“Othello” An Introduction
“Othello” – A Shakespearean Tragedy “Othello” is a Shakespearean Tragedy It encompasses the elements of tragedies: By the end, numerous characters have died, including the title character It involves historical and military details The protagonist has a fatal flaw, as well as having admirable traits The protagonist has the capacity for both good and evil The protagonist can exercise free will at any time to change the tragic course of events; however, he does not choose to redeem himself until it is too late.
The world’s greatest… By the time he’d written “Othello” (around 1604) Shakespeare was considered the greatest playwright of his day. Many feel that Shakespeare's later plays show a darker, more pessimistic view of the world than his early plays. Under James I (his rule is referred to as the Jacobean period), England lost some of its power and prosperity. Also, conflicts between Catholics and Protestants led to civil strife. Whereas Shakespeare's earlier plays reflected Elizabeth's golden reign, by 1604, when Othello was first produced, the headiness of the Elizabethan period had ended. Hence, unlike his other tragedies, at the end of the play there is no resolution of the conflict.
The Plot The plot for Othello was developed from a story in Cinthio's collection, the Hecatommithi, which it follows closely. The only named character in Cinthio's story is "Disdemona", which means "unfortunate" in Greek; the other characters are identified only as "the standard-bearer", "the captain", and "the Moor". The first known performance of the play occurred on November 1st 1604 at Whitehall Palace in London.
Othello – a moor Othello is described in the play as a moor, and a general in the Venetian Army. The origin of the word “moor” comes from the word “mauri” which was used to describe a group of people called the Berbers, who came from North Africa.
What does it mean to be Moorish? Moors were characterised in Elizabethan England as being alternately or simultaneously noble or monstrous, civil or savage. It was often the case (in literature) that a moor was presented as someone accepted by society to a certain point, but then rejected due to other factors.
Iago Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains, often considered so because of the unique trust Othello puts in him, which he betrays while maintaining his reputation of honesty and dedication. Shakespeare contrasts Iago with Othello’s nobility and integrity. Iago is a malcontent – he has a bitter and cyncial view of the world around him. The name Iago is a shortened version of the Spanish name “Santiago” or “St James”. Saint James of Spain was also known as “St James the Moor Killer” which seems appropriate within the play.
Winning a fair lady… Men were expected to go through distinct stages of courtly love in order to woo a woman. It was thought that love wasn’t entirely platonic, but that it was based on sexual attraction. As the etiquette of courtly love became more complicated, the knight might wear the colours of his lady: blue or black were the colors of faithfulness; green was a sign of unfaithfulness. The stages of courtly love: Attraction to the lady Worship from afar Declaration of devotion Virtuous rejection by the lady Renewed wooing Complaints of approaching death due to lovesickness Heroic deeds of valor Consummation of secret love Endless adventure and secrecy to avoid detection
The Wife’s Status A typical wife receiving her instruction The husband: head of the household, gives moral direction to his wife and children--who sit obediently listening. “Ye women, submit your selves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the wife's head, even as Christ is the head of the Church…as the Church … is subject unto Christ: so likewise let the wives be in subjection unto their own husbands in all things” (The Book of Common Prayer)
Evil Women! The men in “Othello” have differing views of women – from Othello who idolizes his wife (Desdemona) to Iago who sees love as "merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will“. The attitudes of the audience at the time are likely to have been varied too. In the Elizabethan times there was a long and well established tradition in the Church of what we would now call misogyny – women were distrusted simply because they were women. At the time it was assumed that women would cheat on their husbands– it was part of their nature!
The Cuckold Any man whose wife cheated on him (without his knowledge) was known as a cuckold. The word derives from “cuckoo” – the bird known for laying their eggs in another’s nest. It was highly undesirable to be considered a cuckold. All of the community would find out about it and it was considered a public humiliation. Cuckolds were often described as having horns – a throw-back from the days when a cuckold was forced to parade around his town wearing antlers as a sign of his wife’s infidelity.
Jealousy Jealousy was viewed as something irrational and linked to the deadly sin of envy. It was viewed as a sudden infection against which there was no prevention or cure. It was thought of as eroding trust and it dissolved the bonds holding together marriages, families and social frameworks. Being jealous could let in evil and chaos and it was a state greatly feared by Shakespeare’s audiences.
Task On the following slide are some lines spoken by, or about, various characters in the play – consider what you think each quotation reveals about the person speaking/being spoken about and what they are like as a character.
Iago - describing Othello: “loving his own pride and purposes” Iago - speaking about his relationship with Othello: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him” Iago - speaking about himself: “I am not what I am”. Iago - speaking about Othello: “The state cannot with safety cast him; for he’s embarked with such loud reason to the Cyprus wars” Othello - speaking about himself: “My parts, my title and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly” Othello - about Iago: “A man he is of honesty and trust”. Othello – to an angry Brabantio: “Hold your hands, were it my cue to fight , I should have known it”.
Jealousy and Deception Do you consider yourself to be a jealous person? Why? Have you ever deceived anyone? Why? Is jealously acceptable in a relationship? Is it ever okay to knowingly deceive someone?
Quotations on Jealousy – Do you agree? Love sees sharply, hatred sees even more sharply, but jealousy sees all because it is both love and hatred at the same time. Jealousy is nothing more than a fear of abandonment. In jealousy there is more self-love than love. A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity
Quotations on Deception – Do you agree? We are never deceived, we deceive ourselves It is better to get something worthwhile done using deception than to fail to get something worthwhile done using truth. Truth lives on in the midst of deception.
Today’s society - TASK Think about the cultural rules you live by as you consider the following questions. Discuss the questions with a partner. Present your conclusions to the class in a 2 minute summary. Justify your claims. What rules dictate the behaviour of young men and women in relationships today? What are the things “nice girls” just don’t do? What are the things “nice boys” just don’t do? What do you think the consequences are of breaking these rules?