Whilst simultaneously displaying both aspects of virtue and valour at certain points throughout the play, one may see Shakespeare’s 1604 character of Othello, the Moor of Venice, as admirable because of these qualities. One whom possesses virtue and valour, have high morals, merit, and show courage in the face of danger, particularly in battle.
Granted, these aspects may make an individual more admirable than somebody without, however, it must be questioned if these traits are essential to be regarded as commendable. This very question is one that will be explored in the following essay.
In the given extract from Act 1 Scene 3, one can see Othello defending himself to Brabantio, a respected Senate in Venice, and the father of Desdemona. One instantly is told about the adventurous life that Othello has led: “from year to year- the battles, sieges, fortunes, that I have passed”.
Although this presents a sense of courage from Othello, Shakespeare here uses sibilance to highlight a more sinister tone to these feats. One may suggest that this sibilance serves to indicate how the experiences of battle and conflict can have detrimental effects on the soldiers, which in turn, affect the people around them. Also, the juxtaposition between the idea of heroism and the sibilance highlights the juxtaposition between valour and virtue. How can one have good morals and merit, whilst also withholding valour which came from bravery in battle.
Typically, men in battle would kill the enemy, which is not morally correct. The contrast between the two qualities emphasises the immense expectations that are thrusted upon the 17th-century male, and how sometimes, these expectations are almost impossible to conform to. It should also be highlighted how Othello leads with this when he begins his defence. Not only does this indicate his position as a man in the patriarchy, but also as a person of colour in typically white Venice.
The expectation of him to be valorous in battle, virtuous in day-to-day life, and also combat the racial inequality in this society is almost impossible, forcing him to only be able to magnify upon his most important feature: his talent in battle. Although the “Moor” has many different qualities, this is the only one he is truly respected for, and the one that grants him admiration.
Initially, the audience is presented a version of Othello which is distorted through the anger of Iago when he tells Brabantio how Othello has “robbed “ him, regarding him as an “old black ram” who is “tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe”. This idea of the ram along with the description of Othello as “the devil”, serves to produce a demonic atmosphere around him, affecting our opinion of him from the outset. However, this is altered when Othello is introduced, where he radiates a sense of decorum and virtue as he addresses the matter at hand.
His exceeding respect for Brabantio, calling him a “most worthy signor”, and his calm demeanour demolish what is expected of him as a person of colour; being filled with rage and retaliation. His virtuous attitude, and the valour he emanates make him rather admirable, especially to Desdemona who had a “greedy ear” for Othello’s recounts of his experiences.
Though Othello does display virtuous and valorous ideals, he still falls victim to Iago. When a sympathetic reading is applied, one can see that Othello’s good nature was twisted and contorted into evil, by the deception and manipulation of the person whom he thought he could trust the most, Iago. From the exposition of being introduced to the protagonist, one can clearly see that Othello is truly in love with Desdemona, however, his love for her “free and bounteous mind” was broken down and destroyed by the Machiavellian villain, Iago.
It Is up for debate as to whether the destruction of the supposed “love [for] the gentle Desdemona”, is due to Iago’s power of manipulation or Othello’s weak state of mind. However, both ideas can be incorporated as Iago utilises Othello’s lack of social security, and his role as an outsider in society in order to manipulate him into believing his wife’s supposed infidelity.
Iago’s power of manipulation, and Othello’s weakened state of mind due to his societal place, both contribute to the stripping away of the protagonist’s morality and goodness, leading to the deterioration of the once strong love he had for Desdemona. Othello’s eventual descent into madness strip away his virtuous and valorous qualities, all down to the “green-eyed monster”.
However, one may suggest that it is not fair that jealousy should be blamed for this. The figurative metaphor of jealousy allows both Othello and Iago to abdicate the responsibility for the actions they took when dealing with the situation. However, one should think that the two characters should take full accountability for the events that unfolded throughout the play, and not relinquish it.
Othello’s virtue and valour were made a victim by the sadistic Iago, and were completely stripped away, leaving Othello bare and prone to further influence and manipulation from the play’s villain. Nevertheless, one must consider the audience to whom the play was initially performed to. Roland Barthes, a French philosopher, theorist, and critic, declared that each narrative holds five separate semiotic codes. These five codes consist of: the hermeneutic, the proairetic, the semantic, the symbolic and the cultural.
Each one of these all combine to create a narrative and help one understand the said narrative. When one focuses on the cultural code, they can consider the societal expectations, what was culturally appropriate and acceptable in the given time and the structure of the society at the time the text was created.
For Othello, there are various cultural codes regarding gender, race, religion, and a myriad of other factors. When regarding the virtue and valour of the protagonist, one may have to consider the cultural codes for the 1604 Jacobean audience. The expectation for men to be dominant and to control their family, and for women to be loyal and faithful to their husband, not only explains why Othello acted as he did, but it also begs the question if the 17th century audience believed that Othello’s valour and virtue were affected throughout the play.
His morals of the time were those that fit the rest of society, and it is well known that he was courageous in war, so it can be suggested that his actions were justified for the Jacobean audience, thus allowing him to maintain a level of admiration, not from Desdemona or other characters, but instead from those who were in the crowd, viewing the play.
This is drastically different now as to a modern-day audience, one finds the fact that he murdered his wife due to speculation that she had been unfaithful to him, so one from a modern background with strip away their admiration that they may have built through the course of the play.
In conclusion, Othello once honourable attitude at the beginning of the play fell victim to Iago’s manipulation. His virtue and valour once made him admirable to not only Desdemona but also to the audience. Throughout the course of the play, this is broken down and distorted by Iago, and thus leading to the demise of him and his wife.
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