William Shakespeare's Works/Tragedies/Othello

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Othello is one of Shakespeare's four great tragedies. The tragic hero, Othello, becomes consumed by jealousy when his ensign, Iago, convinces Othello of his wife's infidelity.

ACT 1. SCENE I. Venice. A street.[edit]

This play opens with a bang as the author sets up the characters and action in one movement. First we are introduced to Iago and Roderigo, who are talking outside Senator Brabantino's balcony. They speak of Othello as if he were something other than human, an outsider, an animal. He is presented as the dark violator of the purity and innocence of the senator's daughter Desdemona. The imagery is of a horse copulating and begetting other horses, of creating the "beast with two backs'. If the audience believes what Iago says about Othello he is seen as a despicable villain.

We are given a window into the darkness that lies within Iago, who is possibly Shakespeare's most malevolent character. Iago openly professes his hatred for the Moor. At the same time Iago is powerful in his ability to manipulate others as we see him leading Roderigo by the hand to the senator's window. This comes in to play later in the play as Iago continues to connive others in order to appease his own jealousy and desire for vengeance.

Iago's words about Cassio reveal a bit about his proposed movivation: Othello passed Iago up to give an important promotion to Cassio. Iago describes Cassio as a mathemetician or theoretician, someone who knows only theory and no practise. We can see Iago in contrast as someone without scruples, who is willing to use any means to achieve the (evil) end he desires.

We are left wondering, who is this mysterious man, Othello ? Are the things he is accused of true ? And feeling apprehension about his accused violation of the young Desdemona.

This scene contains one of my favorite lines:

Brabantio: Thou art a villain.

Iago: You are--a senator.

This displays both Iago's quick wit, total cynicism and shamelessness in wrongdoing even in the face of authority. Besides being very funny.

Also in this scene we see Roderigo as a bit of a bumbler, a follower and at a loss when not directed by Iago.

Notice that Iago leaves before his presence can be detected. Throughout the play he works to be an invisible force working against the best interests of the other characters, especially Othello.

Iago is a destroyer and detests authority.

ACT 1. SCENE II. Another street.[edit]

Iago is suddenly a different man, prostrating himself before Othello and professing a foolish lack of self-defending iniquity.

When the senator arrives to confront Othello, the Moor's following lines quickly show him to be a person of noble character:

Othello:
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Good signior, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons.

Othello is not afraid or defensive, rather he is respectful towards the elder senator. Another man would wet his pants at the sight of a group of men with swords drawn in his opponence, but Othello delivers them a toungue-in-cheek, tension-diffusing response. Even when the senator charges ahead with threats and accusations the Moor is unshaken, inviting the senator to another place to speak.

In all the audience is presented with an Othello entirely different than the one suggested by third person in the first scene.

ACT 1. SCENE III. Settling a Family Issue.[edit]

The duke and the senators discuss the movement of the Turkish fleet and conclude that its direct is Cyprus. When Barbantio and Othello arrive, the duke insist that Barbantio support the claim that Othello bewitched Desdemonia with evidence. At Othello's suggestion, the Duke sends for Desdemonia.

ACT 3. SCENE III. The garden of the castle.[edit]

Shakespeare was a Stoic refers to Iago's line

    Who steals my purse steals trash...

by referencing Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation:

    The outstanding discovery of recent historical and
    anthropological research is that man's economy, as a rule,
    is submerged in his social relationships.  He does not act
    so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession
    of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social
    standing, his social claims, his social assets.  He values
    material goods only in so far as they serve this end.