William Shakespeare’s Othello has the ability to speak to audiences from different eras and contexts because he is vitally interested in the exploration of the human condition. Through his characters, he is able to dramatise such ideas and emotions as a hero’s tragic downfall and marginalisation of certain groups of the society. While certainly reflecting the values of his Jacobean context, contemporary audiences are still affected by the plight of his tragic hero. (elaborate)
In the play, Othello is characterised as an honourable man of high status, overcome and undermined by the deceitful actions of the antagonist, Iago. The high opinion of Othello is reinforced by the conduct of the Duke in the first Act, as he fails to notice Brabantio, “I did not see you: welcome, gentle signor”, in his fervor of greeting Othello. This hasty reception portrays a direct contrast to the warm and respectful tones with which Othello is addressed: “Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you!
However, the fragilities of Othello’s character, mainly jealousy, in conjunction with Iago’s deceptive behaviours, lead to his ultimate undoing, as demonstrated by Othello’s overly trusting disposition, particularly in relation to the “honest Iago” repeated numerous times during the course of the play; his underestimation of Iago’s deceitful nature; and his inability to see reason when he is informed of Desdemona’s infidelity. Audience members are intended to view Othello with sympathy, in contrast to Iago, who demonstrates the manifestation of evil within the play.
In the opening scene, Iago reveals the duplicitous nature of his character, “I am not what I am”; and through dramatic irony, his intentions of undermining Othello: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him”. Iago’s use of bestial imagery further displays his base intentions, as he uses obscene language to inform Brabantio of the sexual relations between Othello and Desdemona, in the metaphor: “Your daughter and the moor are now making the beast with two backs. ”
The characterisation of these prominent individuals is supported by Oliver Parker’s filmic adaptation of Othello. Othello is portrayed as strong both physically and socially, through his positioning within the foreground of many scenes, and the use of low-angled shots to highlight his dominance. Othello’s influence within society is also exaggerated by his humble eloquence in speech, “Rude am I in my speech, and little blessed with the soft phrase of speech”, and his commanding, yet reverent tone of voice.
In addition, Iago’s two-faced character is reinforced through a series of over-the-shoulder shots, and mise-en-scene, with the presence of shadows and smoke in many scenes, or Iago’s positioning behind barriers, such as bars or windows. Also, the manner in which Iago speaks to the camera, during his soliloquies, with his direct, determined gaze, allows responders to realise his sly intentions. Hence, contemporary viewers can see that Othello’s downfall was inevitable due to the circumstances.
Furthermore, Othello offers a deep insight to the marginalisation and suppression of those who differ from the dominant culture, in terms of race, culture, or societal standing. The tragic demise of Othello, a black man residing within a white society, can be justified through the play, as his insecurities and vulnerabilities, derived from racial differences, are exploited. Racial mixing, functions as a crucial foundation, providing a catalyst for Othello’s destruction.
The notion of “racial mixing” arises through Othello’s acceptance of certain Venetian traits, while still retaining aspects of his own cultural background. As a result, Othello becomes an amalgamation of European and African cultures. This can be clearly seen in Parker’s film, through costuming, as Othello’s alien origins are emphasised clearly through the incongruity of his visible battle scars, African tattoos and jewellery, and bald head. Shifts in clothing, from the traditional Italian jackets and doublets to his “Moorish” turbans and flowing gowns, openly promote this mix of cultures.
The recurring motif of black and white entwined hands, throughout the play of Othello represents the abnormal joining of Othello and Desdemona, and also of two opposing cultures. As a result, hostility towards the “moor” is stirred. This prejudice can be identified through the numerous racial slurs utilised by various characters. Much animal imagery is employed, as is the use of colour, to debase and demoralise Othello’s African heritage. Iago and Roderigo are the most obvious perpetrators of such racial remarks, as they refer to the “thick lips” and “gross clasps of the lascivious Moor”.
A metaphor of the relationship between Desdemona and Othello: “Now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”, also reinforces this derogatory stereotyping. The juxtaposition of black and white is further emphasised in the opening scenes of Parker’s film. Set at night, Othello is first portrayed as a mysterious character, shrouded in darkness. He is clothed in a dark, “Moorish” robe, and is wearing a white mask, symbolic of his adoption of some cultural aspects of European Society.
Similarly, the mise-en-scene of Othello’s bedroom, consisting of an unlikely blend of Western and Eastern architecture, highlights his exoticism. Othello’s alienation and “racial mixing” is clearly accentuated in the play. Great hostility is heaped upon Othello, due to his “unnatural” union with Desdemona, despite his attempts to adopt the social values of the dominant European Society. This rejection of an honourable and noble man leaves the audience feeling disconcerted, a sentiment intensified by Othello’s ultimate acceptance: “for I am black, and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have”.
Large aspects of the play highlight and oppose some of the traditionally accepted viewpoints of the play, in particular the roles of women and men. A stereotypical view regards women as the emotional, weak and submissive sex, resulting in their elimination from positions of high power. Women were seen as objects, to be used or manipulated, a view upheld through Iago’s line: “Look to your house, your daughters, and your bags”, as he likens women to mere possessions.
In contrast, the male was traditionally seen as the stronger, wiser, and more reliable of the sexes, who should be involved in the processes of leadership and planning, as demonstrated by Lodovico’s praise of Othello: “the noble Moor, whom our full Senate call all-in-all-sufficient”. Thus, we can see how Othello examines how women are economically, socially, politically and psychologically oppressed in a Patriarchal society. Base use of animal imagery by Iago demonstrates the common stance on women: “wild-cats in your kitchens… players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds. “