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The Tragedy of Othello

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The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice was composed by William Shakespeare in 1603 and first performed on the 1st of November 1604. A manifestation of the Un Capitano Moro authored by the Italian Cinthio (1565) the play is a ‘domestic tragedy and it is the intimacy of its subject matter which gives it its dramatic power… a faithful portrait of life with which we are daily and hourly conversant’ (anonymous). A literary exploration of the conscious, the plays core focus is that of Othello’s downfall – a once valiant Moor, husband to the sweet venetian Desdemona, Othello is motivated by jealousy and doubt which the cunning and malignant Iago utilises to convince him of his wife’s infidelity. Othello’s rash and passion derived actions result in his tragic suicide and murder of the innocent Desdemona. A product of the human neurosis, Othello highlights the inextricable link binding the innate disposition to discriminate the other, experience extreme emotion and develop a sense of self with universality, maintained relevance and textual integrity.

The conformism and subversion of the immortal intangible notion of the ‘racial other’, the product of societal constructs a text claims universality, relevance and textual integrity congruently. In Act 1, Scene 1 Iago ‘evokes the idea of unbridled black sexuality’ (Michael Neill) in his indecorous and violent address to Brabantio concerning Desdemona and Othello’s union, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe…The devil will make a grandsire of you” the synecdoche ‘tupping’ in conjunction with the emphasis on the racial juxtaposition highlights the corruption of Desdemona’s innocence. The graphic zoomorphic, bestial parallels are reflective of the bestial and barbarous nature ascribed to Moor’s which along with the repetitive asyndeton ‘even now, now, very now’ relays the alarm of such interracial relationships as ‘White male characters in Othello, especially Iago, feel threated by the power and potency of a different and monstrous sexuality Othello represents’ (Newman). The biblical allusion to the devil in reference to the lover’s potential offspring, once more highlight the fear of miscegenation. The critic Stanley Cavell highlights the ‘satanic cores in the etymologies of the lovers Othello and Desdemona – hell and demon respectively’. Othello incorporates the term ‘hell’, a religious allusion to the host of evil representing the “Theatrical embodiment of the dark, threatening powers at the edge of Christendom” (Vitkus). Desdemona in incorporating the term ‘demon’ whom spawn and reside in hell highlights through new historicism the negative connotations and attitudes towards miscegenation represented by the pairs union. Through demonstrating Othello as the source and concentration of evil whilst Desdemona is presented as a manifestation of such evil, a demon who in Christian tradition is an evil angel (revelation 12:7-9) affirms her connection with Othello has made her once angelic nature impure and evil. However, “by making the black Othello a hero and Desdemona’s love for Othello… sympathetic, Shakespeare’s play challenges the racial, sexist and colonialist views of his society.” (Newman). The symbolic nature of the plays setting, Venice the “idealised city of classical theory – a place where the turbulence of individual emotion is subject to the rational calm of authority” and Cyprus “belongs to the stormy domain of passions…suspended between this epitome of northern civilisation and southern, barbarous/exotic Africa” (Neill) positions Othello and Desdemona as chremamorphic foils. The purity and innocence of Venice, a sophisticated and ordered society lends its nature to the “maid so tender, fair and happy” (Act 1, Scene 2: 68, Brabantio). The triadic epimone utilised regarding Desdemona emphasises through positive connotations her beautiful and exquisite nature reflecting that of the Venetian society. In juxtaposition in Act 4, Scene 1 Lodovico alludes to the Cyprian environment as the cause of Othello’s evolution from the ‘seemingly noble Moor to the incoherent savage, delivering the barbarous self the black visage promised’ (D’Amico) as illustrated by, “Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate/ Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature/ Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue/ The shot of accident nor dart of chance/Could neither graze nor pierce” The triadic rhetorical questions allude to and are a pastiche of Othello’s neurosis which has unravelled in light of a reversion to his former barbarous and savage nature which is reinforced by the violent metaphor. Shakespeare critiques the coloniser and their actions through the symbolic nature of the relationship of Iago and Othello. Iago (coloniser) manipulates Othello (colonised) and as the “colonial subject is subordinate to its coloniser” it exhibits through the post-colonial the negative and damaging aspects of colonisation, “He uses Othello’s unstable position and internalised otherness to manipulate him” (Čađo). A manifestation of social anxieties concerning racial otherness, Othello simultaneously adheres to and challenges prejudice generating through the parallel to our similarly maintained notion of juxtaposing acceptance and discrimination within society universality and sustained relevance. As Michael Neill observes “Othello began to displace both Hamlet and King Lear as critics and directors alike began to trace in the cultural, religious and ethnic animosities of its Mediterranean setting, the genealogy of the racial conflicts that fractured their own societies.” Othello claims textual integrity and continued significance through its inextricable link to current society, textual integrity, intertextuality and culture and the sustained theme of racial otherness.

One’s sense of self is a ‘a fluid, dynamic conception of the self as an ensemble of possible selves, or a matrix of all that we have it in us to become’ (Bradshaw) constantly evolving in response to the external environment rather than the constant idealised sense of self subconsciously attributed to one’s identity. Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Othello, feature’s the most fluid ‘inner self’ as he is easily manipulated by his external environment, namely Iago who leads him to stray from the ‘Noble Moor’ who believed “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul/Shall manifest me rightly.” (Act 1, Scene 2). The epithet, ‘noble’ attributed to Othello in the genesis of the play illustrate his to be a character of admirable action and personality which coupled with his early belief of moral superiority and righteousness exhibited by the synecdoche polysyndeton triad reflect his perception of a morally untarnished internal ‘self’. Act 4, Scene 2 debuts Othello’s, ‘Had it pleas’d heaven’ speech

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