Petter Avén's Reviews > Othello

Othello by William Shakespeare
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Sep 04, 2012

really liked it

“Othello” is a play I looked forward to reading, but my reasons for this are somewhat awkward; they had as much to do with ego as with actual interest. Shakespeare is probably the most renowned playwright in the history of the Western World, but before “Othello” I had still not yet read anything by him in its entirety, only excerpts from various plays. Since I like to consider myself a sophisticated reader, surely I must read more Shakespeare to form a personal opinion of his style. There was also some genuine interest on my part, but it was a far cry from the excitement with which I have begun reading a great many other literary works. My expectations were thus on the whole favorable in regard to “Othello”, and the reading experience was in fact enjoyable, too. The language, while not exactly simple, was none the less enticing, and the dialogue often hilarious even when the meaning was dead serious. I could suddenly understand why people for centuries have flocked to see this play and others like it. Spoken with the right fire and body language, the words are certain to spellbind audiences for generations to come, too.
The roles and themes are likewise very well chosen; they are in a sense timeless because they speak to us as humans, and are therefore always “in”. The main character is largely decent but with one major flaw, jealousy, which dominates his actions. Othello is in that way similar to the main characters in Shakespeare plays likes “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”, who are ruled by indecision and ambition respectively. Jealousy makes Othello susceptible to manipulations by Iago. He himself claims that it was only Iago’s machinations that aroused his jealousy, but clearly he was prone. The morality here is not to believe the worst about your wife and to know yourself, especially your weaknesses lest they be discovered and exploited by your enemies. Other human traits are Iago’s betrayal, brought about by his unrestrained ambition and a feeling of having been passed over for promotion. Iago also successfully pretends to be Othello’s friend while at the same time plotting against him throughout the entire play. Iago has no qualms about dragging other people down along with his enemy, like Desdemona and Cassius. The latter must of course die anyway, so the way for advancement will be clear.
Race is an issue in the play, though less important than it would become in later centuries. Othello is derogatorily called “the Moor” and “the Negro” behind his back by Iago, but this could be just as much a vent for his frustration as a genuine opinion. Nationalities are mixed in the metropolitan city of Venice, but there are clear distinctions between people from perceived civilized nations and barbarian, non-Christian countries. Othello is thus respected for his martial skills, but he is not well seen in social circles. Aware of this, his suspicion towards Desdemona grows.
As with Shakespeare’s other plays, Othello is male centered. The main character is a man and female characters are few, but often colorful. If a female character is silly, so is her husband or lover. Women are often portrayed as physically helpless, and this is particularly well shown by Desdemona’s complete lack of resistance when Othello murders her. Some take firm stands, like Emilia, who goes against her husband Iago when she discovers his plot, but she is promptly murdered for it. I think the women in “Othello” are intended to mirror how men at the time of its writing saw and wanted to see women. The gender roles are set in stone; women are weak and need protecting, while men are strong and can either harm or protect women depending on their mood and morality. A woman who physically defends herself against a man with success would probably be considered scandalous by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. In the tense political and social atmosphere of his time, I cannot really blame him for his chosen gender roles in “Othello”. Men and women live as separate lives in the play as they probably mostly did in the real world, and would do for many more centuries. This faulty pattern of relationship traditionally makes for spectacular misunderstandings with dire consequences in the history of literature. Had only Othello and Desdemona talked with one another then serious misunderstandings between them could have been avoided. Of course, miscommunication between sexes is not something that changing times has altogether erased – far from it. Even though men and women in the Western World of our days live together on more equal terms and probably communicate better than ever, the theme as such is still fertile ground for a good plot.
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