"Speak of me as I am", Othello asks us in his final speech. Difficult. He is introduced as "as old black ram", "a lascivious Moor" with "thick lips". The picture built up is of a foreigner to Venice, inhuman and savage, whose chief interest in life is "tupping" the fair ladies of Venice. The reference to "Moor" rather than "Othello" strengthens our initial conception of something subhuman.
The contrast between this image and the character that appears in act I, scene 2 is deliberately strong. His first words are noble, "Keep up your bright swords..." and he proves himself very eloquent in the scene that follows. More interesting, however, is something he says earlier to Iago:
My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly(1.2.31-32)
This is ironic considering what has already been said of him and what is to follow, but particularly considering the word "manifest". The visual manifestation of Othello is as a black man, as a Moor. Yet he would have himself manifested as otherwise. When he is before the senate, his manners are those of the most eloquent and civilised Venetian. Though he claims to be "rude" in his speech, he is anything but that. It is an example of apologia, a rhetorical device where the speaker undermines his own speech to give it a greater effect. Though he speaks of the exotic, of the Anthrophagi, of "men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders", his challenge is surely that he is not such a savage. It is as though Shakespeare is challenging his audience to see beyond the inescapable fact that Othello is a black man: that he is "not what he seems".
Othello is a man of words. At first and last, he creates an image for himself, of a civilised Venetian with an exotic and beguiling past. This image, conjured with his eloquence, is the more powerful for his identification as a soldier. He appears to talk as a soldier, of martial life, of battles and sieges, but his words are poetic rather than brusque. He excuses himself as, "little blessed with the soft phrase of peace", with "little of this great world" to speak. But his rhetoric is indeed blessed and charming and he has more than anyone of "this great world to speak".
But he too, is vulnerable. Perhaps being so passionate, he is the most vulnerable to the words of others, particularly Iagos. As Iago works his spell over Othello, his character seems to change and this is reflected in his language. He loses authority. In tense situations, he no longer comes out with gems like "Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them." but instead litters his speech with oaths. He becomes passionate, crazed, screaming of "Handkerchiefs! confessions! handkerchiefs!". He is reduced to a bestial savage. It is once he falls under Iagos spell that his language really becomes soldierly. His treatment of Desdemona becomes brusque, his tone loses its earlier softness. He is decisive and resolute, unyielding to Desdemonas unassertive protests.
Othello is always, though, a man of honour even if his honour is misdirected. Iago cannot change characters, just direct them. His murder of Desdemona he sees as a sacrifice not a murder of hate and, in his remorse, he describes himself as an "honourable murderer". His own suicide is one of warriors honour. He would not let himself be punished by the state. He admits his guilt and does the punishing himself.
There is some debate as to whether Othello is "black" as night or dark olive-skinned "brown". He comes from North Africa and would more likely be "brown", and there is evidence to suggest that some inspiration for his character was drawn from the Moorish ambassador to the court of Elizabeth. This debate is fairly academic but what is certain is that due to his colour he is an outsider no matter how he may act in the minds of the Venetians (Brabantio certainly takes little convincing). However, he seems over the course of the play to allow himself to become the black devil some see him as. The apparent racism in this is undermined by the fact that it is Iagos white-man influence that, by bestowing him with the tag of
|Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Bibliomania.com Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.|