English Literature A2: Othello (3)

Explore the significance of this extract in relation to the tragedy of the play as a whole.                     

The tragedy of Act 1 Scene 2 lies in Othello’s exposure as the tragic hero who defies and challenges social expectations. The protagonist’s language imposes his heroic status and reinforces Iago’s role as a villain on the backdrop of a domestically and politically tumultuous world. It is how this narrative equilibrium descends into chaos that allows Iago’s evil to manifest, and ultimately validate Othello’s tragedy.

Othello’s entrance in Act 1 Scene 2 severely juxtaposes his racially defined representation in Act 1 Scene 1. “’Tis better as it is”, states the protagonist, a phrase with calm and optimistic connotations in sharp binary opposition to his demonization that referred to his “thick lips” and anthropomorphised him as a “Barbary horse” and “black ram”. Shakespeare lived in an age of fear surrounding witchcraft and sorcery, as one of James 1’s first official laws when he ascended to the throne was in fact the 1604 Witchcraft Act. Consequently, this imagery would evoke the horned connotations of a ram with a witch’s familiar, foreshadowing cuckoldry and Satan-like imagery, fortifying a Jacobean audience’s religious and racial suspicion of the protagonist. However, this only further reinstates Iago’s antagonism, demonstrated through difference in language. Iago’s violent lexis sees him trying to appeal to Othello’s military interest, much like in Act 1 Scene 1 where he appealed to Brabantio’s misogyny and prejudice: “Look at your house, your daughter, and your bags!” Othello is unmoved by Iago’s linguistic manipulation, however, not succumbing to his violent language, (“yerked him under the ribs”), but by speaking in blank verse, a form typified by ancient Greek classical heroes. Shakespeare aligns Othello with heroism, which only makes his eventual tragedy even from pronounced when he succumbs to Iago’s bestial imagery in Act 5 Scene 2: “I took by th’throat the circumcised dog/ And smote him.” Othello’s heroism is thus shown, only to be eradicated throughout the play; his peripeteia enforces his eventual tragedy.

Setting is fundamental in constructing a dramatic atmosphere and establishing the play’s tragedy. The characters stand outside the Saggitary in Act 1 Scene 2, a place with connotations of the Sagittarius zodiac. This is embodied by the centaur, a hybrid monster of two species that alludes to Desdemona and Othello’s “monstrous” inter-racial coupling in an era where the dying monarch, Elizabeth 1, persecutes “blackamoores” coming to Britain. The very world surrounding them is affected by the marriage, with Shakespeare’s allusion to a mythical Greek creature enforcing Othello’s status, while also connoting the negative consequences that come from “making the beast with two backs.” This likewise represents the merging of political and personal realms preceding the move to Cyprus in Act 2. Venice in the 17th century was a powerful city rich with wealth and status, while Cyprus existed on the edge of Christian society, bordering order and chaos and mirroring the impact of the outsiders in a formidable world. The mention of Cyprus with “business of some heat” doesn’t coincidentally occur at the same time as Othello’s arrival – it is, as stated by critic Ben Okri, a reminder that, “without Othello, the universe of the play becomes homogenous, diminished.” The protagonist is thus imperative to the narrative climaxes of the play, reflected in the world around him that both symbolises Othello and is also symbolised by the character himself – Othello’s tragic status is crucial to the very world he inhabits.

Binary opposition establishes thematic juxtaposition that ultimately shows Othello’s tragedy. The difference between dark and light is established, with the night-time location demonstrating a tragic setting, but also Othello as a black hero in a world of white hegemony. This visually emphasises the juxtaposition between Iago and Othello, fortified with their contrast in discussion of war: Iago calls it a “trade”, showing his lack of compassion and humility, while Othello compared his love of Desdemona to his love of “the sea” at war. Contrarily, this could also reveal the diverging class divides between the two characters. Venice had a more rigid class structure than England prefiguring Othello’s creation that saw harsh divides between the rich and poor. Evidence of Iago’s class envy is realised in the very first scene, where he complains about the “preferment” that results in Cassio, a “bookish” man, being chosen over him. From a Marxist perspective, Iago’s opinion that war is a “trade”, demonstrates the harsh financial positions that sees men killing for money. As a man who would’ve risen in society himself, Shakespeare would’ve understood Iago’s resentment, as it became the very first topic discussed in the play between Iago and Roderigo. The opposition between the characters is blurred, however, as Shakespeare later unites the two foils: Just as Othello’s name refers to the leader of the Ottoman empire, Othman, who the Venetians are fighting, Iago too befits a foreign status through his etymological connections to the patron saint of Spain – Sant’Iago. Cinthio Giraldi, who wrote Hecatommithi, the source text for ‘Othello’, appears to identify Iago’s prototype, the Alfieri, as a foreigner when he has him “return… to his country” at the end of the tale. Even Iago’s Act 1 Scene 1 statement, “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago”, blurs 1st and 3rd person to unite the protagonist and antagonist. Shakespeare consequently uses Act 1 Scene 2 to establish the differences between Othello and Iago, only for the juxtapositions to be blurred throughout the play. It is this acquiring of Iago’s evil that results in Othello’s own tragic hamartia.

To conclude, the tragedy of Act 1 Scene 2 rests in how the good, mighty hero Shakespeare created will ultimately be eradicated in favour of evil. Othello becomes victim to Iago’s linguistic manipulation, foreshadowed in the playwright’s use of dramatic setting and classical allusion. It is this blurring of juxtaposition that establishes his peripeteia, confirming Othello’s tragedy from the very first act.

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