English Literature A2: Othello

Explore the significance of this extract in relation to the tragedy of the play as a whole. Remember to include in your answer relevant analysis of Shakespeare’s dramatic methods.

Act 4 Scene 3 is fundamental in establishing Othello’s tragedy because it demonstrates the tragic futility of women’s lives. Shakespeare embodies the binary opposition between purity and impurity in Desdemona and Emilia. However, no matter how complex their characters are, they are silenced through the male characters Shakespeare creates and the play’s confining structure that limits the plot to Othello’s tragedy and peripeteia alone. Tragedy is consequently present as women do not have the luxury of a complex identity in a world of male hegemony.

Shakespeare demonstrates the tragic irony of women’s futile lives in Elizabethan culture. It is only in a setting connoted with traditional feminine power – a bedroom – that Emilia’s assertion is heard. She is from a lower class than Desdemona, yet her dialogue highlights a language mirroring a well-educated political speech. She uses parallelism (“I think it is… I think it doth”), rhetoric (“Is it sport?”) and embellished repetition (“the ills we do, their ills instruct us”), that connotes the power of Shakespeare’s monarch – Elizabeth 1. This acts as a radical declaration of power with the revolutionary theme of gender equality: “Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them.” However, Emilia is only allowed a voice around women – when she tells Othello about Desdemona’s purity in Act 5 Scene 2, it results in the protagonist threatening her with a sword and her eventual death at the hands of her husband. Despite this, Shakespeare allows the audience to witness Emilia’s radical opinions, creating audience pathos for the unjust nature of her death. This also acts as a real-world commentary on the lives of women and heightens the play’s tragedy in contemporary society.

It is Shakespeare’s structure that prevents Emilia from becoming a tragic hero. The playwright’s condensed narrative confines the characters in a prison-like setting that mirrors Othello’s claustrophobia. The action moves from the metropolis of Venice to the island of Cyprus. Protected by military fortifications as well as by the forces of nature, Cyprus faces little threat from external powers and so the characters have nothing to do but prey upon one another, heightening audience catharsis in Act 5 Scene 2. Emilia is thus silenced through a narrative that doesn’t give her the luxury of a voice. This is alluded to in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, whose only integral female character, Linda Loman, is diminished by the metonym of her last name – “Lowman.” Her words start and finish the play, but she is embodied in feminine objects that induce tragedy. For example, her stockings connote infidelity, much like Desdemona’s handkerchief. The setting of the house for Linda diminished her to traditional domestic femininity, much like how Emilia’s physical form is condensed – there is no physical space for her as a tragic hero, despite her sharing Othello’s narrative arc. They share character traits of perceptiveness, intelligence and independence which is diminished by their romantic partners whose good reputations heightens their own misfortune. Shakespeare’s structure doesn’t allow her to prove her greatness, inducing the tragedy of missed opportunity.

There is tragedy in loss of identity. In Act 4 Scene 3, Desdemona and Emilia mirror their lovers and consequently the tragic themes that encompass the entire play. Despite Honigmann’s declaration that “Desdemona is the strongest, the most heroic person in the play”, she is only perceived this way because she employs Othello’s qualities. The two characters are aligned through their etymological relation to demonic imagery – the ‘hell’ in ‘Othello’ and the ‘demon’ in ‘Desdemona’. Just as Desdemona loses her independence from Act 1 Scene 3 when she declared “That I did love the Moor to live with him,” she unifies with Othello, who is descending into madness. Likewise, Emilia’s language in Act 4 Scene 3 mirrors Iago’s manipulation of Othello. As soon as Desdemona speaks, “by this heavenly light”, Emilia manipulates it into “Nor I neither by this heavenly light; I might do’t as well I’the dark”. This connotes the darkness of night-time setting as a place of tragedy. This effect on Desdemona is evident through rhyming couplets that replicates Emilia’s, and consequently Iago’s, phonological language such as repetition and alliteration. This evokes confusion. Desdemona’s consonance at the end of Act 4 Scene 3 (“Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend!”), mirrors Emilia’s previous rhyming couplet where she, too, uses repetition for a word with connotations of Iago’s poison motif – “the ills we do, their ills instruct us.” The extract consequently mirrors the catastrophic relationship between Othello and Iago, connoting the same tragic fate for their female counterparts, Emilia and Desdemona.

In conclusion, the extract enforces the tragedy of Othello because it diminishes the complex yet innocent female characters, Emilia and Desdemona. The play blurs the identities between the women and their male lovers and their lives are treated as futile by the Five Act structure that confines their power to feminine spaces. Tragedy is consequently evident as identity is presented as privilege in a patriarchal society.

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