The audience finds within the Shakespearean tragic drama Othello several female characters who figure into the plot of the play. Their roles are varied and their lives end tragically.
Alvin Kernan’s “Othello: an Introduction” explains Desdemona’s role as a model of faith and chastity for the protagonist who converts to a belief in her after her death:
His willingness to speak of what he has done – in contrast to Iago’s sullen silence – is a willingness to recognize the meaning of Desdemona’s faith and chastity, to acknowledge that innocence and love do exist, and that therefore The City can stand, though his life is required to validate the truth and justice on which it is built. (81)
In the volume Shakespeare and Tragedy John Bayley explains the roles of the two main women characters in the play:
Even the risk of alienating the onlooker from the tragic action produces a corresponding gain: that action and behaviour remain in the play perennially controversial, and the focus of sexual and social awareness sharp and clear. In a production today, the implications of this are usually more interesting than the actual intrigue can be, and a lot of weight is usually put on Emilia’s role as a figure of common sense and common humanity, correcting the romantic excesses of the lovers. [. . .] But no figure in these three tragedies has such a symbolically positional status. Besides, Emilia, for all her virtues, has a stupidity and lack of imagination comparable in its own way to that of her husband; while her views on the sex war, from the feminine angle, are as pungent as his. Certainly the role of women is important, but it is Desdemona alone who, because of her love, can remain unconscious of the tragedy/comedy element, as she does of the polarity between sex and love. (218)
At the outset of the play Iago persuades the rejected suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, to accompany him to the home of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the middle of the night. Once there the two awaken the senator with loud shouts about his daughter’s elopement with Othello. This is the initial reference to the role of women in the play – the role of wife. In response to the noise and Iago’s vulgar descriptions of Desdemona’s involvement with the general, Brabantio arises from bed.
Othello’s Universality of Appeal
Othello’s Universality of Appeal
The Shakespearean play Othello has enjoyed popularity on the stage and in print for 400 years. What are the features which enhance this quality among readers? And what detracts?
Does the playwright’s use of “double time” contribute to its universality of appeal? In The Riverside Shakespeare Frank Kermode explains the advantages of “double time” to Shakespeare:
“Double time” is a classical topic of Othello criticism; one of its uses is to remind us that the play, more largely considered, is characterized by a kind of imaginative duplicity. Thus one can isolate a plot of monumental and satisfying simplicity without forgetting that the text can be made to support very different interpretations. The richness of the tragedy derives from uncancelled suggestions, from latent subplots operating in terms of imagery as well as character, even from hints of large philosophical and theological contexts which are not fully developed. (1200)
Additional reasons exist for such a broad appeal. Kenneth Muir, in the Introduction to William Shakespeare: Othello, explains in broad terms the basis for the play’s universality of appeal:
If, however, the interpretation offered above is sound, Othello is clearly not without universal significance, for, apart from its dramatization of the difficulty of discovering reality behind appearance, its two main characters exemplify opposing principles which together constitute the human psyche. Othello believes in love, in complete commitment, in nobility, in vocation, and in absolutes. Iago believes in nothing, and least of all in other human beings. (39)
More reasons for the play’s popularity appear. A. C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, describes the modernity of the drama as a reason for its popularity:
One result of the prominence of the element of intrigue is that Othello is less unlike a story of private life than any other of the great tragedies. And this impression is strengthened in further ways. [. . .] But Othello is a drama of modern life; when it first appeared it was a drama almost of contemporary life, for the date of the Turkish attack of Cyprus is 1570. The characters come close to us, and the application of the drama to ourselves (if the phrase may be pardoned) is more immediate than it can be in Hamlet or Lear. Besides this, their fortunes affect us as those of private individuals more than is possible in any of the later tragedies with the exception of Timon.