Othello, the Other
The character of Othello exists as an outsider in the cultural context of the play Othello, the Moor of Venice. This fact is inescapable: even the title starkly places the definition of who he (the Moor) is in opposition to the community where he lives (Venice). For us, it immediately illustrates that he is an outsider, a stranger in a strange land. For audiences seeing the play in the early 1600s when it was originally written, the significance was even greater. As a Moor, Othello was the personification of barbarism and wildness and Shakespeare set him against the backdrop of Venice, which at the time was considered one of the most refined and cultured of all European cities.
As a warrior, Othello is revered and exalted on the battlefield, exactly where barbaric characteristics would be an asset. He is a mercenary soldier, who was promoted to the rank of general in the Venetian army for his brutality, warlike volatility and vast life experiences, of which no Venetian could have known. His history comprises a level of violence impossible for the other characters in the play to imagine. They treat his descriptions of the slavery, wars, exotic locations and characters that have marked his past as entertainment.
Though it is Othello’s “otherness” that qualifies him to hold his position, he remains an outsider in polished Venetian society, which uses him for his skill but never completely accepts him. His attempts at assimilation have made him more tolerable: he has converted to Christianity and sworn allegiance to Venice. But, in the eyes of the state he serves, he belongs in the tent-city of the battlefield and is foreign to the streets of Venice.
He excels, though, in a military environment. Raised without family or a community, having moved from one place to another (by choice or by force) and subjected to the horrors of battle his whole life, Othello has made the theater of war his home. For this reason, he is the ideal leader of a mercenary army, a group of soldiers-for-hire allied temporarily for one military campaign. Othello leads this band of individuals and, as a longtime loner himself, bonds them into a brotherhood. Under their commander, they unite behind a strong leader and he sees them as the only family he knows.
Part of the reason Othello is so effective a leader is his ability to distinguish between wartime and peace. When the war has ended, his aggressive tendencies recede. He does not thrive on conflict in civilian life. But, he is revered and has made his reputation on his wartime persona. Venetian society does not value the civilian Othello in the same way, does not see, for example, how he could be a good match for a daughter of Venice.
A larger difference between Othello’s background and Desdemona’s could barely be imagined. He is older, from North Africa, has no family and has been a slave, a soldier and a killer his whole life. She is very young, privileged, protected, from the Venetian aristocracy and obligated to her family. Their love story is an unexpected one, but not unbelievable. Shakespeare was very fond of writing near impossible circumstances for his lovers to contend with.
Looking at their vastly different backgrounds, it becomes clear why they had to sneak away to get married. He knows he is an outsider despite his impressive status among the powerful Venetian nobility. Othello confirms his outsider status by not knowing, or not caring, about the customs of Venice, such as correct reverence to Desdemona’s father, and the strength of his conviction in retaining his wife despite the wishes of her family and the Senate.
Othello does not have the experience or confidence to make the best choices when in civilized society and is vulnerable to the influence of those around him. He relies heavily on Michael Cassio while wooing Desdemona, needing Cassio’s charisma and ease to move through the circles of Venetian aristocracy. He later relies on Iago when questions of Desdemona’s fidelity arise. Othello falls victim to manipulations in his private life that he never would sustain in his military career.
Othello’s history in war makes him susceptible to suggestion, especially to the suggestions of those he has depended on and been followed by on the battlefield. He’s incapable of seeing the machinations of Iago, his ancient, his trusted soldier, his unquestioning and proven supporter. Iago has been loyal to Othello in war, so why would Othello question his loyalty in civilian matters? His downfall is partially that, because he trusts Iago in battle, he mistakenly trusts him for guidance in society as well. Iago is among the only intimates Othello believes he has and among the only people Othello has let in and learned to trust.
Where Othello draws a line between war and peace, Iago sees everything as a battle, even, and maybe especially, in personal matters. He ultimately gains advantage over Othello because Othello lets down his guard when the war is over. Iago has found another battle to fight and it is against Othello for injustices, real or perceived. How can Othello possibly win when he doesn’t even know he is fighting a war?
Outside the context of war, the qualities that make Othello an outsider and recommend him to his position also, ultimately, contribute to his downfall. He is admired on the battlefield for his barbarism, his ability to kill and lead and fight, but in his personal life, in matters of the heart, he is lost and makes poor decisions. When prompted by Iago to jealousy, Othello’s more volatile tendencies return. He allows his barbaric nature to come out as his suspicion of Desdemona grows and, left unchecked, blooms into a violent passion that destroys everything he has achieved.