To What Extent Could it be said that the death of Othello Represents on Stage the Death of an Age?
Shakespeare wrote the play ‘Othello’ round about the year 1602 and it is still revered as one of his great works today, 400 years later - To What Extent Could it be said that the death of Othello Represents on Stage the Death of an Age? introduction. It is the story of a great man, a tragic hero whose only flaw was exploited and manipulated by his ‘best friend’ to Othello’s grievous demise. Othello perished by his own hand following the murder by him of his beautiful wife Desdemona. Iago had fooled him into believing she had been having an affair, and when Othello discovered it was pure fabrication it was too late and Desdemona was dead.
Having murdered the woman he loved, Othello stabbed himself because he couldn’t bear to live: “I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” To find what extent it could be said that the death of Othello on stage represents the death of an age, we must look at the play in different contexts – did Othello’s death represent a change in attitude or ideas? A change in the world at the time Shakespeare was writing? A change in contemporary drama? Or could it instead be argued that the death of one fictional character cannot represent anything other that a fitting and poignant ending to an excellent play?
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To evaluate Othello’s death and whether or not it represents the death of an age, we must accept that Othello must embody an old set of values, way of living, thinking or behaving (the old age dying out) and Iago; the new way of thinking that took it’s place – a new age surfacing. One way to look at this is that Othello represents old, ‘medieval knight’ values and Iago represents the newer, Machiavellian way of thinking and acting.
Critic A. C. Bradley would disagree however with the theory of Iago being a Machiavellian villain: I may add that Iago can certainly not be taken to exemplify the popular Elizabethan idea of a disciple of Machiavelli. There is no sign that he is in theory an atheist or even an unbeliever in the received religion.”
Machiavelli’s writings earned him a notoriety for being in support of deceit, manipulation and immoral acts in the name of achieving ambition. I would argue in response to Mr Bradley’s assertion, that is the lack of morals that Machiavelli is famous for advocating, not the lack of religion. I would also argue that Iago is in fact an unbeliever – in times such as Shakespeare’s, when Europe was undergoing the after effects of religious reformation, only a few years since the French finished their 40 year civil war over religion, people were very sensitive over the subject and Shakespeare would have needed to make it very clear that Iago was in fact religious in the same way that we know Othello is religious.
Iago’s lack of expression over his beliefs is a more significant piece of evidence than his lack of expression against religion. It can therefore be argued very strongly that Iago is a ‘Machiavellian villain’. From the outset of the play Iago is presented as a; manipulator, intriguer, mischief – maker, calumniator, mocker, deceiver, liar, envier, poison of men’s minds, figure of duplicity and of deliberate hypocrisy. He cheats and lies to people who trust him to get what he wants.
In the beginning of the play, Iago’s efforts are concentrated on Michael Cassio, a man promoted above Iago to a position Iago felt he was overlooked for. “Mere prattle with out practice is all his soldiership.” Iago seeks to disgrace Cassio so he falls from grace in Othello’s eyes leaving the position free for Iago. Iago confesses freely in act 1 scene 1 that he is the very epitome of a Machiavellian villain:
“I follow him to serve my turn upon him….
Others there are
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well by them, and, when they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul
And such a one do I profess myself.”
(lines 41/48 – 53 act 1 scene 1)
From this and other such speeches we understand from the very beginning of the play that Iago is an evil man, and set in context with Shakespeare’s other plays and works of the time, we guess that he is also the villain of the story.
As the hero of the play, Othello is the antithesis of the values represented by Iago, as Iago embodies the villain, Othello is the ‘Medieval Knight’. A medieval Knight should be; chivalrous, noble, a great warrior, a fearless leader, kind, just, courteous and Christian. Othello displays all these qualities, for example; his meting out of justice was fair when he demoted Cassio for drunkenly attacking Montano. He was humble and courteous without loosing face in front of the senate: “Most potent, grave and reverend signiors, my very noble and approved good masters:”(lines77-78 act 1 scene 3) and there is evidence that he was a great and respected leader: “Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you Against the general enemy Ottoman.” (lines 49-50 act1 scene3).
If Othello therefore represents medieval values, Iago the Machiavel is the new man of the age, the ‘cost of renaissance’. This idea is further supported by the religious stance of the two characters: Othello is highly religious as shown when he wishes Desdemona to pray and make her peace with God before she dies. But Iago is not openly religious and references he makes to God are in the nature of challenge; he is conforming to the social expectations of the Christian faith, but like Machiavelli he does not believe deeply that there will be any judgement for his sins – or if he does he doesn’t care. The new Renaissance man was much the same, advances were beginning to be made in science which made the Christian faith in it’s strictest form, obsolete – things which were thought to be of God because they were unexplainable were being explained by science.
Thus the death of Othello represents on stage the death of medieval values like nobility, justice and chivalry to be replaced with Iago’s power grabbing values, of cheating and deceiving. At this point in the analogy it could be argued that Iago also dies, we don’t witness it as an audience, but from Lodovico’s decree to Cassio at the end of the play, we expect his execution to be a grisly one:
“To you Lord governor, Remains the censure of this hellish villain, The time, the place, the torture: O, enforce it!”(lines 365-367 act 5 scene 2).
If Iago dies, how can he represent the birth of a new age? My answer to this would be that; unlike Othello who represents his whole age and the death of it, Iago represents just the beginning of his. The fact the he is present in the play is a foothold for his values because men like him with morals like his are alien to Othello and therefore to his age. Iago’s acts taught Othello, Cassio, Lodovico and the senate a lesson and that knowledge cannot be lost; following Iago’s actions, there would always be suspicion hindering trust and loyalty. Iago contaminates society and a good comparison to explain my meaning would be the story of Eve and the snake in the garden of Eden. Once Eve had eaten the apple, life would never be the same again – whatever happened to the snake.
Another context to examine Othello’s death in is the theatrical context of the time – what were other playwrights writing and how did the play ‘Othello’ affect what they were writing?
The trend at the time was to compose grand tragedies containing a ‘tragic hero.’ This hero is defined as a Tragic Hero because he fulfils the criteria of the ‘tragic hero equation’:
“A noble man responsible for welfare of state/high status
+ A fatal flaw/ misjudgement
+ the active malice of others
+ unfortunate circumstances
Tragic fall from grace
+ Physical death of the hero BUT spiritual redemption through repentance
+ restoration of proper values / punishment of the wicked” (*1)
This formula of action formed the trend of tragedy for contemporary playwrights at the turn of the 16th century. From the outset, a tragic play is like a wound spring – we know the hero will die, he walks an inevitable path to his doom “Like clockwork set going since the beginning of time.”(*2) We realise that once the play has taken a certain direction, there is a point past which the end is inevitable because of the hero’s fatal flaw. Telling Othello that his wife was not in fact deceiving him and sleeping with another man wouldn’t have changed his mind – he was so jealous he wouldn’t have believed it. Telling Hamlet to get on with it and kill Claudius would not have helped either because he would still have procrastinated. Tragedy at this time was emotional, inevitable and often maudlin.
This trend gradually changed with the times and evolved into ‘Revenge Tragedy.’ These plays were black comedies containing someone seeking revenge and culminating in a series of deaths sparked by the actions of the avenger. Many characters lying dead at the end was also a feature in Shakespeare’s style of tragedy contributing to the denouement of the play, but it was the characters in the ‘Revenge Tragedy’ tradition that set the two styles apart. Shakespearean tragedies had fully rounded characters with feelings, pasts, and traits that the audience can relate to. The new style of tragedy however had characters who would be nothing without the story they were in, they were defined by their actions in the plot, for example they often had names describing their character and are almost ‘characature characters’ – their attributes are exaggerated, there is little subtlety.
Both Othello and Iago are fully rounded characters and we are emotionally involved in their fates, but more so with Othello’s – we desperately do not want to see him kill Desdemona because we know the pain he will endure when he finds out about Iago’s deceit.
“We must be able to identify ourselves with the tragic hero if he is to inspire empathy, for we must feel that what happens to him could happen to us.” (*3)
This quote illustrates the need for us to identify with the character to understand the play and feel the emotions the playwright wants us to feel. We identify with Othello, we understand his goals and wants and we grow more and more frustrated as he boils himself up in jealousy. Iago on the other hand, we don’t understand or identify with, he is as Coleridge said: ‘a motiveless malignity’ because we don’t understand his motives, we find it hard to identify with him. We hate him venomously while still admiring him for his daring. It would be fair to say that we understand the character of Othello more than Iago even though the values of Iago are more familiar to us.
Shakespearean style tragedy is sad, eloquent, passionate and emotionally touching as is the character of Othello. We identify with the characters, their fate causes concern and we want them to live even though it is almost preordained by our experience of tragedy that they will die. We can relate this description of Shakespearean tragedy directly to the character of Othello because the play ‘Othello’ is the very epitome of this style. Othello is a tragic hero for whom we can pertain to, his death could be said to represent on stage the death of the age of Shakespearean style tragedy. With the death of one trend, inevitably another is born, and this new age is represented by Iago.
The new trend lacked the nobility and eloquence of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The final curtain fell on a scene containing many corpses, but the audience did not feel overly sad about the fate of these victims, just as Iago obtained a general casualness in the face of death and causing death for others. It is hard to imagine a more evil character than Iago and it could also be argued that the contemporary audience enjoyed watching the effects of his deceit and manipulation to the extent that other playwrights felt they had to imitate these character traits in their own plays, thus Iago directly spawned the ‘Revengers Tragedy’ tradition. Just as Iago indirectly, yet effectively killed Othello, the ‘Revengers Tragedy’ trend changed the style and mood of plays produced, meaning less Shakespearean tragedies were written
So to what extent could it be said that the death of Othello on stage represents the death of an age? We must bear in mind that there were many plays written at this time, Othello was only one of them. Therefore, the argument that the play ‘Othello’ effectively ended one trend of tragedy and brought forth another one, is too extreme an argument to take. We can however consider that ‘Othello’ contributed to the ‘snowball effect’ that gradually displaced Shakespearean tragedy, replacing it with a new style of play. Can it be argued that the death of Othello on stage represents the death of ‘medieval values’ and the birth of the Machiavellian ‘Renaissance’ views? I would say, that yes, this argument is very strong. Both characters resemble perfectly the values they are supposed to embody, Iago undermining, controlling and eventually disposing of a man whose thought structure no longer allows him to live in a changing world. As Iago once said:
“O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world,
To be direct and honest is not safe!”
(*1) Definition of a Tragic Hero – ‘Othello Oral Presentation – K. Bellamy
(*2) quote taken from speech in Jean Anouilh’s ‘Antigone’ discussing the nature of tragedy. page26 Methuen student edition pub.2000
(*3) A. C. Bradley lecture VI first pub. 1904