Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ is a play which falls into the tragedy category. The main focus of Shakespearian Tragedies is the idea of the downfall of a hero as a result of a flaw in his character’s qualities (amongst other admired qualities) which eventually becomes fatal to both the hero and those associated with him. In this play, Othello is, indeed, the eponymous hero. However, many would argue that Othello’s fall from grace is in fact a combination of his own nature and the hidden depths of the people he thinks are closest to him; in particular, Iago.
The opening of ‘Othello’ is very dramatic. The audience is presented with a lot of negativity, injustice, prejudice and hatred from the onset. Othello is a black man living in a white society, a soldier in Venice, a country full of civilians. We learn of his marriage to a Venetian woman, Desdemona. For a modern audience, this would not be something of great significance. However, an Elizabethan audience would immediately be shocked when they learn of this. Firstly, the concept of Venetian women marrying outside of Venice, not to speak of marrying outside the race was almost unheard of. Secondly, Venetian women were considered to be very pure, both sexually and in character.
In the eyes of the Venetian society, Desdemona would have made a great marriage for any of Venice’s “curled darlings”. Her family was well respected in Venice, with her father being a senator. However, she chooses to marry Othello – the black man. The black race were, at the time, envisioned as being barbaric and inferior as a result of accounts told by travellers who had visited foreign lands and misinterpreted the different way in which people of other races lived, and also as a result of the slave trade, in which black people were poorly treated. Black men especially were considered to be sexually uncontrollable and were likened to animals such as horses. It is the fact that Desdemona – the ‘pure virgin’ – chooses to marry Othello – “The Moor” – that would have shocked the audience.
These ideas and preconceptions of Othello are initially supported through descriptions of Othello by other characters. Othello is, in fact, an articulate, well-educated gentleman, who seems very worthy of Desdemona’s hand in marriage. However, the audience learns nothing of these fine qualities until Othello is presented to them in person. In an early conversation between Iago and Roderigo in Act I Scene I, the two men abuse “The Moor” and his “thick lips” and later liken him to an “old black ram”. To a modern audience, these racist metaphors would appear extremely harsh and unjust. However, Elizabethan audiences would react differently as such words and terms supported their ideas of the black race. This introduces the ongoing theme of ‘appearance and reality’ in ‘Othello’ and also the theme of conflict.
Throughout ‘Othello’, Shakespeare presents us with two sides of each of the main characters. He shows the audience the side which other characters in the play see – the appearance – and the presents the audience with the side which other characters in the play appear not to see – the reality. This is what initiates a lot of the drama and emotion in the play and also brings about the audience’s involvement in the plot.
The embodiment of the appearance and reality theme appears to be the character of Iago. Iago appears to be Othello’s closest friend and a noble character, yet in reality, he is in fact jealous, deceitful and callous. The first sign of Iago’s jealousy and intended deceit towards Othello is evident in an argument between himself and Roderigo, in which he says:
Though I do hate him as I do hell’s pains,
Yet for necessity of present life,
I must show out a flag and sign of love,
Which is indeed but sign.
It is clear that Iago shows false love towards Othello in order to conceal from him his real feelings of hatred. This hatred is born from the fact that Othello, leader of the Venetian army, chose Michael Cassio, an honourable Florentine, to be his lieutenant, instead of Iago. In fact, the fact that Othello, a foreigner, holds a higher position than Iago in the Venetian army shapes his anger and jealousy. It is this that drives Iago to some of the wicked deeds that he does in the play.
This opening scene introduces almost all of the examples of the appearance and reality theme in ‘Othello’. For the audience, the most significant example of this theme is their introduction to the reality of Othello’s character. Shakespeare’s decision to introduce the audience to Othello after hearing the opinions of other characters on him and having their own preconceptions confirmed through these opinions is very important. The impact this has on the audience is immense because they learn that Othello is actually a man of integrity, calmness and a loving husband – everything they thought him not to be.
Had Shakespeare decided to introduce Othello before, the impact on the audience would have been very different because any amount of trust they had in Othello’s character would have been erased by the opinions of Iago, Brabantio and Roderigo, which would have seemed more believable because of similarities with their preconceptions.
In Act I Scene 2, the audience is made aware of Brabantio’s feelings of anger and bitter betrayal at his daughter, Desdemona, and at Othello because of their “treason of the blood”, their secret marriage. Brabantio even goes as far as commanding his servants, many of which are Othello’s colleagues in the army, to “Get weapons” and hunt both he and Desdemona down. Othello, however, is completely unaware of Brabantio’s anger until Iago warns him of it. There are many things of significance to the audience in this scene.
Firstly, they are allowed to see for themselves Iago’s duplicity and dishonesty. In a conversation with Othello at Othello’s lodgings, Iago claims that he “lacks iniquity”, and that it was only “the little godliness” he had in him that stopped him displaying his own anger at Brabantio’s “provoking terms” used to describe Othello and his marriage to Desdemona. However, the truth of the matter is that Iago in fact orchestrated these “provoking terms” by telling Brabantio of how “the old black ram” was “making the beast with two backs” with his daughter.
Secondly, the audience learn a lot more about the theme of appearance and reality in this scene. A lot of this is achieved through simply watching. For example, they learn that the traveller’s accounts of foreigners are very inaccurate when Othello is presented to them as a very normal, handsome human being with dark skin, and not as the one-eyed monster many of them would no doubt be expecting. They also learn that Othello is held in very high regard in Venice simply by the fact that he has beautiful lodgings and servants. This would leave the audience very stunned and possibly even confused as not only would all of their expectations of Othello have been contradicted, but it would appear that the ‘reports’ of Iago, Brabantio and Roderigo have been false.
All of this is achieved without Othello even speaking. However, the audience is further warmed to Othello when he is called before the senate by Brabantio in Act I Scene 3. He is now aware of Brabantio’s anger, yet he does not appear phased by this, even when he sees Brabantio’s servants, his colleagues, pointing weapons at him. Instead he displays his leadership and authority, ordering them to put way their “bright swords”. Even when Brabantio hurls accusations at him calling him a “foul thief” for using “magic”, “foul charms” and “arts inhibited” to lure Desdemona away from the “curled darlings” of Venice and into his own “sooty bosom”, Othello shows his humility and innocence and his evident respect for Brabantio by listening to everything that the senator has to say before calmly giving his own response.
It is in Othello’s response that the audience truly sees his sincerity and innocence. He refuses to respond or resolve the matter with violence, commanding everybody, both those on his side and those against him, to “hold their hands” and agreeing to answer the “charge” at the council chamber. During Othello’s questioning, Othello delivers a short speech to the senate to explain himself, in which the audience see what seems to be the reality of Othello’s character. Othello tells of the “battles” and “sieges” that he has overcome in order to be in a position where he was accepted by society, he reminisces about how he was “sold to slavery”. Othello explains to the senate how these tales of his troubled past was the only “witchcraft” he used to attract Desdemona’s “greedy ear”. Desdemona loved him for the “dangers” he had passes, and not because he had used dark magic on him.
This short speech seems to win over the Duke and would have provoked the thoughts of the Elizabethan audience. Shakespeare includes a lot of religious language in this speech such as “redemption” and “heaven” to cause the audience to sympathise with Othello’s character. Religion was very important to people of that time and they believed strongly in the evil of witchcraft and dark magic. Hence, by using a lot of Christianity-based images to respond to these accusations of evil-doing, the audience are caused to believe that Othello is incapable of performing such deeds as he has been accused of.
In causing the audience to admire Othello for his calmness and rationality and charisma, Shakespeare uses this act as a transition in the appearance and reality theme. Instead of disliking Othello, he causes the audience to now focus on the wickedness and deceitfulness of Iago. The inclusion of soliloquy towards the end of epitomises the theme of appearance and reality. In the soliloquy, Iago confesses his feelings for Othello to indirectly to the audience: “I hate the Moor”. The fact that this is spoken in soliloquy gives it more impact and meaning because it is a verbal projection of his inner thoughts.
For the audience, this is a dramatic change in events. The appearance and reality theme has slowly developed through the play, beginning with Othello and his surprisingly amiable nature. Following this was the surprising actions of Desdemona, contradictory to the accounts of her father, who painted her as “a maiden never bold; of spirit so still and quiet that her motion blush’d at herself “. Deception is frequent throughout the play and Brabantio summarises this with an inadvertent prophecy, saying:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father and may thee. (1.3.289)
This importance of this is only evident later on in the play during a conversation between Iago and Othello in which Iago attempts to convince Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity. Iago’s hatred and jealousy develops more and more during the play, his civilised exterior concealing a corrupt interior. This theme is shown on a larger scale through the image of Venice: Venice the virgin with its civilised Christians and Venice the whore with its ‘impure’ marriages and women with secret sexual desires, an example being Desdemona.
Act IV Scene 1 is the scene in which the reality of many of the key characters is revealed, particularly the character of Iago. He uses many means of trying to convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. Iago manipulates the main characters one by one, beginning with Cassio and ending with Othello.
When Iago first mentions the concept of Desdemona’s infidelity, Othello shows that his faith in her is very strong by dismissing the idea immediately in a logical and controlled manner, insisting that “If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself” and that, because he saw no evidence of it, “it harmed not” him.
However, constant and clever manipulation by Iago causes him to begin to show doubts. He asks for ocular proof, which Iago gives him in the form of a handkerchief given to Othello by his late mother. The handkerchief therefore plays a central role in breaking Othello’s trust in Desdemona. Iago toys with Othello’s mind, painting revolting sexual pictures of Desdemona and Cassio together:
…as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, (3.3.404-5)
Jealousy now plays one role in two parts in Othello’s demise. Jealousy on Othello’s part is causing him to be easily misled by Iago, to the point where he believes his wife, who went against her father’s wishes to marry him, is having an affair with his former loyal and trusted lieutenant, Cassio, and to the point wear he wants to “tear her all to pieces!”. However, jealousy on Iago’s part is the main factor in the situation. He is unable to accept that a “Moor” and an alien like Othello has more authority and recognition than he does and appears to be a better man than himself. This is what drives him to commit such a pitiless act.
Tension develops in the audience as they watch this dramatic change in Othello’s character. In the Elizabethan period, the audience would begin to think twice about Othello and wonder whether he is in fact the stereotype that Roderigo, Iago and Brabantio described him to be at the start of the play: the wild and barbaric moor. However, the modern audience would possibly pay more attention to Iago’s motives and deception and sympathise more with Othello, because they would be aware of the inaccuracy of the stereotypical conceptions of Othello.
The fact that the audience can see both the appearance and the reality is what creates the tension and drama in ‘Othello’. They are able to see Iago manipulate character after character in during his orchestration of Othello’s demise. They are able to see Othello’s good and trusting nature manipulated and capitalised on. They are able to see both sides of every story. Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to show that there are hidden depths to everything that appears to be civilised.
I believe that Shakespeare’s aim when writing ‘Othello’ was to show the audience that what one sees or hears is never what one gets. He challenges the audience’s ideas about what is civilised and what is uncivilised. Venice, the setting for ‘Othello’ seemed to be the model for the ideal society. However the reality of Venice was actually hidden under a blanket of lies, deceit and false stereotypes. Each of these aspects is clever represented by different characters in the play.