Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Classic of the Week: Othello

Today’s classic of the week, once again brought to you courtesy of the Shakespeare course I’m taking, is one of the Bard’s plays that isn’t often taught in high school. In many ways it’s the most contemporary of his plays, dealing with racism, suicide and domestic violence. Perhaps that’s the reason that many people won’t encounter this play until university; some of the racial content could be considered offensive. Despite that, I believe that this play is yet another of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. And the play is:

 Othello by William Shakespeare

Iago 'pours poison' into Othello's ear
The basic story of Othello is this: Othello, a victorious, black, General, marries Desdemona, the daughter of a wealthy, white, Venetian nobleman. Othello then promotes his friend, Cassio, to a position of honour. Unfortunately, the villain, Iago, is angry with Othello for promoting Cassio instead of him, and he thinks that Othello has slept with his wife. So Iago decides that he’s going to completely ruin everything by making Othello think that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. To make a long story short, Othello ends up smothering Desdemona and then killing himself when he figures out that she was actually innocent.

You can probably see how this play could be labelled as racist. The basic plot ‘Black Man Kills White Wife’ seems racist right there. Also, the play is full of tiny racial slurs, and Othello is constantly called ‘the Moor,’ which only accents how he’s different. However, I don’t think Othello is a racist play at all. For starters, almost all the racial slurs are spoken either by ignorant characters (such as Roderigo and Brabantio) or by the villain, Iago. Desdemona, the only truly good character in the play, appears to love Othello partly because he is black. It’s also obvious that the true villain is Iago, a white male, not black Othello.
Ian McKellen as Iago

Much like Satan in Paradise Lost, the villain Iago could certainly be labelled the most interesting character. The way he uses words to make innocent Desdemona seem like an adulteress is absolutely fascinating. In a single scene in the middle of the play, he changes Othello’s mind from complete love of Desdemona to saying ‘Why did I ever marry?’ This play is well worth reading just as a lesson in how dangerous words can be.

Othello and Desdemona
In short, Othello is not an easy play to read. Unlike some of his other tragedies, such as Macbeth and King Lear Shakespeare isn’t dealing with ancient matters of kingship and matters involving whole countries. Instead, he focuses in a very personal way on marriage, on friendship, on love and betrayal. The themes in Othello are ones that are extremely applicable today. It is not a dull, out-dated classic by any means. Once you get past the difficult language, you will be astounded by the insight Shakespeare has into human nature. 

1 comment:

  1. I've already studied Othello three times in school, once in high school and twice in college. I think because it deals with issues that can be seen in modern context is why it's been pulled up through school curriculum.
    One of the most interesting thoughts I've heard about this is that Iago is the fallen hero, not Othello. The audience follows Iago more than Othello, and Iago has more monologues than Othello, who does not get one until the end of the play before he kills Desdemona. It's pointed out that since these men trusted Iago so much, losing the position in the military is what his flaw was, and ultimately brought about his own downfall.