How William Shakespeare Presents Othello in Act 1
Shakespeare successfully creates ambiguity in his portrayal of
Othello's character. He is seen as a man of opposing qualities and is
presented as both an animalistic and intensly passionate foreigner, as
well as a trusted, noble and honourable General in the Venetian army.
Shakespeare was interested in the whole question of actors playing
roles where they could convince an audience that they were something
they were not such as a saint or a woman. The idea was that if an
actor could seem to be a certain character, then how was it possible
to distinguish in real life whether a person was what he seemed and
whether an outside appearance masked an inner reality.
From the start of the play, Shakespeare manages to introduce doubt
about Othello's character. Although the characters briefly refer to
his ability as a soldier and his value to the Venetian state, for the
entire scene, they speak of him in a derogatory way. They make
repeated racial comments about Othello referring to him as 'the Moor'
and 'thick lips'. Their racist insults suggest Othello's animalistic
behaviour, especially Iago's crude suggestion to Brabantio that 'an
old black ram/is tupping your white ewe'. The insults also suggest
that Othello is dishonest and that he has 'robb'd' Brabantio of
Desdemona. Brabantio continues to accuse Othello of being a 'foul
thief' and that Desdemona was 'stol'n'.
The impression is also conveyed that Othello, because of his race, has
mysterious qualities that enable him to practice witchcraft. Iago
refers to him as the 'devil', which suggests he is linked to evil and
Roderigo suggests that Desdemona has been transported 'To the gross
clasps of a lasciovious Moor'. The association was that black people
from foreign countries were extremely lustful and sensuous. This view
of Othello is supported by A C Bradley who saw him as a romantic,
exotic and mysterious hero and his suggestion is that he is one of the
greatest lovers in literature. Roderigo accuses Othello of being a
'wheeling stranger/Of here and everywhere' which suggests that he's a
wandering vagrant, the idea that he is a threat to the stability of
the civilized Venetian society. This view was common in Elizabethan
society with negroes and moors being considered a problem in England
in 1601. Elizabeth 1 issued two edicts for the deportation of their
return to Barbary after it was decreed that too many had crept into
England. By presenting Othello as the black hero and setting him
against Iago, and evil, 'black' man, Shakespeare is reversing the
racist prejudice of his time, that evil is indicated by skin colour.
There is a lack of Christian attitude and behaviour in Barbantino,
Roderigo and Iago which ironic and casts doubt on the supposed
superiority of their culture and...