Othello, is most certainly one of Shakespeare’s more famous tragedies. This is largely due to the nature of the character of the main protagonist, Othello. Othello, who for all intents and purposes, is essentially a brave and valiant soldier, who can be seen as predominantly good. He has a role of massive importance, in the army, being a General, however, he is clearly masked by some major flaws, evident in the jealousy, distrust and insecurity that he feels towards his wife, Desdemona. This sadly, is what led to his tragic demise. Had Othello been more accepting of Desdemona’s love and loyalty to him and had he not been too influenced by the falseness and malice of Iago, then he might have retained his position of eminence and salvaged everything.
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At the beginning of the play, one is introduced to the proud and gallant Othello, being a soldier whom the Venetian Officials require in the war. When Iago confirms, ‘for I do know the state …cannot with safety cast him; for his embarked with such loud reason to the Cyprus wars,’ the audience immediately connects with Othello on a military level. Othello, no doubt, is very important to Venice. The beginning of the play also sees Othello’s immense love for his wife Desdemona. This might spark outrage in some, while it might definitely present a more favourable attitude and feeling in others. One such favourable backing is found in the Duke of Venice, who ‘snubbed’ Brabantio, in favour of Othello taking his wife Desdemona with him to Cyprus. This might be interpreted in the fact that Othello was more necessary and important to Venice than Brabantio. The Duke also considered loyal Desdemona, who clearly displayed her unconditional love for Othello by asking whether she can accompany him to Cyprus. Desdemona’s love and commitment is evident in her declaration, ‘my hearts subdued even to the very quality of my lord’, made in front of the Senate, proudly defying people by expressing her feelings for Othello, regardless of his race and background. This shows that Desdemona does not feel any remorse or concern knowing that she probably will be frowned upon and degraded by the Venetian society due to her relationship with Othello.
From the very outset one is immediately made aware of Shakespeare’s intent for this play. He breaks away from the normal structure of the tragedy by including melodramatic elements which serves as catalysts to cause the controversy to the central morals of the play. Including ‘race’ as one of the elements of judgement is genius, as this definitely goes against the conventions of the time. This might be more acceptable in a 21st century audience, in comparison to a 16th century audience, who will, most certainly, frown upon such a display of affection between a white aristocratic female and a black male, who is only the General in the Army. Intriguingly, the deliberate words of Brabantio ‘Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: she has deceived her father, and may thee’ re-enforces the prelude to the tragedy. This is the reason why some critics have seen that Othello and Desdemona’s relationship is doomed to failure from the start. Shakespeare discloses Desdemona’s elopement as a possible sight of how naïve and irrationally she thinks, due to her youth, [similar to another one of Shakespeare’s characters, young Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet]. This can also be seen as one of the elements that prepare us for the tragedy to come. Desdemona, being initially a faithful and loyal daughter, which is expected from a woman of the 16th century, has to present an image of being meek and docile. She should obey her father but she defied him. This is uncharacteristic and would be seriously frowned upon by the Venetian Society. She elopes with Othello, a ‘Moor’ who her father despises and states that Desdemona ran from, ‘her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou, to fear, not to delight.’ The fact that Desdemona has defied her father has enraged him; therefore it seems that he would have to warn Othello that she might deceive him, which again, serves to provide a recipe for disaster in the form of the tragedy to come. In a way, Brabantio has given Othello ammunition to ‘kill’ his daughter. In Act 1, scene 3, Desdemona states, ‘I do perceive here a divided duty,’ showing us that she is bound to her father because of the fact that he has educated her and cared for her, but now she is bound to her husband because she has married him and is now answerable to him only. Women were perceived as possessions of their fathers who then became possessions of their husbands. Sadly, unbeknown to Desdemona, the husband whom she has put so much faith into will savagely and violently turn against her. In addition, Desdemona’s vivacity and assertiveness are confirmed by her marriage to Othello and these, again, serve to be positive traits, which, unfortunately, become her grave liability.
Othello believed the ‘man’, Iago, who fed him with lies and false proof above his wife, Desdemona, who had given up almost everything to be with him. His sense of reason was absolutely removed when he had to consider the allegations made against his wife. The theme of illusion and reality is quite obvious in Othello. Iago, who is perceived as ‘honest’ is not, while Othello, who ‘thinks men honest that but seem to be so’ sees the pure Desdemona as a slut who is not worthy to live. Having the opposites of appearance versus reality in a play is important, as it helps to show the character of Othello for what he is. He is pulled in two directions and he thinks his wife is honest but fears she is not and therefore he wants to ‘chop her into messes!’ This helps with Shakespeare’s inclusion of domestic violence in the play, by allowing Othello to slap Desdemona in the presence of Lodovico. This again reinforces the male dominating hierarchy over the inferiority of women and clearly shows that wives are indeed possessions of their husbands. Othello fails to see the Desdemona, who is independent in her conduct and affairs and only sees her husband for his ‘mind’ and his achievements rather than look elsewhere for wealth and status. He sees her as a wanton whore who deserves the harshest of punishments, which is death. When poor unsuspecting Desdemona finds out that Othello is upset over her ‘alleged’ affair with Cassio, the naïve and trusting Desdemona naturally believes that Cassio will clear her name and all will be forgiven. Due to her naivety in this belief, this unfortunately seals her death warrant. Similarly, her naivety is seen when she speaks to Emilia and Emilia convinces her that there are indeed women who are deceitful to their husbands. Desdemona had never even considered this possibility within any marriage. The audience will see Desdemona, till the end, as a loyal wife, who maintains her allegiance and love to Othello through thick and thin.
Othello, on the other hand, moves from a strong, brave and loving soldier and husband to weak, deceitful and hated character. His all encompassing jealousy and resentment against his love for his wife turns him into an envious man, full of hate and this takes possession of his soul and motivates his actions into being one of the most villainous characters in Shakespeare’s literary history. Othello and Desdemona’s relationship is doomed from the very beginning because of the setting of Venice. Venice was traditionally a patriarchal society clearly dominated by men and therefore saw Desdemona’s decision to marry a black man as an act of rebellion, not only against her father but the norms of society. A further clarification that Othello and Desdemona’s relationship were doomed to fail is in the fact that Othello states, ‘she loved me for the dangers I had passed…’ Clearly this shows that their love was not built on deep knowledge of each other but rather from fatal attractions, as Othello believes in this statement. When Othello doubts Desdemona’s fidelity, he compares her reputation to the colour of his skin as ‘begrimed and black…as mine own face.’
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Through analysing this play, one can come to understand the dangers of racial injustice in relationships, especially in the relationship of Othello and Desdemona and the setting of the play, thus the conventions of the time. Othello is therefore the victim of the pervasive social stereotypes which definitely and certainly lead to his downfall and fall from grace. The fact that many saw the relationship of Othello and Desdemona containing the elements of tragedy is very true within the context of the Venetian [setting] and Elizabethan [audience] societies, as outlined above. The alternate view is also true in that the relationship has many merits, but unfortunately, far too many flaws and obstacles in the path of the relationship from flourishing and growing, rather it died a rather rotten and horrid death.
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