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Kyle McCartan ENG 364 Dr. Ketner Fall 2010 Shattering the Ideal Marriage: Gender, Race, and Social Status in In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Shakespeare presents a cynical view of marriage, utilizing generic conventions of comedy within the overarching context of tragedy to establish, and then shatter, the notion of idealized marriage. The Tragedy of Othello relies on the identity categories of gender, race, and social class to create an atmosphere of jealousy which, according to Walter Cohens introduction,literalize[s] the metaphorical destination of romantic comedy (2144). Gender plays a significant role in scripting Shakespeares ultimately cynical view of marriage, as most male characters view women as property, and all male characters view infidelity as an inevitable aspect of a womans nature. Women being viewed as property can be seen almost immediately as Iago tells Brabanzio he has been robbed (I.i.86) of his daughter, and Brabanzio condemns Othellos marriage to Desdemona by claiming she is. . .stoln from me (I.iii.60). Both Iago and Brabanzio use images of theft to describing Desdemona as a piece of personal property, which has been stolen by Othello. Not only do the men see women as their personal property, but their assumption of female infidelity contributes to the turmoil which concludes in Shakespeares grim marriage depiction. Upon the realization that his daughter truly wants to be married to Othello, Brabanzio perpetuates the stereotype of female infidelity, warning Othello Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see./ She has deceived her father, and may thee (I.iii.291-92). Since Desdemona has

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deceived her father to marry Othello, it is assumed that she will deceive her new husband as well, a reoccurring theme which Iago exploits to manipulate Othello. When Iago wants Desdemonas perceived infidelity to further pervade Othellos psyche, he capitalizes on this stereotype of female infidelity, reminding Othello She did deceive her father, marrying you (III.iii.210). Othellos minimal response of And so she did (III.iii.213) affirms the notion that male characters in Othello see infidelity as an inherent female characteristic. Even Emilia herself contributes to the perpetuation of infidelity stereotypes, as she rationalizes the cuckoldry of husbands for all of the whole world (IV.iii.73). Although Emilia attributes it to unkind, jealous, and inattentive husbands, she readily acknowledges the widespread reality of female infidelity. In a broader sense, Shakespeares cynical depiction of marriage is reiterated as Othello reveals itself as a quasi-domestic tragedy. Othello and Iago are both abusive husbands, physically and mentally, and the perceived infidelities of Desdemona and Emilia are immediately accepted as fact. Iago and Othello, with no concrete proof of any wrongdoing, abuse and eventually kill their wives based on insinuation and false precepts. Iagos relationship with Emilia is further proof of Shakespeare using gender roles to unravel this notion of idealized marriage. Iago controls and abuses Emilia, yet Emilia lives for nothing but to please Iago. Iago feels that she is his property and, operating under mere suspicion Iago fully believes Emilia has slept with Othello stating that It is thought abroad that twixt my sheets/ He has done my office (I.iii.378-89). This false assumption is one of Iagos many misguided motives for the destruction of Othello, and the assumption of female infidelity is once again restated. Shakespeare not only uses gender roles and stereotypes to tarnish the image of idealized marriage, he also extensively uses race to push Othello from comedy to tragedy.

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In act I Othello is established as a romantic comedy, adhering to the comedic convention of lovers overcoming barriers of race, country, social class. . . [and] the possessiveness of the narrow-minded father to consummate an unsuitable marriage (Rogers 212). Othello, the outcast Moor, has married Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator; a successful union of lovers despite being highly contrary to cultural norms. This ideal depiction is consistent with comedys representation of marriage, however it is quickly marred by cultural prejudices. Although a successful union of lovers, Othello and Desdemonas marriage is immediately negatively influenced by racial prejudice. Iagos initial attempt to sabotage Othello and Desdemonas marriage, although unsuccessful, brings to the forefront issues of Othellos race and social status. Iago reveals the marriage to Desdemonas father, Brabanzio, by hailing him in the middle of the night, exclaiming thieves, thieves, thieves sir, youre robbed an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe (I.i.79, 86-89). Iago furthers his racial emphasis by, thus far, referring to Othello only as the Moor, his Moorship, or a Barbary horse (I.i.113). The marriage is cast in a negative light by Iago perpetuation of racial prejudice. In this instance Iagos racially based attack not only dehumanizes Othello, as he tells Brabanzio the devil will make [him] a grandsire (I.i.91), but establishes Othellos character as the cultural/racial outsider. Despite his high level of acceptance in Venetian society, Othello can never escape his identity as a social outcast, and becomes a primary reason for the tragic ending of his marriage and his life. Brabanzio regards Othellos marriage to Desdemona as a theft of his personal property, not only because of preconceived notions of females as property, but also because of Othellos race. Damned as thou art, accuses Brabanzio, thou hast enchanted her (I.ii.64) through unnatural means, declaring that Desdemonas love for Othello is against all rules of nature, and

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she could never fall in love with what she feared to look on (I.iii.99-101). It seems impossible to Brabanzio that Desdemona could love a man who is not white, claiming that nature itself is against it. Even as Desdemona professes her love for Othello, she acknowledges it as an act of defiance, stating her hearts subdued/ Even to the very quality of my Lord (I.iii.249-250). Desdemona is noting that despite Othello being of lesser social standing, his wit and good nature have won her heart. Shakespeares comedic, idealized marriage is already beginning to unravel before the conclusion of act I, as issues of racial tension pulls at the superficial bond that has brought Othello and Desdemona together. In a final emphasis of racial prejudices in act I, the Duke remarks to Brabanzio that Othello is far more fair than black (I.iii.289), while attempting to console the estranged senator. Despite its complementary nature, this remark still puts Othellos race at the forefront of discussion about his character. Through act I, Shakespeare has established a marriage typical to romantic comedy, in a plot laced with tensions created by race, gender, and social prejudices. Othellos race becomes an issue again when Iago insinuates Desdemonas infidelity, leading Othello to internalize overarching issues of race and class, as he attempts to rationalize her betrayal. Othello fears that his race and military status have together conspired to make Desdemona cuckold him, a sentiment perpetuated by Iago, once again insinuating that Desdemonas love for Othello stems from something unnatural. Iago asks Othello why Desdemona has not married a Venetian bachelor more of her own clime, complexion, and degree,/ Whereto we see in all things nature intends (III.iii.235-36). Iagos words once again bring to the forefront Othellos race as the prime objection to their union, debasing Othello, leaving him to wonder if Haply for I am black,/ And have not those soft parts of conversation/ That chamberers have. . . Shes gone (III.iii.267-71). Due to Iagos perpetual badgering,

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Othello is beginning to internalize, and believe Venetian racial prejudices, as can be seen through the pervasion of black imagery in Othellos speech. When Othello fears his reputation has been tarnished by an unfaithful Desdemona, he declares My name, that was as fresh/ As Dians visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face (III.iii.391-93). Othello equates his formerly pristine reputation to Dian, a white goddess, and maligns his current reputation by comparing it with his own black complexion. Once again blackness has used for its negative connotations. Othello fears the loss of his reputation more than anything, since he knows it is the only reason he is accepted in Venetian society due to his identity as the racial outsider. Furthermore, when Othello learns Cassio is in possession of Desdemonas handkerchief, he rebukes all feelings of love, instead acknowledging his feelings for Black vengeance (III.iii.451). Othello compares himself to the icy current and compulsive course (III.iii.456) of the Pontic Sea, or the Black Sea, seemingly implying he can not control the tides of his emotions. In Shakespeares era, it was thought that non-whites could not control their emotions well, as they are less refined than their white counterparts. Othellos emotions will eventually take hold of him completely, removing any comedic attributes that were left in the marriage of Desdemona and Othello. In act IV, all Othellos internalized conceptions about his race and social status completely overtake his character as he physically strikes an obedient and innocent Desdemona. By having Othello hit Desdemona, Shakespeare has further tarnished the image of ideal marriage that has thus far been presented. Othello is now the opposite of the comedic husband whose unfaltering love for his wife can survive any test of man or God, and as Othello progresses into act V, this image of marriage is shattered, painting Shakespeares grim depiction of marriage.

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In the culminating act of Othello we are presented with the ultimately grim depiction of marriage, as the metaphorical destination of romantic comedy ends in tragic murders and suicide (Cohen 2144). Othello falsely kills Desdemona for her perceived infidelity, spurring Emilia to call him the blacker devil (V.ii.140) for doing so, once again relating his bad deeds with blackness. Not only does Othello kill Desdemona, but Iago also kills Emilia for unveiling his treachery to Othello, Graziano, and the rest of the characters still alive. Shakespeare has given us an unsettling view of marriage, and how external influences can destroy a happy marriage. With these two murders, Shakespeare has completely shattered the comedic convention of a happy union of lovers he established in act I. Using generic conventions from comedy within the overarching context of tragedy, Shakespeare is able to portray his idea that any marriage can fall prey to external pressure such as race, gender, and social status.

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Works Cited: Cohen, Walter. Introduction to Othello. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd Edition. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. New York. Norton. 2008. 2109-2116. Print.

Masterpiece Theatre Othello Essay: On Race and Religion. PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. 2005. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. < tg_race.html>. Web.

Rogers, Stephen. "Othello: Comedy in Reverse." Shakespeare Quarterly 24.2 (1973): 21020. JSTOR. Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. 18 Nov. 2010. <>. Web.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello: the Moor of Venice. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd Print. Edition. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. New York. Norton. 2008. 2119-2191.

Shwartz, Debora. "Shakespearean Tragedy." Cal Poly CLA - College of Liberal Arts. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <>. Web.