Meeting Othello II
Othello's Vulnerability (Act I)
We have already seen how Othello's personal authority and the respect he has in the Senate enabled him to defuse Brabantio's personal attack on him in 1.3. Even his form of address to that body is calculated to show Othello's comfort with and dependency on the Senate: "Most potent, brave, and reverend signiors,/ My very noble and approv'd good masters: (1.3.76-77)." It is almost as if he is a sort of Ciceronian figure, a master of verbal as well as military legerdemain (though he skillfully denies his verbal craft--1.3.81), who effortlessly gets his way through a combination of admission of the obvious, adroit storytelling, careful deferring to other eyewitnesses (i.e., Desdemona) and willingness to die if what he says is not true (1.3.120). Yet this proficiency and ease mask three problems that make Othello assailable.
Make no mistake about it. Othello is a Moor, and a Moor in Shakespeare's day would have connoted a Black African. As such he is a minority in a culture that, unlike the Ottoman which the play derides, suspects minorities. The status of a minority in such a culture is a precarious one indeed. It may be likened in our day to the perilous position of an African-American high in a Republican administration or among white Evangelical Christians. Even though those groups might want to tout their "progressivism" by including such a person in a leadership role, that person's life is strongly circumscribed. In short, he hangs onto his role only if he plays the role that the society wants him to play.
Thus, when members of the society want to undermine such a person, they do it through subtleties, through hints at the person's weaknesses that are also supposed to characterize the minority group. In 1.1, then, before we even hear Othello's name, we learn that a "Moor," or "his Moorship" or "thick lips (1.1.66)" is the subject of our tale. When Iago and Roderigo rouse Brabantio from sleep, two of the three images incendiary images they use refer to Othello's blackness (a "black ram"--1.1.88 and a "Barbary horse"--1.1.111-112). Later, when Iago successfully plants doubts regarding Desdemona's faithfulness in Othello's mind, he muses about the reasons for her infidelity, "Haply, for I am black...(3.3.263)." Othello's blackness is an important subtext of the play; it may not make him vulnerable in the Senate but it will do so in the sphere of private relations.
Already in 1.1 Othello and Desdemona have eloped and gone to the Sagittary Inn. No reason for elopement is specified but one suspects, given Brabantio's apoplectic reaction to this news in his speech to the Senate, that he would never have approved of their marriage. One might say that he has been deprived of as much of a benefit as Iago, but he reacts to it differently. Whereas Iago wants to destroy Othello for somewhat hazy reasons (including not getting a promotion), Brabantio will wash his hands of the matter and then disappear from the play. Act V, however, drops in a few lines about the later fate of Brabantio. "I am glad they father's dead./ Thy match was mortal to him, and pure grief/ Shore his old thread in twain (5.2.204-206)." One reacts to a personal affront by trying to kill the perpetrator; another by killing himself, or wasting away in grief. Though Brabantio will not, therefore, make use of the elopement as a means for further attacks on Othello, the reader knows that this act, which Desdemona herself calls "my downright violence" (1.3.249), makes Othello more vulnerable.
The Need for Transparency
So, what is the condition of a minority who has made it to the "top" of a culture controlled by people who potentially hate him? He must act in an overtly transparent manner. He must act in such a way that the dominant culture can think that he really is not a member of the minority culture, that he really does not partake of those stereotypes that the majority culture will use to crucify the minority when it wants to discard him. Instead of an overly sexual, devious black man, Othello must come across as a sexually reserved, straightforward person of no race. Though he may characterize his speech as "rude," he must try to conform his speech to the conventions honored by the society--hence the flowery opening of his speech to the Senate.
But it will be this technique that will undermine Othello. By being transparent, he must assume that others are this way, also or, if he knows that they are not, he is limited to the "weapons" of transparency when he fights. This makes him vulnerable to those who will use deviousness or guile as their modus operandi. Note how Iago delights in Othello's transparency: "The Moor is of a free and open nature/ That thinks men honest that but seem to be so (1.3.399-400)." What Iago does not mention is that Othello must be such a person in Venetian society. Once he uses the weapons of deviousness, he would be discarded. But, by using "clarity" as his only weapon, he will fall prey to the wily ways of Iago. This is especially visible in the scene portraying Othello's psychological disintegration, 3.3.
Thus, despite the apparent reality of Othello's authority, it is really only a veneer. Once outside of the friendly confines of Venice and the controlled environment of public affairs, he will, like Samson shorn, become "weak like any other man."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long