Appearance and Reality
Many critics have commented that one of Shakespeare’s great contributions to Western literature is his dramatic exploration of the difference between appearance and reality. It is thoroughly explored in Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and almost all of his tragedies. It works at the heart of the misidentification and masking of identity in his comedies and is masterfully explored in Othello.
Elizabethan and Jacobean society were fascinated by, and suspicious of, the notion of performance, and the gap between the private and public persona. Public life in England had become a performance of sorts, a process of constructing one’s identity through clothing, display of rhetoric, education, and a strict focus on generally composing oneself. In 1980, Stephen Greenblatt termed this Renaissance trend the art of “self-fashioning”. 16th-century Puritans were revolted onlookers, finding this new arena a false vulgarity, and in their quest for someone to blame they found the theatre. Pamphleteers at the time, such as Stephen Gosson, felt that the melodrama of the theatre was encouraging London society to adopt characteristics other than their own and he labeled the playhouses a ‘whore’s fair’. Ironically, the theatre and Shakespeare’s plays went beyond encouraging the trend. Rather, they had become the perfect place to deconstruct, explore and reflect on this behaviour.
Shakespeare’s use of the soliloquy or aside was a revolution in dramatic function, allowing the audience to be privy to a character’s inner thoughts whilst observing their public behavior. In Othello, the discrepancy between Iago’s public and private face is obvious and he openly and proudly acknowledges it. Iago states “I am not what I am” (Act 1, Scene 1), and admits to Cassio that he thinks that “reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit” (Act 2, Scene 3). Iago is aware of reputation’s fickle nature as he has gained it not through deserving means, but rather by sheer performance. He is also aware of the power of reputation, and works meticulously to maintain his own. In Act 3, Scene 3 Iago ironically proclaims to Othello that “Men should be what they seem”, even though he is in the very act of deceiving him and has already proven to the audience that he is certainly not what he seems. Iago is extremely successful in his deceptions. What is extraordinary is that almost all the other characters view him in a positive light, as ‘honest’, and Othello even goes so far as to humbly thank Iago: “I am bound to thee forever.” (Act 3, Scene 3) (Note: The epithet ‘honest’ has also been seen as a term of condescending praise used in reference to someone of a lower rank.)
Iago manages to appear as a genuine and concerned citizen and gains the confidence of others by consistently offering assistance. He also carefully places himself in the position of defending his friends, whilst simultaneously drawing attention to their faults: ‘I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offense to Michael Cassio’. (Act 2, Scene 3) Iago is careful to be seen to defend Othello when he appears before the Senate, soon after the audience has watched him attack Othello behind his back. Iago maintains his reputation through discretion and when pressed for information he tells Lodovico that “it is not honesty in me to speak what I have seen and known’. (Act 4, Scene 1)
However, Iago is not the only character to present an alternate public persona. Desdemona states in Act 2 that she must “beguile” the thing she is “seeming otherwise” (Act 2, Scene 1), and Emilia states that she wouldn’t do a deceptive act in the “heavenly light”, but she would willingly do it “in th’ dark” (Act 4, Scene 3). Roderigo willingly performs for Brabantio in the pursuit of Desdemona and Cassio teases Bianca with his affections calling her “sweet” and “fair”, yet in private he degrades her, laughing at the notion that he would ever marry her. (Act 4, Scene 1). It is public performance that Othello fears, perhaps because he is naïve to the social customs of a culture he sits outside of. When he confronts Desdemona in front of Senator Lodovico he states, “if the earth could teem with women’s tears, each drop she falls would prove a crocodile” (Act 4, Scene 1). Shakespeare explores this art of public performance and the anxieties surrounding it by contrasting Othello, the naïve outsider, with Venetian Iago who is the master manipulator of it.
Black and White
Shakespeare and Elizabethan audiences would have been accustomed to Moors and their plight due to high immigration and commonplace racial vilification. Queen Elizabeth I deported 89 Moors from London in an edict against ‘the great numbers of negars and blackamoores which are crept into the realm since the troubles between Her Highness and the King of Spain’. Conversely, in 1600, the Moorish Ambassador of the King of Barbary visited the English court and Shakespeare acted before him during the Christmas season.
There is much contention over Othello’s ethnic origin. In his biography of Shakespeare, Peter Ackroyd claims that it’s a mistake to consider Othello to be of African or West Indian origin, as is often the case in modern productions. However, it is believed that Moor was an ambiguous, general term used to describe people of colour, of African, Arab or Indian descent. The terms ‘black’ and ‘fair’ for Elizabethans were encoded with strong racist presumptions. To be black was to be evil, ugly, “lascivious” (Act 1, Scene 1), untrustworthy, primitive, and associated with the devil. To be white was to be beautiful, intelligent, civilised and pure. In the opening scene the audience are met with Iago and Roderigo’s racist and insulting descriptions of Othello, “thick-lips”, “old black ram” and “Barbary horse” (Act 1, Scene 1). Othello’s blackness is constantly addressed throughout the play and placed in contrast to the ‘fair’ Desdemona.
In his essay “Blackness made Visible” (Othello: New Critical Essays, 2010), Philip Kolin discusses how the play centres around one of the ‘most inflammatory issues confronting early and late modern audiences alike: miscegenation - a black man marrying a white woman’. The first we hear of Othello and Desdemona’s union is when Iago shocks Brabantio in Act 1, Scene 1, with the news that, “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” Desdemona’s skin is described as white as “snow” (Act 5, Scene 2) and Brabantio describes Othello as “sooty” (Act 1, Scene 2). However, despite the character’s own prejudices, this is not the man Shakespeare presents us with. When we meet Othello, and he stands before the court, he is honest, loyal, intelligent, and extremely eloquent. Despite claiming his own speech to be “rude” (Act 1, Scene 3), Othello addresses the nobles with grace, and describes Desdemona’s empathy for his hardship with immense beauty, “she gave me for my pains a world of sighs”. In trying to rectify Brabantio’s judgements of the union of these two opposites, the Duke tells him that the Othello he sees before him “is far more fair than black” (Act 1, Scene 3).
At the start of Act 2, Desdemona muses on these two opposites in regards to women’s intelligence and beauty. She asks what success a woman would have “if she be black and witty” (Act 2, Scene 1), ‘black’ in this context meaning brunette and ugly. Iago responds that she can use her intelligence to fool men into accepting her. Even Othello’s language is tainted with this simplistic, bigoted way of thought, and he continually references his own blackness as a flaw or limitation. When their relationship falls into doubt the first thing Othello blames is his own colour, “Haply, for I am black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have” (Act 3, Scene 3). As his faith in Desdemona’s purity declines, he can’t help but say that her name is “now as black as my own face” (Act 3, Scene 3). As black and white denote the simple division between good and bad, religious imagery often comes into play. Even as Desdemona shares her dying words, Emilia can’t help but compare their colour and scorn Othello for his blackness, “O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil” (Act 5, Scene 2). Despite Othello’s final act of brutality, he is a character that has gained great love and sympathy from audiences.
Race and the Outsider
It is important to note that class warfare and racial vilification work hand in hand in this play. Venetian noblemen and characters such as Cassio and Desdemona sit at the top. Iago is the underdog and, although lauded for his military prowess, Othello actually sits outside this completely. He is a foreigner and the only person of colour in an otherwise white, Venetian society. No amount of success and achievement will shift that; he is, and will always be, an outsider. In Act 1 we are informed of Othello’s treacherous past, most likely resulting from his ethnicity; and we can’t help but empathise with his tale:
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels' history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,--such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.
Act 1, Scene 3
We are then told that, on hearing this, Desdemona would “seriously incline” and shed “tears” (Act 1, Scene 3), and we are reminded that her sheltered, elevated childhood was something very different to his. Despite his worldly past, Othello now defines his identity by his position as a soldier and so does the society around him. He is only accepted by Brabantio for his “sieges” (Act 1, Scene 3), and the Duke possibly allows his secret marriage to Desdemona because he is required in battle against the Turkish forces.
There is much evidence that Othello’s ethnicity prohibits him from being truly accepted. Firstly, if he was of Venetian blood would he have felt the need to marry in secret? Why is Iago’s hatred for him so potent? How can Brabantio have “loved” him (Act 1, Scene 3), but be so disgusted by the thought of him as a family member? This marginalisation seems to render Othello socially anxious and insecure. He continually apologises for his “weak merits”, “rude” speech, his ignorance of this “great world” (Act 1, Scene 3), and his lack of the softer parts of “conversation” (Act 3, Scene 3). He unravels too easily, and at the mere thought of Desdemona’s infidelity he farewells his entire “occupation” (Act 3, Scene 3); it seems he is nothing without her. Perhaps the fact that Othello and Iago are excluded from the inner circle can help to clarify Iago’s motivation, and explain Othello’s rashness. One wreaks havoc because he has been somewhat devalued and the other destroys himself over insecurities of his otherness.
Manhood and the Military
During the Renaissance, masculine identity was strongly tied to ideas of authority and power, hence the reason male rulers of the period depicted themselves in armour, whether they were active in military or not. This is very much the world of Othello. Shakespeare’s title character is aware that there is currency in his masculine, military skillset and this is the only way he knows how to define himself. In fact, he seems to equate his success in love and society with his success as a soldier. In recalling his wooing of Desdemona, he states; “She loved me for the dangers I had passed / and I loved her that she did pity them.” (Act 1, Scene 3)
Othello recalls Desdemona proclaiming that she wished “That heaven had made her such a man.” (Act 1, Scene 3) This could be read in multiple ways. Desdemona could be simply praising Othello as a heavenly being, however we can also assume that Desdemona wishes she had access to the male realm of prestige and power. This is likely, considering her bold choice to travel to the harsh environment of Cyprus.
With the Turkish forces sunk and Othello now an idle soldier, he has lost the male arena in which he defines himself and feels most uneasy in the private, intimate, or internal. As jealousy consumes him, he farewells his sanity using military imagery; “Farewell the plum’d troops and the big wars that make ambition virtue.” (Act 3, Scene 3) Othello completely confuses the two realms and he even attempts to convert his death bed into a military shrine; he farewells his audience with a reminder of the “service” (Act 5, Scene 2) he has done the state. He must remain in the masculine realm and as Frank Kermode notes in his book Shakespeare’s Language, Othello cannot even confess to weeping in his final hour ‘without explaining that it isn’t his usual practice’.
During the 20th and 21st centuries a number of critics and productions have focused on the relationship between Othello and Iago as possessing a subtext of repressed homosexuality (most notably the 1985 production, starring Ben Kingsley and David Suchet). Particular focus has been given to the analysis of Act 3, Scene 3, in which the vows, declarations and oaths between Iago and Othello have been seen as a dark parody of a heterosexual marriage ceremony. In this interpretation, Iago replaces Desdemona in Othello’s affections and loyalty, and the unrequited nature of Iago’s love for Othello help explain his otherwise motiveless but passionate loathing. It is worth noting that such views of the play are held by a minority of critics and directors, and there are other aspects of sexuality in the play that have drawn much attention.
Iago uses a range of derogatory images to describe women, such as “guinea hen” (Act 1, Scene 3) and “wildcat” (Act 2, Scene 1), and appears to distrust their sexuality in general. He, along with other characters in the play, speak in derogatory terms about Bianca, and Cassio’s amusement at manipulating her reflects a wider misogyny and belief that the sexuality of women is intended for the benefit of men. A number of critics have pondered whether Othello’s idealistic notion of female virtue is symptomatic of his sexual innocence. Elizabethan and Jacobean society considered the Venetian woman to be both beautiful and licentious, and Othello, unversed in Venetian society, is perhaps fearful of this. In general, the men in Othello struggle to define women outside the pure or the promiscuous, yet the women prove more complex and work against this reductive binary. Emilia will only commit adultery to earn her independence, Cassio claims to be Bianca’s “customer” (Act 4, Scene 1) but she proves loyal and determined, and Desdemona cannot even comprehend adultery despite the Venetian stereotype.
Storytelling functions as a complex dramatic device within Othello. In a sense, the characters don’t know which play they are in. Bianca feels she is in a troubled story of unrequited love with a handsome soldier, but Cassio’s story is something very different. Roderigo sees himself as the romantic hero in pursuit of his true love, yet for every character except Iago he is irrelevant. The play is a series of plays within plays, and each story is controlled by a very unreliable narrator, Iago. Iago uses characters against themselves, manipulating their reality to suit his needs. When Cassio bawdily mocks Bianca, he thinks he is engaging in friendly male banter, when he is actually part of something much more sinister.
Othello is all about stories; the lies we tell, our obsessions, the realities we create for ourselves and how we replay them to alter reality. Othello wins Desdemona through storytelling and ironically loses her in the same fashion. Iago plants a story about Desdemona in Othello’s mind and for him it becomes reality. As an audience we watch reality shift and blur and change before our eyes through the power of Iago’s storytelling and the other characters’ willingness to believe fiction, instead of fact.