it’s cover – we’re constantly reminded that Iago is honest
It fits Aristotle’s ideas on tragedy Othello suffers from hubris (excessive pride), possibly because he was over-confident in marrying Desdemona. Also, the middle (when Iago persuades Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity) demonstrates peripeteia, as everything changes after this point. Othello’s hamartia is his jealousy and pride, and trust in Iago
It DOESN’T fit Aristotle’s ideas on tragedy In ‘Poetics’, Aristotle said the hero must be high-born – most of the characters don’t see him as high born. Although he fetches ‘my life and being from men of royal siege’, he is given derogatory words like ‘Moor’ which dehumanise him, Roderigo even calling him a ‘gondolier’. He is also the first black hero in English drama. Also, it doesn’t fit the mould because Iago does not die at the end like most Jacobean tragedies, so the catharsis isn’t restored. Iago also has equal stage time with Othello, which is unusual for the villain. Critic A.C. Bradley says that Othello doesn’t feature real peripeteia as ‘The Othello in the Fourth Act is Othello in his fall’, stating that he is ‘virtually faultless’ and has no fatal flaw, he is just corrupted by evil Iago.
Iago is a Machievellian villain (uses others as tools to get what he wants) and reminds audience of his villainy Says ‘I am not what I am’ (a contradiction, which shows his duplicity/duplicitous nature, and also alludes to God’s line in the Bible that ‘I am what I am’, showing that Iago is the devil) and ‘Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago’. He also swears by Janus – ‘by Janus, I think no’ which is ironic because the outcome was the opposite or ‘reverse’ of what he expected (Janus is the God of reversals) – he expected to see Othello’s enemies rather than friends. However, even more obviously, Janus is two-faced, just like Iago, so it makes sense that he should swear by this god. Also, Iago says that Cassio is ‘damned in a fair wife’, showing his jealousy in use of the word ‘fair’ but also lying as Cassio is not married, and using ‘damned’ to show his opinion of women and marriage
To what extent Iago is really cunning, but to what extent it’s just luck/other factors In Act 3 Scene 3, Othello says that when he stops loving Desdemona, ‘chaos is come again’ – Iago relishes in the idea of creating chaos, and thus it could be said that things work in his favour – it is extremely lucky that Othello said this (also foreshadowing)
How Iago makes things look bad He tells Othello that Desdemona ‘did deceive her father marrying thee’ – he makes Desdemona seem like someone who has evil intent by being disobedient, and is a prelude to infidelity, but doesn’t focus on the fact that Desdemona chose to elope with Othello for the sake of love – some of the facts he twists
How Iago makes Othello feel distant Tells Othello that ‘I know our country disposition well’ – Othello doesn’t, suggesting that Venetians are much different to the people Othello would be accustomed to
How Iago sees love As a ‘lawful prize’ and something that can be won. He tells Cassio that Othello ‘hath boarded a land carrack’. (Could be a treasure ship, making Desdemona property – like how Othello was called a ‘foul thief’, or a slang term for a prostitute, and thus degrading love). Cassio doesn’t understand what Cassio means by ‘land carrack’, stating ‘I do not understand’ – Iago’s definition of love is so crude that Cassio can’t understand it. Also, he calls Desdemona ‘sport for Jove’ – a lusty description rather than being loving, while Cassio describes her as being ‘fresh and delicate’ in an admiring and non-sexual way
Iago’s Motives Describes Iago’s behavior ‘motiveless malignity’, being akin to the devil, and thus he has no real motives and is just pure evil. Thus he may be a ‘vice figure’, which is a stock character from medieval plays. Vice figures are typically personifications of immoral behavior — they tend to be tempters and often agents of the devil. Iago could be a vice figure if he has no real motives and is just pure evil like the devil – although his character is a bit more complex than many other vice figures who are just evil for the sake of being evil. Also, Iago seems to want to pick any random reason to justify his evil plots – be this the rumour that Cassio slept with Emilia, that Othello slept with Emilia (Othello ‘hath leapt into my seat’) or the fact that Cassio was promoted and not him
The character of Cassio He is fairly sexist – he calls Bianca a ‘polecat’, an abusive term. At the start, Iago describes Cassio as being a ‘mathematician’- we are inclined not to believe Iago as he is so villainous. However, some could say that Cassio isn’t the most skilled warrior, and it seemed particularly cowardly to make Desdemona get his position back from Othello rather than do it himself
God imagery Marriage teaches Desdemona that ‘men are not gods’ – maybe she has had this opinion forced on her, men were supposed to be the dominant sex. She says ‘men’ are not gods rather than ‘Othello’ is not a god – perhaps she sees men as having similar traits, and may think negatively of them, as Emilia does. She says that men are not gods because it is unfair to assume that they should act the same as they did on their wedding day – however, if it wasn’t for Iago, Othello would have acted the same as on his wedding day, so he could be her definition of a God. Iago is the opposite to a God – he is a devil and a ‘hellish villain’. At the end however, Emilia calls Othello a ‘blacker devil’ – the divide between men and women is strong. To women, are men gods on the exterior and evil on the interior?
The handkerchief When Othello says ‘I have a pain upon my forehead’ (representing where the cuckolds horns would go), Desdemona soothes it with the handkerchief. It then drops to the ground – love is lost, damaged and uneasy. Iago says Cassio uses it to wipe his beard – represents Desdemona’s love being used to soothe Cassio. (Emilia says she will copy the handkerchief for her husband, and Cassio instructs Bianca to actually make one, showing that love isn’t intrinsically valuable, and can be used and reused, especially if commanded by men)
Structure The entire play has a very brief timespan, making it seem quite claustrophobic (also as the focus becomes fixed on a single bedroom, as the outer world has become insignificant), but also fast-paced. The focus on the bedroom is highlighted various times (something that is common in Jacobean drama), particularly when Desdemona asks Emilia during the willow scene to ‘shroud me in one of these same sheets’ if she dies – this is prophetic irony. This also means that bonds between characters are formed quickly, and initial perceptions of the characters are lasting. Also, there is only really one plot (no other stories), so we are constantly focussed on Othello’s development and how the other characters relate to him
Initial Impression of Othello Jacobean audiences would’ve been shocked by a ‘moor’ speaking in eloquent blank verse, establishing his heroism and nobility. Although he apologises, noting ‘rude am I in my speech’, yet he is very eloquent, and in fact his speech is the reason Desdemona was enamoured of him in the first place (because he told her a ‘tale’ which the even the Duke said ‘would win my daughter too’)
The setting of Venice In the Jacobean era, dramatists began to use Italy as a suitable location for revenge tragedies, and Venice (where the play begins) was supposed to be exotic and sophisticated, suggesting power and wealth. It was also known for having many prostitutes and promiscuous women, possibly heightening Othello’s fears of Desdemona’s infidelity. Iago tells Othello that ‘I know our country disposition well’ – Othello doesn’t, suggesting that Venetians are much different to the people Othello would be accustomed to. The use of ‘our’ shows it is both of their countries
The setting of Cyprus In Cyprus, Othello also feels unfamiliar, noting in his final words before his death that in Cyprus he was ‘Perplexed in the extreme’. The use of the storm reflects the violence the characters experience in Cyprus, and the fact that Cyprus is a ‘warlike island’ mirrors the tragic events that unfold. (This storm is described verbally, as Shakespeare’s stage would have been bare/very little in the way of props). It is significant that Othello and Desdemona’s marriage begins in a warzone and is ultimately doomed
How Iago uses language When talking to Roderigo, he uses fast-moving prose to excite him about his plans. Iago’s refusal to speak at the end of the play leaves the audience with a feeling of disillusion
How Iago’s manipulation affects Othello’s language In Act III Scene 3, Iago effectively makes use of pauses to infuriate Othello, causing Othello to exclaim that ‘thou echo’s me’. This is the longest scene in the play, and Iago is at his most manipulative. While Othello had previously called Desdemona his ‘fair warrior’, by the end of this scene, she has become ‘the fair devil’. Finally, just before falling ‘in a trance’, Othello says that ‘It is not words that shake me thus’, stating that he is not being upset by harsh words, but rather what he believes is the cruel truth of his predicament. However, there is irony here, as Iago has in fact tricked him with his rhetoric. Also, after Iago poisons Othello’s mind in Scene III, Othello begins to misconstrue everything Desdemona says, resulting in verbal bullying. Worryingly, Othello begins to use Iago’s base idiom, using unsophisticated language (calling his wife ‘a wh*re’ and exclaiming that she should ‘rot and perish’).
The use of time Shakespeare uses a double time scheme throughout, meaning that time is ambiguous – Othello says in the final scene that Desdemona has committed adultery with Cassio ‘a thousand times’, and it also seems unlikely that Lodovico would be sent from Venice to install Cassio as governor within a week of Othello’s arrival in Cyprus, and so these things suggest the play occurs over a long period of time, increasing the plausibility of Othello’s jealousy. However, there is also the feeling that the action occurs during a short period of time – Othello arrives in Cyprus just before ‘this present hour of five’, and on the evening of this same day, the wedding celebrations occur and Cassio is dismissed from his post. The following day, Desdemona pleads for him to be reinstated, and Iago begins to poison Othello’s mind – everything happens quickly. Perhaps Shakespeare uses this short time frame to show how unreasonable/absurd jealousy is – Desdemona hasn’t had sufficient time to commit adultery in such a short time, so Othello is foolish
Presentation of Women – Emilia Has a negative view of love – ‘they are all but stomachs, and we are all but food’ – thinks men are all bad (this comes after Othello shouted at Desdemona). Her husband is abusive – calling her a ‘foolish wife’
Presentation of Women – Bianca It is perfectly acceptable for Cassio to consort with a courtesan, yet it is presumptuous that ‘she is persauded I will marry her’. When talking to Iago about Bianca, the language technique of convergence is used – Cassio’s speech becomes like Iago’s and he is rude about Bianca, calling her a ‘bauble’, because he is influenced by the way Iago speaks. Bianca’s relationship with Cassio is not harmonious – she is a ‘bauble’ and Cassio calls himself merely a ‘customer’, and he doesn’t want to see himself ‘womaned’
Presentation of Women – Desdemona At the beginning, the relationship between Desdemona and Othello is presented as being harmonious, and Iago cannot bear to see them ‘well tuned’. Iago also cannot bear the fact that Desdemona exerts influence, joking that ‘our general’s wife is now the general’. In Shakespeare’s time, very few women received an education, and were meant to be obedient to their husbands. Feminist critic Lisa Jardine said that Jacobean dramas are wholly masculine, and Desdemona proves to be ‘too-knowing, too independent’, and so her sexuality is punished by the men. Brabantio says that ‘she has deceived her father and may deceive thee’. Also, Desdemona pleads to go to Cyprus with Othello and refuses to be a ‘moth of peace’ at home away from him – too outspoken? Also her constant nagging for Cassio to get his job back is OTT. Helen Gardner suggests that Desdemona is ‘love’s martyr’, as by dying, she wins the Othello’s love again. Finally, Desdemona is extremely obedient, even when her husband strikes her, saying ‘I will not stay to offend you’
How the period affected the play Written in the Renaissance period, so the birth of new ideas – Othello was the first black hero. Also, it is set in the past because of cencorship issues meaning that any criticism of the monarch or the contemporary English court would not be tolerated. Shakespeare could ridicule the Turks as the play was set in the past
Magic The handkerchief is said to be magic (find quote), and it is ironic that the handkerchief leads Bianca to believe that Cassio is cheating on her, in the same way that Othello believes Desdemona is cheating on him, and the handkerchief is the ‘proof’ of this
Racism The Duke comforts Brabantio, telling him that his ‘son-in-law is far more fair than black’
Structure in relation to tragedy The structure follows what Aristotle said should be typical of a tragedy – all basically in a short time period, with no subplots and in one location (the tragedy occurs in Cyprus). Shakespeare’s tragedies were usually in 5 acts, going I – Exposition (outlining the situation and main characters) II – Development (Action and complications) III – Crisis (Peripeteia occurs here) IV – Further developments V – Resolution. Othello closely follows this pattern