Shakespeare’s works continue to promote intellectual discussion across all spectrums of academic discourse in schools and universities. The universality of his themes, such as jealousy, love and revenge manifest themselves in the excellently crafted play Othello. The text reveals that such themes transcend time and culture, yet can provide particular insights in to the play’s reception in a historical context; 400 years after initially being composed, it contains issues of inequality relating to class, race and gender which continue to be the focus of modern literary discourse. By overlaying such frameworks onto the text, modern audiences are able to evaluate the extent to which values have changed or remained static despite said contexts.
One of theatre’s key functions is to serve as a cultural artefact, which replicates or challenges the values of the time in which it was composed. Othello achieves this by strongly reflecting and indeed challenging the social attitudes of the time, particularly in relation to gender and race. The analyses of Othello that are contained within this volume demonstrate the multi-faceted nature of the text. Each reading is imbued with its own focus, such as the feminist examination of how the patriarchal nature of Venetian society manifests itself xenophobic ally and works to label women who behave outside expected norms, or the Marxist reading, which considers the effect of class struggle in the text.
Despite these varied focuses, many essays in this volume share similar themes and ideas. Shakespeare’s value as a playwright is indicated by the fact that his works are capable of standing up to such academic dissection and criticism over such a considerable period of time. This introduction will examine how the readings of Othello are reflective of ideological perspectives, and thus how the text can be analysed to reveal its complex and diverse nature.
i. Feminist Interpretation
In the chapter “Black Ram, White Ewe: Shakespeare, Race and Women”, Joyce Green McDonald examines the relationship between racism and misogyny, and how this is reflected in Othello. The primary focus of her argument is on the treatment of women; the way in which their sexuality is transferred into whoredom, and their role in regards to men is ardently specified from birth. The racism displayed in the play, whether subtle or made blatantly obvious, also manifests itself in misogyny towards the three women in the play. McDonald examines these attitudes, and compares them in order to determine the root of the play’s tragedy.
The title of the essay is a reference to Iago’s racist jibe towards Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the beginning of the play:
“Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.”
(I, i, 87-89)
This reinforces both the racial and gender-based stereotypes of the Shakespearean society in relation to Moorish races, despite its setting in Venice. McDonald addresses Shakespeare’s intentions in her chapter, considering Othello a challenge to the values of Elizabethan England, in which women were considered chattel, and black-skinned people were used to “perform social, economic and sexual work necessary to the interests of state authority”. (P192)
Desdemona is referred to as “half [Brabantio’s] soul”; yet this implies ownership, rather than an emotional connection between father and daughter. The language displays the considered distinction between the black and the white – Othello is called an “old black ram”, implying he is a sexual animal, ravishing the pure “white ewe”, Desdemona. This scene is one of the few instances in the play in which a woman is considered vulnerable to sexual coercion, rather than as an amoral temptress. Brabantio is an example of the patriarchal nature of his society, believing that his daughter would only not obey his every will by means of witchcraft:
“That thou has practis’d on her with foul charms,
Abus’d her delicate youth with drugs or minerals,
That weakens motion”
(I, ii, 73-75)
This displays not only his views of women as weak-minded – considering her “delicate” and “abus’d” – but also his racial prejudice towards Othello, believing him to have committed witchcraft in order to ensnare the love of his daughter. McDonald makes an excellent point in considering the true root of Brabantio’s anger – is he more upset that Desdemona has chosen a black man, or that she has chosen for herself at all? All evidence points to the former, with his continued insistence that Desdemona has been seduced by witchcraft, and his intense refusal to believe otherwise.
Throughout the hearing with the Duke and Senators of Venice, he continually asserts the unnaturalness of the love between Othello and Desdemona. This is also a feature of Iago’s language. Brabantio has before welcomed the Moor into his home and considered him a friend, yet cannot accept him as a suitor for his daughter, due to his racial and cultural fear, as well as need to sustain power over Desdemona. Brabantio is a symbol of the patriarchal social system at the base of Elizabethan society. He differs from many of the male characters of Othello, in that he does not hate women; he views them as inferior property and incapable of making their own decisions. McDonald addresses the importance of the play’s opening scenes, and how they establish the degree to which race is measured against class and sexuality.
This is also reflected in relationships in the play other than that of Desdemona and Brabantio. The connection between Othello’s lieutenant Michael Cassio, and the courtesan Bianca is also analysed. Brabantio feels affronted by Iago’s public acclamation of the loss of his daughter by dubious means, fearing that by shouting about his Desdemona in the streets, he is implying whoredom, and thus risking loss of reputation. In the same way later Cassio worries about keeping Bianca sedate, and compromises by dining at her house, fearing “she’ll rail in the streets else”. (IV, i, 163).
Both men are concerned primarily with their reputations, not wanting to be associated with whoredom, and thus risk losing their social status. McDonald also makes a strong point in tying their similarities to Iago. Like Brabantio who partakes of their mutual racism, Cassio shares “an ugly sexual understanding” (P193) with Iago, both relating to the other’s misogynistic view of women. Cassio dismisses Bianca’s love for him, sneering how she “hangs, and lolls and weeps upon me!” (III, iv, 158).
McDonald’s essay is an exploration of the way in which racial and sexual fear is manifested in Othello. It examines the nature of Elizabethan society, and how this is supported and challenged by Shakespeare. As a text, it is an assessment of the racial stereotypes of his era.
The treatment of women is related to this racial and cultural fear, not only in McDonald’s analysis, but also in Othello as a whole. She recognises how the pinnacle of Elizabethan society (meaning the upper-class white male) considered women, and compares it to Othello’s discussion of race and the victimisation of women. Her essay does not particularly address Othello’s own sexual fears and need for control over his wife, diminishing some of its strength as an academic analysis. Othello’s jealousy is demonstrative of his insecurity. He has already displayed his worth to the Venetian society:
“If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.”
(I, iii, 289-290).
However, he remains continually insecure, needing to have complete control over Desdemona, yet remarking to Iago “I had been happy if the general camp… had tasted her sweet body/So had I nothing known” (III, iii, 351-353). The greatest weakness of McDonald’s essay is her failure to address Othello as a character, and his influence in supporting and challenging the racial stereotypes that existed in Elizabethan times, and continue today. The importance of her work is that she foregrounds issues which have previously lacked critical attention.
ii. Marxist Interpretation
Karl Marx considered nearly every aspect of life to relate to consumption and the class struggle, including literature. Liam Fabian evidently agreed with Marx, as becomes apparent in his critical analysis, “Othello: A Study in Class Struggle”. His essay separates the characters into three sections, namely:
1. The Elizabethan aristocracy, meaning those born into wealth and power, such as Brabantio and Rodregio.
2. The rising classes, such as Othello and Cassio; those who worked to rise from their set place in society.
3. The humanists, namely Iago, who believed that they could control their own fate by initiating struggle and overthrow.
Marxist discourse can be applied to Othello by inspecting the ways in which class affects the course of events. By placing the characters in these three categories, Fabian is examining the role of class on their behaviour and actions. Othello, the central figure of the play, has overthrown his set place in society as a black man by earning a position of power, and influencing Desdemona, originally part of the aristocracy, to deny the values of obligation towards her father and society. He epitomises the shift in ideology in regards to the great chain of being that Marx viewed as necessary in order to create revolution. Fabian agrees that Othello is a revolutionary figure, more so than Cassio who rises through the ranks of society on merit, yet generally conforms to Elizabethan codes of behaviour, namely in regards to social etiquette.
However, he argues that the true protagonist and revolutionary of the play is Iago – the character who truly believes in his own right to assert his place in society. As a humanist, he believes in his own control over his fate, yet, Othello thwarts this by choosing Cassio as his right-hand man, despite Iago’s genuine belief that he is more experienced, and thus worthier.
He resents Othello who symbolises the more marginalised race, yet is able to assert his superiority and admiration of the upper classes such as the Duke and his entourage. In a way, he is the initiator of what is representative of the class struggle – he informs Brabantio of his daughter’s elopement, manipulates Cassio into getting drunk on duty and shaming himself, and most obviously manoeuvres Othello into believing his wife is being unfaithful. Fabian views this as a representation of a violent overthrow Marx considered necessary to take the power from the hands of the few, and place instead it in the hands of the many. Iago uses his reputation as honest to manipulate the characters, or the people above him, and eventually remove them from power.
Psychologically, he overthrows Othello, who becomes consumed by jealousy and succumbs to insecurity and paranoia, eventually committing suicide and murdering his wife. However, Iago is foiled – by those who represent the Elizabethan aristocracy. It is his wife Emila who first recognises his plan, and is called a whore and stabbed. Fabian also considered her symbolic of the working class; along with Bianca, the husband and wife attempt to rise above their ranks, and are punished for it.
“Othello: A Study in Class Struggle” is an interesting look at the way in which class can be examined in a performance context. Iago, who is in most circles considered the villain, is almost a character worthy of sympathy, only manipulating people in order to rise above his low place in Venetian society, and bring the power to the working class into play. Fabian looks at Othello as challenging the accepted notions of hierarchal order in Elizabethan society; yet does not express sympathy towards him, as by passing Iago over for promotion, it appears he has forgotten his social roots. It is one of the few Marxist readings that does not ignore the value and place of women within the text; Fabian considers the three women intrinsic to the representations of the class struggle as they also reject accepted codes of behaviour. In this way, his work is an important and original Marxist interpretation of Othello.
The value of this volume is the range of perspectives it offers. This enables the reader to discover and consider new intellectual insights which enlarge former perceptions of the play in its responders. Each analysis contained in this book – whether Freudian, feminist, post-colonialist or Marxist – has, like the Othello itself, a number of merits and insights into society.