Othello is a play about human nature and relationships. By studying these human relationships, differences in race, gender and class suggest that Venetian society consists both of empowered and disempowered groups
Shakespeare's Othello is a play about human nature and relationships. By studying these human relationships, differences in race, gender and class suggest that as in all other societies, Venetian society consists both of empowered groups, and constrained groups. These relationships, discussed with reference to Othello, Desdemona, Iago, Emilia, Cassio, Bianca, Lodovico and a number of other characters, are revealed through words and actions.
The relationship between Iago and Emilia is a superb example of power in gender roles as they were prescribed by the Renascence society. Iago, the masculine being in the relationship has the power to describe, define and ultimately destroy Emilia; the feminine persona. The definition of women as subservient to men is exemplified in their behavior toward each other. Emilia, hardened to cynicism about male - female relationships by years of marriage, has the view that women are 'food' for men who are 'all stomachs' and 'belch' women when full (3.4.98). Iago continually describes women as 'whores' and 'wenches (3.3.306),' only good for supplying the desires of men, in this case, the handkerchief. This subservience is momentarily subverted at the end of the play when Emilia ignores Iago's warning to 'be wise, and get home.' Instead, she tells of how he 'begged of me to steal (the handkerchief)' (5.2.227), thus unraveling Iago's web of deception. She is immediately degraded verbally to the level of a 'villainous whore' (5.2.228) by a furious Iago who proceeds to destroy her physically, thereby reasserting the masculine state as it was prescribed in Jacobean drama.
One of the most interesting examples of power relationships in Othello is that between Othello, Desdemona and Iago. The use of gender differences and the changing perception of them suggests a powerful gender based conflict. Othello and Desdemona love each other for the 'differences they perceive in one another;'3 Desdemona perceives Othello as a valiant warrior, and Othello perceives Desdemona as a woman with genuine feminine grace. These differences are distorted by Iago, who cannot bear to see two lovers 'well tuned.' We may ask, what is it that Iago objects to so strongly? The answer lies in Iago's response to the feminine, which reveals a mixture of fear and loathing; his despise of Othello for 'giving into' feminine characteristics such as love, and his despise of Desdemona, sneering that she is the general's 'general' (2.3.310). Iago's relationship with Othello becomes a power struggle where Iago attempts to denigrate Desdemona in order to position himself so he can 'poison' (3.3.326) Othello. This power struggle is exemplified through Iago's words at the end of Act 3 Scene 3; 'I am your own forever' (3.3.480). These are spoken by Iago after stirring Othello to hatred and jealousy, and his subsequent promotion to lieutenant by him. They are not however, words of thanks, and a pledge to serve faithfully, but rather an ironic vow that refers to Iago's knowledge of his power over Othello. This hatred and jealousy that Iago creates in Othello is achieved through impressive stories of Desdemona making him a cuckold. They enable Iago to bring out Othello's latent sensuality in a violent, jealous and masculine form. 'O monstrous, monstrous!' (3.3.428) Othello cries when he hears of Cassio's dream about Desdemona from Iago. This torment leads Othello to assert his masculinity in an overbearing manner, providing for the victory of Iago's scheme, the silence of Desdemona, and the loss of the match of two minds.
The positions that Lodovico, Montano and Gratiano hold, and the Cassio/Iago 'place/displacement/substitution'1 relationship are interesting studies in the power that class could ascribe to people in Venetian society. First, it must be taken into account that Elizabethan society was largely 'based on birth and blood and there were limited opportunities for advancement, especially for those on a lower social scale.'1. Iago, massively professionally ambitious and believing himself to be 'worth no worser place' (1.1.11), ousts Cassio from Othello's favor and takes his place both professionally and socially. He achieves this by telling Othello how Cassio and Desdemona made him a cuckold. In Act 5 Scene 2 however, after Emilia unravels Iago's scheme, Lodovico, Montano, Gratiano and a group of officers enter with an air of authoritative disposition. Giving voice to socially prescribed standards of decency such as the right to 'pray' (5.2.302), they assume power and control, restoring order to the mayhem unleashed previously. Lodovico orders Othello's sword to be 'wrench(ed)' from him after he lunges at Iago, then strips '(Othello's) power and ? command' from him and announces that 'Cassio rules in Cyprus' (5.2.325). It can therefor be ascertained that the ascribed power of class is a powerful one but one that is also self-assumed, yet hard to obtain.
A combined relationship of gender and class is presented by Cassio and Bianca. Bianca, like Desdemona and Emilia, is only seen in relation to men and is as such, defined by them. In pertinence to the class element in the said relationship, it must be noted that Elizabethan society required for a woman to be married in order for society to ascribe her any power. As such, Bianca works hard to assert herself as Cassio's mistress, who treats the 'bauble(s)' (4.1.134) genuine affection with contempt. Cassio reveals the limitations of the relationship when he tells Bianca to 'leave me for this time' (4.1.185) because he does not want to be seen by Othello to be 'womaned' (3.4.187). Further examples of the power that Cassio holds over Bianca can be seen in Act 4 Scene 1. Here Bianca flings the handkerchief back in Cassio's face after he asks her to make a copy of it for him. She believes that Cassio was given it by another woman. However, in a dismissive and slightly amused tone, Cassio replies to her accusations; 'How now, my sweet Bianca! How now, how now!' (4.1.150). Bianca then tells Cassio that he is welcome to come to 'supper' (4.1.152). The almost condescending tone that we observe Cassio use to address Bianca's anger, and the element of submissiveness she replies with, serves to illustrate both the power that class and gender provide recipients with, and also the ambition that class created in the Venetian society.
Race is another way in which power may be enacted. Belonging to a particular race or ethnic belief has the ability to generate ones limited power in relating to other human beings. Othello, the black protagonist of the play possess power in the professional domain, however, in the private and social domain, he is marginalised and dislocated because of his race, leading ultimately, to a loss of power in both. Many critics have suggested that it is absurd for Othello to think that he can carve a place for himself in a Venetian society because he will never truly be accepted. This view is upheld from the very beginning of the play. Roderigo, Iago and Brabantio all find Othello's racial background, especially since he married a white woman, very undesirable. They describe the 'thing' (1.2.71) as 'thick-lips (1.1.66),' refer to a 'sooty bosom' (1,2,70) and call him an 'old black ram' (1.1.89). Iago's successful efforts to incorporate himself into Othello's trust further dislocate the Moor. Iago causes Othello to doubt the racial heritage he was so proud to boast about in Act 1. By Act 3 'The moor already changes with (Iago's) poison' (3.3.326). Othello expresses his change of thought when he says
'Haply for I am black, and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have or for I am declined Into the vale of years.' (3.3.265)
This influence of Iago has the effect of making Othello feel unworthy of his wife and thus more suspicious and jealous of her supposed relationship with Cassio. It is interesting to note that a commonly held view holds that Othello's race, mystique, dark swarthy appearance and life of 'exotic romantic colourings'6 is what enabled him to attract Desdemona's love in the first place. Despite this, Othello unwittingly submits to Iago's plan of mass destruction and thus looses any power of any sort he had.
In conclusion, power can be suggested through race, gender and class and ascribed to people or groups by society. In Othello, the language and action used by each character when they interact with others, generates power relationships that can both empower characters, in the case of upper class white male Venetian's, and also constrain characters that do not fit this mould.