Othello and the Light

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The light and dark motifs reign strong through this examination of the Outsider in the Venice of Shakespeare.  All characters in the play are well aware of the outsider aspect of Othello.  Rodorigo calls him “an extravagant and wheeling stranger/Of here and everywhere.” 

The Outsider comes to Venice, protects Cyprus, and brings the community together, only to fall victim of sorts to the wielding and conniving of Iago.  Shakespeare specifically stated that Othello is indeed a Moor, and exploring the racial attitudes and thoughts of Elizabethan England requires one analyze the essence of the Moor. Othello, the outsider must be placed next to Iago, the Venetian, the insider.  The Shakespearean dichotomy epitomizes the reason for the classical tragic nature of the play, because it further bolsters the light and dark dichotomy. 

Modern rationalization about race delineates twenty-first century bias, prejudice and misunderstanding. This paper shall delineate the idea of race and the 21st century construct from the construct that an Elizabethan audience would have had with the idea of race.  In this society, intellectuals deconstruct the idea of race and promulgate the idea of race as a social construct.  In other words, race does not contain the biological trappings that have provided solace to the racist constructionist of a United States in which slavery dominated.

Elizabethans have only a sense of the foreign.  Obviously, they did not have the sensibility of American slavery, which is the prism through which Americans typically view race.  “Elizabethans also had a powerful sense of the economic threat posed by the foreign groups they had daily contact with-Flemings or Frenchmen- but they had little or no continuous contact with “Moors” and had no sense of economic threat from them.” See. G.K. Hunter, “Elizabethans and Foreigners’” Shakespeare Survey xvii (Shakespeare in His Own Age) (1964 37-52).  Further, the Elizabethans appreciated the sense of light and dark juxtaposition. 

The Elizabethans saw things in “Black and White,” as much of Western society does. In the historical context, Shakespeare wrote Othello between 1602 and 1603, and then published the work in 1622.  In 1622, in England, African immigrants and indentured servants worked and lived in England.  Some African immigrants owned property.  However the African slave trade between the African Continent and the West Indies was pervasive. .”   See Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All; page 589 Published by Random House 2004.   

Historically, then the Elizabethans would be very well aware of Othello being a Moor, being African.  The Elizabethans then would start the embrace of the racism which allowed for the African Slave Trade.  In that context, Shakespeare presents a strong, powerful, authoritative Othello juxtaposed with an  impotent Iago. 

This paper shall investigate this aspect more, as we delve into issues of light and dark as constructed within the text of Othello itself.  Therefore, the point is that Shakespeare created Othello as a Moor, because the Moor as the Tragic Hero could also have metaphors surrounding him of light and dark.  The outsider, the Moor defends the West, through his defense at Cyprus.

For full depth and explanation, one must investigate the identity of the Moor. The Moors, Black Africans dominating North Africa, ruled parts of Europe.  Predominantly, the Moors ventured to Europe from Mauritania. The Moors brought Europe out of the Dark Ages. In  August, 711 A.D., a  Black Moorish Army with 7,000 troops, which included 300 Arabs and 6, 700 native Sudanese.  Sudanese translates as the Arabic Word for Black People .  From 711-1492 A.D.  Black Moors dominated and ruled much of Spain, Southern France, and much of Scotland.  In the case of  Othello,  one needs to juxtapose the pre-Othello Elizabethan models against  the Othello, Moor that Shakespeare presents.  For example, in Titus and Andronicus, the character Aaron, also  a Moor , represents an adverse strong sexual nature .  “Shakespeare has the doubtful distinction of making explicit here (perhaps for the first time in English literature) the projection of black wickedness in terms of negro sexuality. 

The relationship between Tamora and Aaron is meant, clearly enough, to shock our normal sensibilities and their black baby is present as an emblem of disorder.”  G.K. Hunter, pg. 254 Othello and Colour Prejudice .The character of Eleazer in Lust’s Dominion written in 1600 is like the character of Aaron. Lust’s Dominion takes place in Spain, which gives the historical context.  The Spanish viewed the Moors as the conquering demons, and through that prism the character in Lust’s Dominion acts as a strong Metaphor for the devil incarnate.

Othello’s character stands in strong confrontation and direction against these previous stereotypical view of the Moor in European discussion. Shakespeare does not only refuse to introduce Othello as the devilish Moor, but introduces Othello as arguably the Leader of Christendom. Othello is a Christian.  Othello is to defend Cyprus against the Turks the “General enemy Ottoman”   Act I, Scene iii, Line 49.   Hence, Shakespeare created the character Othello as Moor not to suggest villainy or a devilment.

In fact, Iago, as the villain, and Othello as the tragic hero are characters and metaphors in Black and White, because they represent the opposite of what might be stereotyped with either character.   As an Italian, Iago should be in charge.  Already much of the Iago motivation for villainy is clothed in the issue that he does not have the rank of Lieutenant and Cassio has received that for which Iago believes is his.   Iago’s character heightens the issues of light and dark which permeate the tragedy.  “Fair Iago”  uses the verbiage  and the texture and the tone of darkness.  As  G.K. Hunter has put it, “ Othello may be the devil in appearance, but it is the ‘fair’ Iago who gives birth to the dark realities of sin and death in the play.” G.K. Hunter, pg. 255.  Iago brings the language of darkness. Iago is the first in the play to mention, “ It is engendeer’d. Hell and night/ Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.  Act I Scene ii, lines 402-405.

  Othello stands as a pillar. Othello characterizes action.  Iago is the appearance of action.  Iago is isolated, envious, enigmatic, and self-centered. Iago embraces the “darker” characteristics of the human psyche.  Othello stands as a man concerned with his duties, practicing his responsibilities, centered in his code of honor, pious, and loving to his wife, despite the jealous plot Iago weaved.  Othello stands as the consummate outsider, but the outsider that strengthens Italy, and specifically Venice.   One example of the way in which Othello’s authority is revered is in Act I Scene ii, when Iago  foments a fight with Brabantio, Rodrigo, and other officers.  Othello stops the beginning of pure street chaos and brawling with the drawing of his sword  and a few short words, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them. Good signor, you shall more command with years than with your weapons.” Act I, Scene ii, Lines 59-62.  This is an immense sense of  his own dignity, and his knowledge that he is to be held in command, and to be held in respect. 

Shakespeare thematically juxtaposes the light and dark metaphors through several scenes which demonstrate that  Iago  works in the darkness.  For example, Iago speaks through the darkness when speaking with Brabantio in Act I.  Brabantio declares during the exchange that he is succumbed to the point where he is in a nightmare.   Brabantio demands light. “ This accident is not unlike my dream… Light, I say Light “Act I, Scene I, Lines 144-146.  Bianca’s name, the female version of Iago in a sense, also heightens this use of light and dark.  Bianca means white, but in this play Bianca represents the opposite of the light and brings many items into the darkness .  Then finally one can examine the light and dark juxtaposition with the fine line of time. “Here then is the key dramatic point, one typically Shakespearean at the same time establishing and critiquing a stereotype: Othello looks black, but it is Iago who become the pole of moral negativity (conventionally, blackness) in the play.”   See Marjorie Garber,  Shakespeare After All,  page 592 Published by Random House 2004. 

The light and dark dichotomies strengthen as the play reaches into Act Five.  Dramatically, in Act III, Scene iii, the characters reveal that White and Black equal one another.  False and Truth hold hands together as one.  Light and Dark embrace as one.  In this scene, Iago and Othello  kneel “Now by yond marble heaven,  In the Due reverence of a scared vow/ I here engage my words.” Act III, Scene iii, Lines 476-479.  In this scene Iago and Othello create the parody of marriage, in which Iago displaces Desdemona, as the bride, and displaces Cassio as lieutenant.  Othello grants Iago that which Iago wants.  Iago, through the evidence of the white handkerchief, convinced Othello of the faithlessness of Desdemonna .  With this parody of marriage comes the exchange that creates the melding of Light and Dark, Black and White,  and creates the character analysis of the Outsider seeking for the acceptance of the Insider.

Othello

Damn her, lewd minx! Oh, damn her, damn her!

Come go, with me apart, I will withdraw

To furnish me with some swift means of death

For the fair devil.  Now art thou my lieutenant.

Iago

I am your own forever. (Act III, Scene iii, Lines 491-495).

This exchange is central and leads into the classical tragedy that is Othello’s character, the ghastly murder of Desdemona.  As the Shakespeare guides the reader into the end of Act Four, he highlights the light and dark dichotomy when Emilia and Desdemona have their last conversation.  In a sense Emilia is preparing Desdemona for death.  Emilia prepares the death dressing, and the burial, because Emilia and Desdemona understand at this point that Othello is moving towards the murder of Desdemona.  When Emilia asks would Desdemona “abuse” her husband.

Emilia

Why, would not you?

Desdemona

No, by this heavenly light!

Emilia

Nor I neither by this heavenly light;

I might do’t as well I’th dark.” Act IV, Scene iii, Lines 65-70.

Othello, the Moor, the Outsider, the military might who defends the Venetian lifestyle  declares one of the strongest metaphors of light used as dark, when he discusses the murder he feels that he must commit.  “Put out the light, and then put out the light.  If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,/Thy cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, I know not where is that Promethean heat/That can thy light relume.” Act V, Scene ii, Lines 7-14.  Othello is putting out the light of the candle, as well as putting out the light of Desdemona.  Darkness pervades as the light is buried.  However, this does not denote a collapse of civilization, into the darkness that was stereotyped with the Moors.  Iago did not succeed in making Othello a passionate savage.  Instead, Othello’s intent allows from some defense of his actions.  “For nought I did in hate, but all in honor.” Act V, Scene ii, Line 300. 

Finally, and tragically, the Outsider, the Moor who has protected Venice, finally finds that he is the enemy of Venice, and that he must die.  In essence, this answers the importance of Othello as the Outside, because he is outside of Venice, and in the end, he sees himself as the enemy to Venice that he must destroy.  Professor Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, New York, 1998 states the importance of noting the suicide.  “Nor should a fair critic fail to be impressed by Othello’s verdict upon himself: that he has become an enemy of Venice, and as such must be slain.  His suicide has nothing Roman in it: Othello passes sentence upon himself, and performs the execution.” Id. at 474, 475.  Othello’s suicide was outside the confines of the Italian community in which he found himself.  Professor Bloom points out that the Roman judgment upon him would not have ended in death, because of Othello’s intent, as well as the more pragmatic notion that the country would still need Othello’s military power. However,  in the end, Othello culminated the dichotomy that existed between his world, and the world in which he found himself through this final act, and through this displayed the metaphors that produce the powerful tragedy of Othello.

Shakespeare, William. "Othello." The Necessary Shakespeare Third Edition. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Education, 2009. Print.

Craig Cunningham is a published author in the areas of family and criminal law.  In addition to being an attorney, he is also a professor and will educate his clients regarding their case and the law. Clients are able to reach him through several outlets such as, email, cell phone, office line and fax. He will never keep his clients in the dark. With any new developments, he will definitely keep clients informed. For more information please visit at www.cunninghamlaw.cc

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