The Two Settings of Othello

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In The Tragedy of Othello, William Shakespeare explores the impact of the environment on the characters, particularly in relation to themes of jealousy and self-preservation. Through the use of contrasting settings, Shakespeare effectively enhances the emotions evoked by the characters’ actions. The civilized city of Venice and the secluded island of Cyprus serve as stark contrasts, revealing the varying personalities and behaviors of the main characters. While Venice maintains a sense of dignity in their actions, heightened by the scrutiny of the council and public, the isolation of Cyprus prompts a different behavior from the characters.

However, Cyprus provides a much more isolated setting, allowing the characters to reveal their true nature. Desdemona is portrayed as a daring and affectionate spouse. Despite receiving attention from others, she remains devoted to her husband Othello, who is renowned for his military exploits. Prior to their marriage, Desdemona resided in Venice alongside her father, where she experienced a refined and distinguished lifestyle. This privileged existence shielded her from witnessing commonplace acts of wrongdoing such as theft.

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The anger of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, is evident when he learns about a robbery in Venice. Brabantio exclaims, “Why are you telling me about stealing? This is Venice, not some remote place (Shakespeare, 1015).” This divergent lifestyle is not comparable to Desdemona’s life in Cyprus. Desdemona undergoes a transformation in Cyprus, going from an adventurous woman in Venice to a devoted wife to a military general. Despite enduring physical and emotional abuse from her husband, Desdemona remains loyal. Othello publicly slaps her and accuses her of infidelity. Othello asks, “Aren’t you a prostitute? What, you’re not a whore? (Shakespeare, 1077)” The change in location causes Desdemona to transition from a happily married newlywed to an unjustly mistreated wife. Iago is portrayed as the antagonist in Othello despite being commonly referred to as ‘honest Iago’. Like Desdemona, Iago’s character also evolves due to the different settings of Venice and Cyprus. In Venice, Iago lacked significant power and had to rely on others to execute his plans. Being powerless within the city, Iago used Roderigo to inform Barbantio about his daughter’s marriage.

According to Shakespeare (1014), Iago tells Roderigo to contact Desdemona’s father and provoke him. Iago’s initial lack of power does not last long as he becomes the ‘protector’ of Desdemona in Cyprus, gaining more trust with Othello. Iago manipulates those closest to him, including his wife Emilia. Emilia discovers Desdemona’s valuable handkerchief on the floor and, in an effort to please her husband, gives it to him, unknowingly aiding in his wicked plan.

Emilia quotes Emilia, “I will have the work removed and give it to Iago. Only Heaven knows what he will do with it, not me. I only aim to please his desires” (Shakespeare, 1091). In addition, Iago manipulates Cassio into appearing guilty in Othello’s eyes by planting Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s room to suggest an affair. Moreover, Iago deceives Cassio into seeming like he is confessing to having relations with Desdemona when in reality he is boasting about his relationship with a prostitute named Bianca.

Iago easily manipulates and controls his puppets in Cyprus due to its small and confined area. Roderigo, who appears to be the closest person to Iago, is also under his manipulation. Iago takes advantage of Roderigo’s infatuation with Desdemona to perform tasks that he doesn’t want to be associated with. Iago informs Roderigo about Desdemona’s alleged affair and orders him to “knock out his brains.” (Shakespeare, 1080) Being in Cyprus transforms Iago from being powerless to the most powerful, allowing him to manipulate everyone close to him with the power given by Othello.

Throughout the play, Othello undergoes the most significant transformation among the three characters. Initially, Othello holds the revered position of a highly regarded general in the Venetian forces but tragically evolves into a murderer. While residing in Venice, Othello serves as the council’s primary figure for military leadership, although he lacks ultimate authority and must comply with their decisions. This can be observed in the play when he is instructed to fulfill his military duties in Cyprus as per the council’s orders. Additionally, Othello is characterized by his unwavering trust. He places complete faith in ‘Honest’ Iago to safeguard his wife during times of war.

Othello addresses the council, saying, “Please your grace, my ancient is a man of integrity and reliability. I entrust him with the responsibility of taking care of my wife and anything else your grace deems necessary to send after me” (Shakespeare, 1018). However, once in Cyprus, Othello becomes the most influential person due to his role as the commanding officer. This authority causes him to lose trust in almost everyone around him, leading to his descent into madness. Othello transforms from a confident and secure man into a self-doubting individual. His doubts are evident in his questioning of his wife’s loyalty.

Despite the fact that Iago plants the seed of unfaithfulness in Othello’s mind, it is Othello himself who allows it to spiral out of control. In Cyprus, Othello undergoes a change and begins to mistreat women for the first time. He forces Desdemona to swear her loyalty due to his lack of trust. He starts by calling her a whore and even goes as far as physically abusing her in front of his colleague. Lodovico is shocked by Othello’s actions and remarks, “My lord, this would not be believed in Venice, Though I should swear it I saw’t. ‘Tis very much.” Othello also commits a crime that not only alters his own life but also affects everyone around him. With Iago’s assistance, Othello decides to kill his wife, Desdemona. Upon the revelation of the truth, Othello feels trapped and believes suicide is his only option. This sequence of events would never occur in Venice where Othello is aware of the standards and traditions. However, with the change in setting where Othello has complete control, he abuses his power. Ultimately, it is through both settings that Othello’s tragic flaw of insecurity is revealed.

Shakespeare employs a stark contrast between the refined and civilized city of Venice and the war-torn island of Cyprus in The Tragedy of Othello, a tale that unfolds in two vastly different settings. This contrast serves to heighten the intensity of the characters’ actions, as they are influenced and transformed by their surroundings. Desdemona, once a vibrant figure, becomes a shadow of her former self, subjected to abuse. Iago, on the other hand, evolves into a manipulative villain with considerable power. Lastly, Othello, the protagonist, experiences a shift in his character, transitioning into an insecure leader consumed by his thirst for power. This contrast of settings and its effect on the characters’ behavior is a pivotal aspect of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Work Cited Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Othello.” Trans. ArrayLiterature.. 2nd. New York: The McGraw Hill, 2008. 1012-1097. Print.

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