The development of interpreting William Shakespeare’s plays for their progressive capabilities has been increasingly common in the modern era; Shylock, the Jewish character in The Merchant of Venice, portrayed on-stage for hundreds of years as a remorseless villain, is today played as a sympathetic and often ironic character whose persecuting is often shown to be more-or-less on-par with his persecution.
Similarly, the Othello seen in modern productions of Othello is a sympathetic tragic hero, rather than a dangerous, violent, and easily manipulated caricature. Yet, while some ambiguity about the nature of the character of Othello is inherent to the text, and even in keeping with the academic sentiment that the interpretation of art is more reflective of the morality of the reader than of any ‘opinions’ one may find in the work, Othello seems to contain a far more progressive element than The Merchant of Venice—in its antagonist, who in Othello is (of course) not the racialized character, but Iago.
The character of Iago is unambiguously the antagonist of the play, and, beyond this, serves as both the catalyst to the events of the play and as the detractor or destroyer, either directly or by extension, of every character who falls in the play. Indeed, in Othello, the character of Iago does more to challenge racial stereotypes contemporary with Shakespeare’s writing thereof than does the character of Othello to affirm them.
Character Depictions in Othello‘s Opening Scene:
The presentation of Othello, even in its sometimes racist sentiments, belies as contrived any relationship between his race and his conflicts. In the opening scene of the play, Roderigo and Iago profess their distaste for Othello and his success in bitter, racialized terms, as though to establish a societal context wherein that were sufficient reason for dislike (I.i.54-55,63-64).
In most of Shakespeare’s plays, there can be seen a deliberate setting of tone in the opening scene, whether that be the interrogative and mysterious first scene of Hamlet or the quarreling first scene of Romeo and Juliet; this scene is no different.
The characters step onto the stage and immediately begin spewing bile at this other unseen character, as though to establish a tone of hostility and vengeful intent. Yet this negativity, and all the negative talk of Othello, still comes to present the man as having been promoted to a high office and having secured a beautiful wife.
The extremity of the baseless—or else, at this point, seemingly race-based—hatred provides insight about the two characters having the conversation at least as much as the one discussed. And these sentiments of the viciousness of Iago versus the respect of Othello are underscored as the act continues.
The line which introduced Othello into the company of noblemen and senators reads, “Here comes Brabantio and the valiant Moor” (I.iii.47). The senators present go on to depict Othello as “brave,” “capable,” and again “valiant;” between this praise and the speech by Othello and Desdemona removing any legitimate complaint against the man, one leaves the third scene with a very positive image of the character.
By coming from a scene of utter hostility towards him, and then at length proving this hostility unfounded, Shakespeare subverts what may have even been a negative predisposition toward a black character (or certainly towards a ‘hot-headed’ Moorish character), and places the work’s treachery in the hands of the manipulative Iago, the very man who holds that popular stereotyping in his heart.
The Manipulation of Othello in Othello‘s latter half:
As the nature of Othello is then not called into question until the seeds of doubt are planted in his mind, one may now look forward to his conversations with Iago in acts three and four. It is not until after Iago’s first lengthy manipulative placing of suspicion in Othello’s mind that he utters the key line, “And yet, how nature erring from itself—” (III.iii.227).
This insecurity is easily understood by the reader, who has already seen in the opening scene of the play the state of society, wherein blackness may itself seem a justification for dislike. And it is this upon which Iago seizes, speaking at once at length in the same racist terms to which Othello has alluded.
The reader or viewer, however, knows that Desdemona is faithful. Therefore, this instance of dramatic irony groups the racist speech together with the rest of Iago’s prattle, as being purely artificial. And it is not until after Othello faces set pieces and demands and receives “ocular proof” (III.iii.357), that he comes to believe Iago’s lies.
One can hardly say that a character requiring five pieces of verbal and physical evidence over an act and a half to convince of something is ‘easily manipulated.’ This is then highlighted as being unnatural to Othello when the Venetian noblemen arrive to relieve him of his duty; they are appalled at the change in him, and Lodovico expresses so in the following passage:
Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce? (IV.i.264-268)
Othello clearly remains an esteemed man, operating here entirely outside the bounds of what is to be expected from him. After all, it is Iago himself who claims that a change has come over him within line 268 of that scene. Therefore, the evil in the play lies not in Othello, but in what Othello has become, which is, effectively, an agent of Iago. So, if Iago initially reflects popular racist sentiments, and then unfounded, conniving villainy, what his purpose in the play might be is worthy of consideration.
The Character and Motivation of Iago:
The character billed as “Iago, a villain,” is key to understanding the work’s conception of the place of race in discourse on personal character and interaction, as well as being key to the social commentary of the work. There are two reasons that Iago is a scathing reflection of English society, despite being a Venetian character.
The first reason comes at the end of the first act, when Iago reveals in monologue another possible reason for his despising Othello: “I hate the Moor, / And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets / H’as done my office” (I.iii.377-379). Here it is shown that, even for Iago, who puts up a front of race as his reason and tool against Othello, race is a red herring; jealousy drives Iago.
Iago’s gripe is not, at base, with the color of Othello, but with the man’s illustrious career, beautiful wife, and the sort of rumors which Iago then personally goes on to prove may be entirely unfounded. Planting such suspicions in Othello’s mind is an apt demonstration of the possibility that such suspicions were similarly (i.e. fraudulently) planted in Iago’s. A viewership who sympathized with him in his racist thinking in scene one may now find themselves faced with that potential paradox, and with what the true reason might be for Iago’s bias.
The second reason that Iago may be thought of as associated with English society comes in the second act, in the scene wherein Iago endeavors to get Cassio drunk. Herein, he goes on a seemingly innocuous break consisting in two drinking songs and a discussion of their origin, namely England, which he holds in esteem (II.iii.66-94).
This passage is above referred to as ‘seemingly innocuous’ because the work it does is actually remarkably subtle. This portion of the text is disarming to its consumer, the English audience, as it is a comedic scene of drunkenness, and beyond that, one wherein England is praised and referred to in glorifying (if comical) terms (“O sweet England!” (II.iii.85)).
In effect, however, this passage serves ulterior motives: it associates the villainous Iago directly with England and it provides the backhanded compliment that what they are best at among nations is drinking. Once this connection is made, the narrative moves on to the darker plot of getting Cassio into a fight, and from there the rest of the sinister plot.
Elements such as these show clearly that the character of Iago is, on one hand, a dastardly villain whose use of racism is both unfounded and belied by his true motives, and on the other hand, relatable and appealing to its English audience. The implication here is that Iago, that villain, could very well be the reader or viewer, or number among his kin, whether or not Iago is Venetian.
The text of Othello lends itself well to progressive interpretation for the obvious element of the plot that is casting the cunning Iago as a terrible antagonist, while subverting an acknowledged opinion of Othello and his race. The Venetian setting acts as a safe space for the work’s critical commentary. That is, it is not in the removal of the events from society, but in the way that the otherwise removed events are made immediate and relevant that the piece works toward a reflection of a society full of Iagos and Roderigos while exposing the fatal sincerity of the Othellos and Desdemonas.
Ultimately, it is a hallmark of an enduring work of literature that its historical context can be transcended by its ideas. Othello, though often thought to be restricted to its insight on wrath and tragedy for such survival, also possesses such longevity with respect to race.
Antagonism in Othello: