William Shakespeare’s Othello is a play set in Venice. The plot is based on a story about two people who love each other dearly and the problems and conflicts they face from the start. The conflicts are, for the most part, tied in with racial issues and questions of loyalty. These conflicts stem from the society around the couple, as well as from the couple themselves as they too are part of this society, but with very different backgrounds: The female protagonist is the daughter of a highly-respected Venetian senator: Brabantio.
Othello–also known as the Moor–is a foreigner, black in colour, has a past filled with tragic and exotic tales and has proved himself worthy of the title General in the Venetian army. Even before we, as an audience, have had a chance to meet Othello and Desdemona we learn that the match is considered as disgusting as it is outrageous. From the very beginning everyone and everything seem to work against them, but in the hope that love will conquer all we do not allow ourselves to despair as yet. And indeed, the first act proves us right. After having explained why they love each other the world seems to accept this alliance.
But Brabantio’s comment tells us that everything is not all right: (I. iii. 293-4) “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:/She has deceived her father and may thee. ” By disobeying her faher Desdemona has shown herself able to betray the person she is supposed to love and–according to Venetian norms–obey. The phrase “look to her” suggests several things: that Desdemona needs to be watched closely, in other words; she cannot be trusted, or that Othello should notice what a deceiver looks like and lastly, if Othello looks at her he may find that she is not as fair as he thought–the opposite of fair being black.
Desdemona has actively sought to alienate herself from the other Venetians by marrying him. Othello, on the other hand, seems to be more than anxious to conform with Venetian ideals. By adding “Moor” rather than a name or his position Brabantio emphasises Othello’s difference (=blackness). Brabantio dehumanises Othello, by taking away his name, his individuality and in so doing makes Othello acutely aware of his difference as well as well as making him believe that he is a barbarian.
When he says “if thou hast eyes to see” what he may be saying is that in order to see what Brabantio sees i. Desdemona’s marriage as a betrayal he must see the whole situation through Venetian spectacles, ot it could reflect Brabantio’s assumption that only if he is totally blinded by love he will fail to see what Desdemona really is. End-rhyme serves as a nice rounding off of the statement making it easy to remember. In III. iii200,209 Iago repeats the main ideas very effectively. “My life upon her faith” (I. iii. 295) is Othello’s reassuring response the first time this suggestion is put to him. Or is it so reassuring?
Does he mean his faith in her or her faith in him, or her Christian faith which in Venice also includes obeying her father? If the latter alternative is the case than his faith in her may not last very long. By deceiving her father she has proved she is not trustworthy. In one of the Norse sagas King Olav Tryggvason says he will reward anyone who kills his enemy Hakon the Jarl. Hakon and his faithful thrall Kark hears of this. The Jarl asks Kark: “Why art thou so wan and somtetimes as black as the earth? ” At night they both have nightmares and Kark is so scared by it all that he kills his master.
Then he goes to Olav with the Jarl’s head as proof, but Olav does not reward him. Instead Kark, who probably hoped to be one of Olav’s men now that he had done him such a service, is executed on the spot. Olav reasons as follows: if Kark betrayed (killed) the man who was almost a brother to him, how could Olav, who had hitherto been his enemy, trust him? This is paralell to Brabantio and (later) Othello’s way of thinking. By betraying one person Kark and Desdemona are stigmatised and must die for their mistakes.
Another point worth noticing is how they are both described as white (Desdemona is fair, Kark wan), but also black: Kark is “black as the earth” and, according to Othello, Desdemona’s “name that was as fresh/ As Dian’s viasge, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face. ” (III. iii. 389-391). Kark and Desdemona alike are described with this mixture of colours, and this mixture is sign of betrayal. In Desdemona’s case, she has, by marrying Othello, lost her own good name–in two senses, because she commited a sin by not doing as her father bid her and secondly because by marrying she acquires her husband’s name.
In both cases Othello seems to think she has commited a crime. Her respectable self is lost through her connection with him. He compares this with his own face: “begrimed and black”. Whether she is now dirty because he was dirty from the start or he feels that she has made him unclean is unclear to me. What is certain, though, is that he is far from satisfied with his wife, the main root of the problem is his being suspiciuos of her real character.