Desdemona is obviously the chief of these and is a centre of attention before her entrance in Act I. Two sides of her are shown: the previously obedient daughter and the independent woman.
Her “revolt” from a more natural marriage with one of the Venetian “wealthy curled darlings” (I,ii,67) who had courted her is stressed: whilst demure and innocent, she has the spirit to choose for herself and ignore convention. This determination and verve is demonstrated in her lively and intelligent rebuke to her father:
To you I am bound for life and education …
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father
So much I challenge that I might profess
Due to the Moor, my lord. (I,iii,182ff)
This is unanswerable and Brabantio resigns: he can no longer believe that she was “never bold.” (I,iii,95) We are given an intimate picture of her becoming charmed, not by witchcraft but by the language and narratives of Othello, leaving her domestic chores to listen further and “pity them” (I,iii,168) Her whiteness of skin and soul are emphasised as is her devotion to her new husband and it is clear that she is incapable of wrongdoing – merely of flouting convention. In a ringing declaration of her love (I,iii,246ff}) she shows how she has consecrated herself to him as soldier and man and cannot turn back, preparing to accompany him to Cyprus and renounce the pleasures of civilised life in Venice.
On the quay in Cyprus she engages in witty exchanges with Iago whilst covering her anxiety over Othello’s safety until their joyous reunion: she is capable of concealing some emotions as she can later entertain the dignitaries in the midst of her troubles. the next insight we have is of her offering to assist Cassio in his reinstatement, with prefiguring irony, saying that she will perform this promise “To the last article.” (III,ii,22) Equally fatally, she vows to allow Othello no rest unless he agrees. Unfortunate as she is (by name and role), this promise is carried out with obstinate energy and persistence: even when Othello asks for peace in Act III, scene iii and finally accedes to her wish she continues, somewhat irritatingly: “Why this is not a boon…” (l.76) and threatens to test his love in more ponderous ways. She is bewildered and overcome by Othello’s change of mood and terrified by his story of the importance of the handkerchief, again showing her susceptibility to his stories. A minor lapse of honesty in the sense ot truth-telling occurs when she will not admit the handkerchief is lost but this is the result of her terror.
Foolishly, she presses on with her suit before finally accepting that Othello’s “clear spirit is”puddled” (III,iv,139) In the “brothel” scene (IV,ii) she is again at a loss and this confusion resulting from a broken heart lasts until the end of the play, though her love for Othello never falters. So far is she from being unfaithful that she cannot even speak the word “whore” (l. 125). The emblematic “Willow Scene” (IV,iii) is full of pathos, the music adding a new dimension to the dramatic mood. When she speaks kindly of Lodovico it is because he defended her when Othello struck her in public. Her continued idealism contrasts with Emilia’s wordly wisdom when she declares that she could not do such a deed “by this heavenly light” and Emilia replies: “I might do ‘t as well in the dark” (IV,iii,64ff) The irony of the situation here is that she trusts Emilia who has unwittingly betrayed her by giving the handkerchief to Iago.
She dies in Act V, in a mixture of fear and outspokenness, begging for her life and yet declaring her innocence: ” I never gave him token.” (V,ii,62) As is often the case, she is unfortunate in her reactions or choice of words (we recall her use of “committed” earlier) so that when she weeps that Cassio cannot be witness, her tears are interpreted as guilt. One vital lie is that she killed herself but it is an untruth which may damn her but she hopes will take the blame off her husband. When Lodovico bids us and the characters to “Look on the tragic loading of this bed,” (V,ii,30) we are saddened to realise that it holds a woman of whom her husband could once say:
…my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well. (III,iii,186ff)
Bianca has a very minor role as the prostitute with the misfortune to fall in love with one of her clients but Emilia is a more rounded figure. She is ill-treated by Iago, cynical about men, a feminist and full of worldly wisdom. For her, (as with Bianca) love has its price whereas for Desdemona it is beyond price. Both women therefore provide dramatic contrast to Desdemona.
Emilia has a fatal part to play in stealing the handkerchief and giving it to Iago and this part of her behaviour is difficult to accept, but she gains our full sympathy in her brave and outspoken condemnation of her husband in the final terrible scene when she realises fully what has happened. She is determined to find out the truth at whatever cost: “I am bound to speak” she declares and admits she has had doubts: “I thought so then.” She, too, flouts convention: “‘Tis proper I obey him, but not now.” (V,iii,189,196,200) In some ways she represents the audience with her common sense and desire for facts.
Cassio, Roderigo and Brabantio
Cassio is a ladies’ man, “almost damn’d in a fair wife” (I,i,21) who epitomises courtly behaviour with the great but who treats the lowly Bianca with disrespect. His language is high-flown and his view of Desdemona full of romantic admiration. It is clear that he went courting with and for Othello and knew of the marriage from the start: he is the only one whom Othello addresses by his first name, Michael. A good soldier, even if a bookish one, he feels the loss of his reputation deeply, particularly as he loves Othello – perhaps, ironically, more than he worships Desdemona. Desperate to regain Othello’s good opinion he carries on with his suit even when there is no need, thus, unwittingly and ironically, causing the downfall of the people he respects so much. His total innocence is shown when he is alone with her at the beginning of the Temptation Scene and no impropriety passes between them. His one flaw is that he is easily made drunk and this weakness, unimportant in normal circumstances, is his undoing.
Roderigo is the partly the stereotype of the dupe, but partly the only one to see through Iago and demand compensation, thus affording a contrast with Othello. At the start of the play, he weakly follows Iago in language and behaviour, telling Brabantio that his daughter is in the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor.” (I,i,126) As the drama progresses, he becomes more dubious but still trusts the man he believes to be his friend. When he finally revolts in Act IV, scene ii, and threatens to make himself known to Desdemona, he becomes a danger to Iago and must be killed. Ironically, he is the first to see through Iago, but still agrees to his plan to kill Cassio.
Brabantio is the loving but hide-bound father, devastated by what he considers a betrayal by his daughter who finally dies of the extreme anguish this causes him. Yet he can keep his wits about him and rebukes the others (Act I, iii,210) pointing out that they would be unhappy to lose Cyprus to the Turks and would not smile about it as they are encouraging him to do. He is an important figure in Venice, one who has authority, but he believes in witchcraft and is deeply prejudiced. He cannot believe that Desdemona could love Othello without sorcery, calling him a “thing” and addressing him as “thou” in disrespect ((I,ii,61ff) Ironically, he gave the lovers their occasion to meet by inviting Othello frequently to the house and so invited also the situation which kills him in the end.
The main themes:
Many of these will have emerged from my other discussions but they involve: honour and reputation; the clash between the public and private; “seeming” or the difference between appearance and reality; war as a romantic concept – very difficult for a modern audience; the unnatural and monstrous; honesty in its two senses of truth-telling and plain dealing; types of speech ranging from prose vulgarity to poetic musicality; jealousy (in Iago, Othello, Bianca, Roderigo); reduction or the lowering of the high values of beauty and goodness to bestiality; charms and witchcraft; lobbying or episodes where one character speaks on behalf of another (clearly a loophole for mischief); the law as a means of establishing the truth; revenge.
Other aspects of construction and effect:
The main trope is contrast: black and white; love and hate; high and low: heaven and hell; angel and devil: truth and falsehood; honesty and lies: chaos and cosmos or discord and harmony; peace and war; light and dark. The main image cluster is that of animals mostly from Iago but also from Othello (“goats and monkeys”) once he is under Iago’s control. The effect of the play depends greatly on irony, particularly dramatic irony, which pervades every scene once we, as audience, are aware of Iago’s evil and the other characters remain ignorant. There is always a feeling that we would like to call out, as if we were at a pantomime, “Look out, the villain is just behind you!”
An important element in the structure involves scenes which forecast later scenes, frequently with an irony which may or may not strike the audience at the time but chimes in later. The seemingly unimportant scene (I,iii, 1-45) which is often mistakenly cut in performance heralds the theme of checking of first appearances which dominates many later scenes. The Senators know that the Turks would be unlikely to head for Rhodes: if only Othello would test his impressions against likelihood! The storm which separates the characters on their voyage from Venice to Cyprus is an omen of the metaphorical tempest to come and the speeches of the characters in Act II scene i are full of double meanings in terms of the action to unfold. “For I have lost him on a dangerous sea,” says Cassio of Othello. Iago has been put in charge of Desdemona as he will later control her reputation. The scene where Othello deals with the brawl echoes forwards to his incapacity to deal with his personal crisis but it is Iago in both cases who prevents him from finding the full truth, that he was the cause of it all. This technique of prefigurement adds a sense of fate to a play which, otherwise, has less sense of inexorability than the other tragedies and little of that impersonal note of the correspondence of microcosm and macrocosm, except for a couple of references: “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse?/ Of sun and moon ..” (Vii, 101-2) and:
It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more nearer earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad. (V,ii,111ff)
The double time scheme.
From the arrival in Cyprus to the end of the drama, Shakespeare uses a device of having two time schedules running concurrently: one is “short time”, a period of about 36 hours, marked by meals and references to shifts and hours passing. This makes credible Othello’s failure to question Desdemona properly: he is in a rage and has no period of calm. The difficulty is that this would give Desdemona no space for a prolonged affair with Cassio and so there is “long time”, an ill-defined period hinted at by some of the characters’ words, such as Emilia’s saying that Iago had begged her to steal the handkerchief “a hundred times” (III,iii,294). This sleight of hand makes plausible a narrative which is otherwise hard to credit and is helped by the fact that there is no sub-plot which would require a time scheme of its own. The drama proceeds with a sense of inevitability and apparent pace according to the short time schedule.
The main plot-line follows quite closely a story by the Italian writer Cinthio – it should be noted that it is only recently that we have become chary of “borrowing” ideas from the work of others. It is always fascinating to see what an author makes of his source since, presumably, the changes are deliberate and provide a clue as to intention (always a knotty problem.) In this original, Iago was less important and his sole motive was unsatisfied lust for and hatred of Desdemona. The emphasis in Shakespeare’s play has therefore shifted to the relationship between Othello and Iago and the latter’s more complex motivation – or lack of it. Emilia knew everything from the start in Cinthio which precludes the highly dramatic moment when she reiterates “my husband” in gradually increasing horror (V,ii,142ff). The characters crossed the sea together between Act I and II and so there could be no prefiguring separation and consequent irony resulting from it.