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Othello's Alienation

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Othello's Alienation Author(s): Edward Berry Source: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 30, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, (Spring, 1990), pp. 315-333 Published by: Rice University Stable URL: Accessed: 01/05/2008 11:43

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The most dramatic reactions to Othello's blackness within the play are those of Iago and Roderigo in the opening scene. Their overt and vicious racism provides the background for Othello's first appearance. For Iago Othello is "an old black ram" (I.i.88), "the devil" (I.i.91), and a "Barbary horse" (I.i.lll); the consum-mation of his marriage is a making of "the beast with two backs" (I.i.115-16). Roderigo, who shares Iago's disgust, speaks of Desde-mona's "gross revolt" (I.i. 134) and the "gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" (I.i. 126). As Jones and Hunter have shown, these characters evoke, in a few choice epithets, the reigning stereotype of the African on the Elizabethan stage. Othello is black, and his blackness connotes ugliness, treachery, lust, bestiality, and the demonic. This poisonous image of the black man, as we shall see, later informs Othello's judgment of himself. Although lago's notorious artistry is usually linked to his capacity to shape a plot, it extends as well to characterization, for the Othello he in many ways creates comes to see himself as his own stereotype.

Although he lacks Iago's sardonic wit, Brabantio shares his imagery of blackness, for his rage at Othello expresses the same racism Iago and Roderigo had incited in the streets of Venice. Brabantio has often entertained Othello and, with Desdemona, listened to his tales. Yet the discovery that his daughter has married the Moor releases in him violent feelings of fear, hatred, and disgust. He accuses Othello of being a "foul thief," of being "damned," of arousing Desdemona's love by witchcraft (I.ii.62), of working against her by "practices of cunning hell" (Liii.102), of being a bond-slave and pagan (I.ii.99). At the root of his amazement and outrage is physical revulsion; he cannot believe


that his daughter would "run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou-to fear, not to delight!" (I.ii.70-71). This sense of Othello as a revolting object, a "thing," recurs with tragic irony at the end of the play, when Lodovico turns away from the corpses of Othello and Desdemona on the marriage bed and orders, "The object poisons sight, / Let it be hid" (V.ii.364-65). The tragic culmination of Othello's repulsiveness is a sight that must be hidden.


Brabantio ascribes her love to witchcraft because he cannot believe that she could otherwise overcome the horror of Othello's blackness-"and she, in spite of nature, / Of years, of country, credit, every thing, / To fall in love with what she fear'd to look on!" (I.iii.96-98). Brabantio's imputation of fear in Desdemona may be in part a projection of his own emotion, but Othello himself later confirms her reaction when he agrees with Iago's assertion that she "seem'd to shake and fear your looks" (III.iii.207). Desdemona too provides implicit confirmation when she tells the Duke "I saw Othello's visage in his mind" (I.iii.252). This implicit denial of physical attraction shows that Desdemona tries to separate Othello's essential humanity from his appearance, but it also shows that she is sensitive to and disquieted by the insinuations that there must be something unnatural in such a love. She does not say that she found Othello's blackness beautiful but that she saw his visage in his mind.

She is secure among Venetians, insecure and uneasy in her marriage to a man she does not fully understand. Although Jago is wrong in ascribing to her the licentiousness that he calls the Venetian "disposition," she responds to Othello's jealousy with the tragically inappropriate reflexes of a Venetian lady. She attempts to win favor by coyness and indirectionteasing Othello about Cassio, equivocating about the lost handkerchief, asking Emilia to make the bed with their wedding sheets. Such gestures are intensely ironic not just because they tend to mwork against her but because they reflect her lack of understanding

of Othello. In her struggle to comprehend, she turns not to him for explanation but to fellow Venetians-to Emilia, who responds only with cynicism, and to lago, who responds with hypocritical sympathy. Perhaps the subtlest and most pathetic indication of Desdemona's estrangement comes when she answers Emilia's rhetorical question-"Is he not jealious?" -with, "Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humors from him" (III.iv.29-30).


The cultural gap between Othello and Desdemona confirms John Bayley's observa-tion that the play is "a tragedy of incomprehension, not at the level of intrigue but at the very deepest



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