Source and Dating for Othello
Shakespeare's source for Othello was a story in Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, published in 1565. As usual, Shakespeare added his own embellishments and made changes that suited his purposes. If you'd like to read the original story, here's a link to it:
The date of composition of Othello is in debate, as with all of Shakespeare's plays. Most critics believe it was written after Hamlet, in 1603 or 1604; its first recorded performance was in 1604. Some critics, however, Anthony Burgess among them, believe it was written before Hamlet. He argues that its vision of life is not nearly as dark as that in Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear, and speculates that it may have been written while Queen Elizabeth was alive. He points out that Iago's name is Spanish, not Italian (its Italian form would be Giacomo); during Elizabeth's reign, the Spanish were among the worst enemies of the English. Moreover, the English equivalent of Iago is James, and it would have been unwise, so early in James's reign, to have named a villian after him.
Harold Bloom, on the other hand, sees Iago as the natural successor to Hamlet:
[Iago's] only God is Othello himself, whose fall becomes the appropriate revenge for Iago's evidently sickening loss of being at rejection...and what certainly is a sense of nullity, of no longer being what one was. Iago is Shakespeare's largest study in ontotheological absence, a sense of the void that follows on from Hamlet's...Othello was everything to Iago, because war was everything; passed over, Iago is nothing, and in warring against Othello, his war is against ontology...His grand boast "I am not what I am" deliberately repeals St. Paul's "By the grace of God I am what I am" (435).
Themes and Ideas
The deceptively simple plot and structure of Othello may lead a reader to believe that it is a shallow play, compared to Hamlet. But, like many of Shakespeare's plays, it raises a number of themes and ideas. We can't look at all of them here, but we will examine a few.
Issues of Social Class and Racism
Susan Snyder writes of the social class structure which contributes to Iago's resentment and Othello's downfall. Park Honan also notes that social class is an element in the play. At the time of Othello's performance, thousands of workers were streaming into London. Their dreams of wealth were dashed immediately, and most had a difficult time just finding sustenance. And as Iago finds in the play, virtue, effort, and performance are no guarantee of advancement: Cassio, who has no experience in battle, is promoted over Iago's head despite Iago's years of faithful service.
Othello, too, is aware of the class difference between him and Desdemona, but seems to think his service to the city compensates for his lack of social standing. It does allow him a wider latitude in behavior, but he is never accepted as a social equal by the noblemen of Venice.
Another barrier to social acceptance was Othello's race. Anthony Burgess points out that, in Shakespeare's time, Othello's color would not have been as much an issue as it is with more modern audiences. There were a number of prominent black men around the courts in those days. Muslims, at the time, were seen as a greater threat; a dark-skinned Christian was preferable to a fair-skinned Muslim, and it is the Muslim Turks who are destroyed by a heaven-sent storm in Othello.
This is not to say that racism didn't exist. The color black was associated with sin and death, and blacks in the plays of the time were generally villains. Shakespeare uses this prejudice to his own advantage: Shakespeare expected Othello to be played by a white man in makeup, and this enhances one of the themes of the play, the difference between external appearance and internal reality. It also violates the audience's expectations when white Iago is evil, while black Othello is good. Othello is amazed at the whiteness of Desdemona's skin, when he believes her soul to be so black.
A romance between two people of different races and different classes may have shocked Shakespeare's audiences, but if it did, the critics of his time don't spend much time commenting on it. Later audiences seem to have been more disturbed. Charles Lamb, in the 19th century, said that Othello's blackness was acceptable on the page, but anyone seeing the play acted must "find something extremely revolting in the courtship and wedded caresses of Othello and Desdemona." Some critics were so bothered by the idea that they bent over backwards to find evidence in the play that Othello was actually only light brown, or even white.
Attitudes Toward Women
Contemporary audiences see Desdemona as one of the most innocent of all Shakespeare's heroines. Anthony Burgess says that Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would not have seen Desdemona as all "sweet innocence." Venetian women were regarded as courtesans, and Shakespeare's audiences would have a had a hard time excusing her disloyalty to her father, her assertiveness with her new husband, and her innocent but too-free friendship with Cassio.
Susan Snyder points out that the Venetian system of values sees women as possessions. Brabantio is worried about the "theft" of his daughter. Desdemona is referred to as a "jewel." And Roderigo thinks he can win her with jewels. Desdemona's beauty and freshness are treated as commercial assets, and are discussed far more often than her personality. In addition, there is a fear of women's sexuality, in both Venetian society and Jacobean society: "In an ideology that can value only cloistered, desireless women, any woman who departs from this passivity will cause intense anxiety" (295). In fact, Snyder says, "Desdemona's own frankly expressed desire for her husband in Act I, Scene 3 contrasts significantly with his denial of such feelings for her, and after he has possessed her there are suggestions that the revulsion he feels is for his sexual bond with her as well as for her purported adultery with Cassio" (296).
Stanley Wells shows that Desdemona is defined in relation to two other women in the play, Emilia and Bianca (whose name means "white"). Bianca is spoken of by Iago as a whore, although all we see of her is the way she is treated by Cassio and her obvious pursuit of him. Emilia is willing to entertain the thought of infidelity, and delivers a passionate speech about women's rights. She fights back against her husband.
Desdemona, by contrast, never does. She may have acted unwisely in nagging Othello about reinstating Cassio, but the audience never doubts her moral integrity.
Iago's opinions about women are clearly negative, but they are negated in the play, Harold Bloom argues, by the fact that, ironically, he is brought to ruin by the one person he never took seriously as an opponent--his wife, Emilia. He did not anticipate his own wife's love for Desdemona and her outrage at the destruction of her reputation.
We sympathize with Desdemona's suffering, says A. C. Bradley, because it is only suffering. She can't defend herself: "Desdemona's suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being he adores" (170).
And thus, once again, the audience's expectations are confounded, because Desdemona, Venetian or not, turns out to be nothing like the stereotypical Venetian courtesan they expected. And it is Emilia, Desdemona's attendant and her social inferior, who ends up showing real nobility in her defense of and willingness to die for her mistress.
Ironies and Contraries
Stanley Wells, among others, shows that the irony in Othello is created by Shakespeare's meticulous creation of oppositions. A few examples:
- Iago's insistence that reason is superior to passion;
- Iago's rejection of love as lust;
- Iago's cynicism compared to Othello's idealism;
- Iago's intellect contrasted with Othello's instinct;
- Iago's faith in reason as opposed to Othello's dependence on trust;
- Iago's dismissal of love compared to Othello's committment to love;
- Othello's goodness vs. his temporary corruption.
- Othello is a "domestic tragedy," in the sense that its outcomes don't determine national destinies. It is a tragedy of family: the betrayal of a father by a daughter, the betrayal of a wife by a husband, and so on. It has the smallest cast of any of Shakespeare's tragedies. Its most powerful scenes take place in private (the bedroom, for example). But it is not a small-scale play: Iago's evil takes the play into the realm of myth; Iago is often compared to the devil.
- Shakespeare added the scene of Cassio's drunkenness to Cinthio's tale. It allows him to show Othello's condemnation of the brawl as a symbol of control over unruly passions--a control which he will soon lose. Ironically, it is Iago who, through cold calculation, has deliberately created this chaos.
Bradley also acknowledges the irony in the play: "Such jealousy as Othello's converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man; and it does this in relation to one of the most intense and also the most ideal of human feelings" (169).
Homoeroticism and the Military
Park Honan points out the importance in Othello of the close-knit bond that exists between men in the military, and the role that it plays in events in this play. "In their all male group at a slight remove from society, the soldier" views women as hazards. "Knitting the male troop together is a latent homoerotic feeling, so strong that Iago can allude to it usefully" (315). Shakespeare includes a scene in which Iago, atempting to heighten Othello's jealousy, tells Othello he shared a bed with Cassio, and Cassio, in his dream of Desdemona, kissed Iago and threw his leg over him. Othello, Honan says, is primarily a soldier, a man who sees in absolute colors of morality, rather than in shades; a man of action, rather than contemplation. Thus, he says, "...Othello is undone by the narrow profession he serves" (317).
Wells, too, notes the element of seduction in the relationship between Iago and Othello. Iago detaches Othello's affections from Desdemona and attaches them to himself. At one point, Othello says to Iago, "I am bound to thee for ever" (III.3.217). Othello and Iago kneel while Othello dedicates himself to the service of revenge, and Iago dedicates himself to Othello's service, after which Iago says, "I am your own for ever."
The Problem of Iago
Iago says he hates Othello and Cassio for a number of reasons: he has been passed over for a promotion, he suspects his wife of having had an affair with Othello, he suspects his wife of having had an affair with Cassio, and so on. Yet these slights seem, to many critics, to be insufficient reason for the depth of Iago's hatred.
Susan Snyder says that Iago's hatred stems from the fact that he "habitually feels the fine qualities and good fortunes of others as injuries to himself" (290); and indeed, Iago says of Cassio, "He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly" (V.1.20-21).
He is also insecure about his social class: "honest" is the label he receives from others, and it's patronizing, "used to pat inferiors on the head" (290). Iago is passed over, not only for promotion, but for inclusion as an equal, and in Othello's affections. And then Othello draws even further away from him by marrying Desdemona, a daughter of nobility. Iago's manipulation of Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, even Roderigo, makes him feel superior to all of them.
Bloom, too, discounts Iago's anger at his supposed cuckolding by Othello, pointing out that he suspects Cassio, too, but seeems not to care.
Wells sees Iago as evil, and concentrates on his use of reason to coldly manipulate those around him: "There is a purity about Iago's evil which adds to the mystery of his presentation, as if Shakespeare were suggesting that it is futile to look for normal causes of an essentially abnormal state of mind..."(249). His dependence on intellect and reason to deceive people is terrifying, and rings true. It is Othello's "free and open nature" that makes him think Iago is his friend, and enables Iago to manipulate him.
Bradley says that Iago's hatred is of the most dispassionate sort. He sees Iago as "almost destitute of humanity, of sympathetic or social feeling. He shows no trace of affection, and in the presence of the most terrible suffering he shows either pleasure or an indifference which, if not complete, is nearly so" (206). This is not ill will, unless his dislike or hostility is aroused. And what arouses his hostility? The reasons he gives for his actions--his resentment of being passed over for promotion, his jealousy of Othello and Emilia, and so on--are unconvincing, since he usually mentions them once or twice, and then never again. He is, however, sensitive to anything that touches on his pride or self-esteem. And this is the root of Iago's evil.
Bradley says Iago does evil for pleasure. He has a sense of superiority to Othello, Cassio--indeed, to everyone. He thinks he's smarter than all of them, and it galls him to see them succeed where he does not. It gives him a sense of power and satisfaction to exert his abilities, and he enjoys the excitement of danger because he doesn't expect to fail:
The boy who torments another boy, as we say, "for no reason," or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog, is pleased with his victim's pain, not from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly because this pain is the unmistakable proof of his own power over his victim. So it is with Iago (213).
And yet, the critics agree, this is Iago's play. We are fascinated with Iago; it is Iago who gives the play its power. Othello we can admire, we can sympathize with; Desdemona we can weep for; but it is Iago who keeps us watching. Harold Bloom says that Iago is more interesting to us than Othello, because "...we are more like Iago than we resemble Othello" (438).
Does Othello remain a beast at the end of the play or does he recover what Wells calls "his manly stature"? Critics have disagreed on this point, as well. Some argue that Othello acknowledges his crime, repents, and punishes himself for it, thus redeeming himself. Others disagree. T.S. Eliot said he'd "never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness--of universal human weakness--than the last great speech of Othello...What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up." F. R. Leavis sees Othello as an "obtuse and brutal" egotist.
Harold Bloom disagrees: "We cannot arrive at a just estimate of Othello if we underestimate Iago, who would be formidable enough to undo most of us if he emerged out of his play into our lives...Othello is a great soul hopelessly outclassed in intellect and drive by Iago" (438).
(Bloom also says that, if Iago had been met by Hamlet, Hamlet would have figured him out and seen through him in a few minutes, and then ridiculed him off the stage.)
Othello is mythic, Bloom says, in the sense that he is seen by others (and by himself) as a living legend. He is a good commander, but understands little else, and doesn't even know how much he doesn't know. Othello represents, Bloom says, the lost ideal of the "purity of arms."
Bradley too, sees Othello, among other of Shakespeare's heroes, as "huge men; as it were, survivors of the heroic age living in a later and smaller world" (168). Othello kills Desdemona, he says, not in anger, but as a sacrifice, in sorrow; he talks about how much he loves and admires her.
Chaos has come and gone; and the Othello of the Council Chamber and the quay of Cyprus has returned, or a greater and nobler Othello still. As he speaks those final words in which all the glory and agony of his life--long ago in India and Arabia and Aleppo, and afterwards in Venice, and now in Cyprus--seem to pass before us, like the pictures that flash before the eyes of a drowning man, a triumphant scorn for the fetters of the flesh and the littleness of all the lives that must survive him sweeps our grief away, and when he dies upon a kiss the most painful of all tragedies leaves us for the moment free from pain, and exulting in the power of "love and man's unconquerable mind" (187).
If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, click the button:
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, by Stanley Wells
2. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
3. Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess
4. Shakespeare: A Life, by Park Honan
5. "Othello: A Modern Perspective," by Susan Snyder, in the New Folger Library edition of Hamlet
6. Shakespearean Tragedy, by A.C. Bradley
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