It is without a doubt that Shakespeare chooses to expound on the concept of the outsider in the first two acts of the play because this concept or theme will be of paramount importance especially in the later parts of the play. Shakespeare seeks to craft this concept of the outsider in a dramatically effective manner by giving definition to what constitutes being an outsider and what are the implications of being an outsider. This essay ultimately argues that Shakespeare does an excellent job in setting the stage for dramatic tension and conflict in the later acts. However, the inherent flaw in Shakespeare’s dramatic presentation of the outsider remains the extremeness and sheer implausibility of the play’s events in reality.
The very first hint on what an outsider is manifests itself in Iago’s complaints regarding Othello and his chosen lieutenant, Michael Cassio. Shakespeare specifically constructs a scene whereby issues of hierarchy and power gets thrown about in Iago and Roderigo’s conversation. Here, Shakespeare highlights the differences between an ensign and a lieutenant. In act one, scene one, Iago’s cries of society being unfair to him, in “And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient” and “preferment goes by letter and affection And not by old gradation” can be seen. Shakespeare took this opportunity to show how positions in hierarchy brought prestige and advantages. Hence, the “insiders” possess things that distinguish themselves from the “outsiders”. In this case, the senators and powerful Venetian folk were on the inside and the ordinary citizens were on the outside. Iago’s perception that he was on the outside would eventually lead him to struggle for recognition and acceptance through manipulating others. Therefore, Shakespeare effectively sets the stage for dramatic tension in the later acts by capitalising on Iago’s discontent in being an outsider.
Still on the issue of differences, we see that Shakespeare attempts to define these differences not only in terms of hierarchy, but also in terms of race and gender. The vile and base imagery in the description of Othello by Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio accentuates the notion of acceptable prejudice. Iago exclaims. “an old black ram is tupping on your white ewe” to Brabantio, while Roderigo refers to Othello as thicklips in “what a full fortune does the thicklips owe”. Even Brabantio, as esteemed senator employs prejudice against Othello by accusing him of witchcraft and referring to him as the Moor. “Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, Sans witchcraft could not.” Once again, Othello assumes the role of the racial outsider to the Venetian Whites. Along with it, he also becomes synonymous with the negativity of the witchcraft and the inferiority of his race. In doing so, Shakespeare lays the foundation for Othello’s insecurities with himself and his skin colour when dealt with the news of Desdemona’s betrayal later in the play.
In the misogynistic society of Venice, the women inevitably take on the role of the outsiders in relation to the men. Iago, once again, full of prejudice, verbally attacks Emilia in act two. “Saints in your injuries, devils being offended, Players in your housewifery, and housewives in… Your beds!” He also adopts a derogatory attitude towards women in general, as seen in “There’s none so foul, and foolish thereunto, but does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do.” He accuses every single woman of being pretentious and hypocritical, attacking the sexuality and implying an inherent and vile sexual nature of women. Once again, we see how Shakespeare highlights the differences between the genders through Iago’s condemnation of women. Therefore, Shakespeare foreshadows the treatment of Bianca by Cassio in the later acts.
In all of these examples, we see how Shakespeare creates stunningly complex characters that seem to mirror a typical individual’s struggle as an outsider to gain acceptance as an insider. Othello’s fight for recognition as the best soldier in Venice as well as Iago’s constant efforts to undermine others for his personal gain all accentuate this point. However, Shakespeare seems to have oversimplified certain aspects of the play, especially with regards to the concept of the outsider. An example would be the Duke’s answer to Othello and the calm nature in which he assessed the case. “To vouch this is no proof, Without more certain and more overt test.” The Duke seems to be calm and certain that Othello cannot be accused simply because of his race. Even after Desdemona’s admittance and confession, the Duke stood firmly with Othello, and instead advises Brabantio, “What cannot be preserved when fortune takes, Patience her injury a mockery makes.” The implausibility of such judgement by the duke stems from the fact that Othello was still an outsider, no matter how successful he was on the battlefield. What basis did the Duke have to conclude that Othello was not going to turn his back on Venice and its daughters? The inhabitants of 17th century Elizabethan England would have had this very same question in their heads.
Therefore, although Shakespeare was successful in providing and laying a foundation for the later acts, building on the concept of the outsider and the dynamics of the relationship between the outsiders and insiders, he stopped short of explaining some of the more pertinent issues revolving around the outsider. In this case, the plot lacked verisimilitude, then and now.