Shakespearean tragedies follow an accepted formula: they are about an articulate, social authority, someone who is “important”, within his society; this hero has at least one weakness or fault – a tragic flaw – which during the course of the drama grows until it overcomes his virtues and leads to his downfall, death and the destruction of his world. For Othello, however, this is slightly different as he is not royalty, merely someone in command and is also a Moor. Shakespeare was able the show his ideas of Elizabethan times in his plays to all members of society through his diverse language. He was able to use high language to appeal to upper class, well educated people ‘lavicious’ and use humorous, sexual innuendos and common language to appeal to the poorer, lower class people ‘old black ram tupping your white ewe’. By doing this, he was able to speak and relate to a wide audience. In many Shakespeare plays, he makes connections to his belief in fate and destiny or the intervention of some force over which humans have no control. This may complicate the plot but does not bring about the downfall of the hero and he ultimately chooses it for himself by his actions. This play was one of the first Shakespearean plays to explore racism and in a way, the audience was encouraged to support difference. Beginning with the opening lines of the play, Othello remains at a distance from much of the action that concerns him. He is constantly objectified as different or by otherness. Roderigo and Iago refer to a “he” or “him” for much of the first scene. When they begin to specify whom they are talking about, they do so with racial nicknames. These include “the Moor”, “the thick-lips”, “an old black ram”, and “a Barbary horse”. Othello’s status as an outsider may be the reason he is such easy prey for Iago. Those who consider Othello their peer, such as Desdemona and Brabantio, nevertheless seem drawn to him because of his exotic qualities. Othello is also able to captivate his peers through his speech and language which changes depending on his state of mind. He holds full power in his marriage, although at times it would seem that he is little more than Iago’s puppet in his marriage with Desdemona. Like the audience, Desdemona seems able only to watch as her husband is driven insane with jealousy. For Othello and Desdemona’s marriage, there is a clear gender power distribution. Desdemona is a more reasonable, well-rounded character. Initially, Desdemona is portrayed as weak and submissive in her relationships. However, at points throughout the play we see her as strong and independent such as in her first speech “My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty”. Desdemona is young, sexual, and recently married. She later displays the same mischievous wit in Act III, scene iii, when she attempts to persuade Othello to forgive Cassio. It would seem that she has no real power in her relationship and is a mere object or trophy to Othello’s achievements. In comparison to other female characters, Desdemona is sweet, innocent and easily manipulated. We see a strong, almost mother-daughter bond between her and Iago’s wife, Emilia. Emilia is a lot more confident and strong-willed, although at times she appears jealous of the attention Desdemona receives. Both these women step outside what society deemed acceptable of women at that time by speaking out and questioning men. Cassio’s Girlfriend, Bianca is completely different. She seems to stay in the social expectations of women in these times and dresses more appealing to men. However, they all have no power in their relationships with their partners along with all women in this social context. Perhaps the greatest villain in Shakespeare, Iago is fascinating for his most terrible characteristic: his complete lack of convincing motivation for his actions. At first, he claims to be angry at Othello for having passed him over for the position of lieutenant. Later, Iago says he thinks Othello may have slept with his wife, Emilia: “It is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets”. Iago mentions this suspicion again explaining that he lusts after Desdemona because he wants to get even with Othello “wife for wife”. None of these claims seems to adequately explain Iago’s deep hatred of Othello. He is willing to take revenge on anyone—even Emilia—at the slightest provocation and enjoys the pain and damage he causes. Iago has a way with words, changing his language to suit his intentions or victim. He is regarded by all of being ‘honest’ which is probably why his plan succeeded and no-one is aware of his scheming until it’s too late. He lies in all his relationships, yet they all appear so strong and unbreakable. Iago adapts a strong use of soliloquys and sides, to catch the audience up to where he is at in his plot of vengeance. He is a complex character who, even in the end, is unreadable by the audience “I am not what I am”. “I hate the moor” shows his true intentions but clearly Othello continues to trust him In all relationships we face, power is inescapable. Shakespeare vividly demonstrates a range of relationships between Desdemona and Othello, Iago and Othello and shows the audience that power is always present. Shakespeare is able to make the audience question human relationships and how they work. We come to understand that the seed of tragic outcomes lie within the flawed personality of each character.
BY HAYLEY MURRAY