Monday, March 31, 2014


THE OUTER LIMITS OF THE WORLD OF OTHELLO are defined by the Turks—the infidels, the unbelievers, the ‘general enemy’. They are just over the horizon, ready to trick and confuse Christians in order to invade their territory and destroy them.

Out beyond the horizon, reported but unseen, are also those ‘anters vast and deserts ide’ of which Othello speaks. Out there is a land of ‘rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven’ inhabited by ‘cannibals that each other eat’ and monstrous forms of men ‘whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.’ On the edges of this land is the raging ocean with its ‘high seas, and howling winds’, its ‘guttered rocks and congregated sands’ hidden beneath the waters to ‘enclog the guiltless keel’.
Within the circle formed by barbarism, monstrosity, sterility and the brute power of nature lie the two Christian strongholds of Venice and Cyprus. 

Renaissance Venice was known for its wealth acquired by trade, its political cunning, and its courtesans; but Shakespeare makes Venice over into the form of The City, the ageless image of government, of reason, of law, and of social concord. The solemn presence and ordering power of the Senate is the most powerful of all.

So, in summary…


At the far edge of the world of Othello are the Turks—barbarism, disorder, amoral destructive powers.


Closer, more familiar, is Venice, The City—order, law and reason. (Iago’s attempts to create civic chaos are frustrated by Othello’s calm management of himself and the orderly legal proceedings of the Senate.)


Standing on the frontier between barbarism and The City, is Cyprus—an outpost, weakly defended and far out in the raging ocean, close to the ‘general enemy’. (Society is less secure than Venice—the island is more exposed to the Turks—and Othello alone is responsible for finding truth and maintaining order.)


From Venice to Cyprus, from The City to the outpost, from organised society to a condition much closer to raw nature, from collective life to the life of the solitary individual.
At the end of the play the movement is back towards Venice, the Turk defeated; but Desdemona, Othello, Emilia and Roderigo do not returen. Their deaths are the price paid for the return.



The vision of human nature which the play offers is one of ancient terrors and primal drives—fear of the unknown, pride, greed, lust—underlying smooth, civilised surfaces—the noble senator, the competent and well-mannered lieutenant, the conventional gentlewoman (the first four characters in the table).

Othello is one of the most formally constructed of Shakespeare’s plays. Every character is balanced by another similar or contrasting character. For example:
·        Desdemona is balanced by her opposite, Iago –love and concern for others on one end of the scale, hatred and concern for self alone at the other.
·        Cassio, true and loyal soldier, balances the false and traitorous soldier Iago.

Sophisticated, civilised Venetian senator
Unable to comprehend that his delicate daughter could love and marry a Moor, speaking excitedly of black magic and spells to account for what his mind can’t understand
Gentleman-soldier, polished in manners and gracious in bearing, wildly drunk and revealing a deeply rooted pride in his ramblings about senior officers being saved before their juniors.
Sensible and conventional waiting woman, making small talk about love and suddenly remarking that though she believed adultery to be wrong, still if the price were high enough she would sell—and so, she believes, would most women.
Conceals beneath his exterior of the plain soldier and blunt, practical man of the world, a diabolism so intense as to defy rational explanation—it must be taken like lust or pride as simply a given part of human nature, an anti-life spirit which seeks the destruction of everything outside of self.
In the beginning, appears as the very personification of self-control, of the man with so secure a sense of his own worth that nothing can ruffle the consequent calmness of mind and manner. But the man who has roamed the wild and savage world unmoved by its terrors, who has not changed countenance when the cannon killed his brother standing beside him, this man is still capable of believing his wife a whore on the slightest of evidence and committing murders to revenge himself.
Here the heart and the hand go together—she is what she seems to be. Ironically, she alone is accused of pretending to be what she is not. Her very openness and honesty make her suspect in a world where few men are what they appear, and her chastity is inevitably brought into question in a world where every other major character is in some degree touched with sexual corruption.