Affinity and Polarity in Shakespeare's "Othello" – Analyzing the 'Otherness' With Respect to Protestant England

Term Paper, 2011

17 Pages, Grade: 2,3



When analyzing Othello - and also other Shakespearean dramas - there is no denying the fact that Shakespeare dealt not only with regional cultures and traditions but also with transregional ones, which may was not only a novelty to the audience back then, but also an interesting approach to deal with foreign and also controversial religion and behaviorism in literature. G. Wilson Knight even noted in the introduction of his book Shakespeare and Religion: Essays of Forty Years, that “[m]ore and more [he] began to see Shakespeare as a national, and thence a world, prophet.” (Knight 2). Shakespeare made these range of subjects available for discussion and even today challenges and inspires, at the same time, modern scholars to widen their view, by taking into account so far disregarded literature. Mark Hutchings especially points out the sudden interest of scholars in the eastern world. He cites Pfister and notes:

[T]hat he omitted from this list the area with which this issue of Shakespeare is concerned is an indication of how rapid (if belated) has been the shifting of the scholarly gaze eastwards, in the past few years, to beyond Italy and indeed the Mediterranean, to interrogate the historical and cultural significance of that „„other‟‟ world in, and through, western eyes. (Hutchings 112)

In my essay I want to expand particularly on the different religions, namely the Christian religion and the „otherness‟, and oppose them by analyzing their visualization in the play - and in secondary material. To avoid becoming involved too much with the diversity of these religions, I want to stick as close to Shakespeare's representation as possible. However, with the richness of material dealing with every of Shakespeare's works, one does (and also should) not skip, involving secondary sources, as they not only consolidate a statement, but also enable, in this case, the reader to take a look at Othello from a more variable perspective, to become aware of the comprehensiveness of detail presented in the play. Also, when dealing with the „otherness‟ or foreign religion, one can easily „put one‟s foot in‟ by making false assumptions, based upon insufficient research. This can be prevented by taking into account as much sources as possible.

Iago, the treacherous preacher

As Michael Neill writes:

In early modern thought adultery was conceived (as the etymology of the two words indicates) quite literally as a form of adulteration: involving both pollution of a divinely sanctioned bond, and an assault on the 'natural' genealogical boundaries of the family, its monstrous character was mirrored in its bastard offspring. (Neill 145) Assuming that adultery was in fact a form of adulteration at the time Shakespeare wrote Othello, would also include a kind of viciousness in Shakespeare‟s play. His way of writing often tended to be provoking, in terms of violating social conventions. Even though Othello converted to Christianity, he still remains a moor and therefore a Muslim, in the eyes of Iago. The otherness of Othello poses a threat to Iago. Neill even goes as far as to claim that: Conveniently for lago, medieval theology had enlarged the concept of adultery to include marriage with non-Christians - Jews, Muslims, and pagans - under the rubric of 'interpretive adultery'. In this connection the ambiguity of 'Moor' as both a religious and an ethnic category is doubly useful to the villain, since he can also exploit the popular prejudice - still reflected in such locutions as 'bastard race' - that regarded any form of miscegenation unnatural and adulterate. (Neill 145)

Iago is a master of illusion and manipulation and mainly uses his rhetorical skills to achieve his own „goals‟. To reason for his actions, he even interprets certain facts in a way to answer the purpose, which makes him very dangerous, because he always performs with a deep conviction. One could even allude to Iago being at peace with himself and his actions.

Iago talks or „prays‟ with the creed of a preacher, while having his will. He performs his treacherous preach upon the unworthy. This strong connection to his belief, may also be a reason for his self-confidence. Neill says that, “Iago's language insidiously capitalizes on these widely diffused notions, as well as on the biblical texts that linked blackness with sexual transgression” (Neill 145). Iago is also “energized by ancient beliefs,” which match Africa to deformed creatures, and reason their deformity to the “promiscuous coition of men and animals” according to the writer Jean Bodin (cf. Neill 145). One could even argue, that Iago is the personified Christianity, judging upon all „sinners‟, or those believing in something other. Extending this thought, we could also view Iago as a sort of extremist, putting people‟s belief to the proof and perhaps even sorting those out being „unworthy‟ in the eyes of a Christian believer - or God.

Iago's actions are kind of justified from his point of view, as he is a pure believer of the Christianity and even willing to take every step that could prevent something nefarious from happening. As Othello is not a real Christian in Iago's eyes, the marriage between Desdemona and Othello is not licit.

It is the special triumph of the villain's insinuations to plant the suggestion that the Moor's colour is the mark of such monstrosity: thus it becomes proof of the 'unnatural' character of his marriage, making Desdemona's elopement seem like a breach of the most fundamental laws of kind; and because her marriage constitutes an act of generic adulteration, it must inevitably spawn further adultery, since 'very nature will instruct her ... to some second choice' (2.1.228-9). (Neill 145-146)

The Christian belief is portrayed as being very obstinate and intolerant towards any other beliefs or thoughts, besides this one religion, in Shakespeare‟s Othello. Huston Diehl, in his essay entitled Religion and Shakespearean tragedy, remarks that, “[s]hortly after Elizabeth Tudor became England‟s queen in November 1558, the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity were passed, effectively outlawing the practice of Roman Catholicism in England and making Elizabeth I head of the Church of England” (Diehl 86). Diehl also notes, that “[w]e do not know anything directly about Shakespeare‟s religious beliefs, though some scholars have speculated that members of his family were recusants, Roman Catholic believers who refused to conform to the Protestant faith” (Diehl 86). Summing up these facts, family members of Shakespeare were Roman Catholic believers, in an England that did not tolerate the practice of Roman Catholicism at that time. The Christian belief therefore did not tolerate any other religion next to it, which brings us back to Shakespeare‟s depiction of Christian belief in Othello. Iago‟s exertion of his religion pretty much pictures the situation of England back then, by showing that there is neither space for, nor the will to tolerate other religions besides Christianity.

Iago can even be seen as kind of racist, as he nurses a strong aversion against Othello in general, and expresses this by often addressing his heritage in a negative way. We can see this emotion, Iago puts into his actions turning against his opponent, for instance when he calls him “an old black ram” right at the beginning of the play (1.1.89). However, this is “color-based racism” and does not directly address Othello's religion, but rather his appearance (cf. Lupton 77-78). Lupton argues, that “Iago uses bestial and demonic images of blackness in order to deform and prejudice Brabantio's - and by extension the audience's - reception of the elopement” (Lupton 77). It is not certain, whether Iago's aversion is caused by Desdemona's rejection, or just because Othello is a pretty successful man of an'other' heritage and belief - although he converted to Christianity, Iago does not recognize him as one of his own kind. Iago's general misanthropy can be seen as a hint to conclude that he is a very selfish person, taking Desdemona's rejection personal and therefore plotting this intrigue to take revenge on her and the people she loves. However, it is very likely that the racial or religious aspect plays a very important role in this play.


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Affinity and Polarity in Shakespeare's "Othello" – Analyzing the 'Otherness' With Respect to Protestant England
University of Stuttgart
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Shakespeare, Othello, Religion, pagan, moor, otherness
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Volker Hartmann (Author), 2011, Affinity and Polarity in Shakespeare's "Othello" – Analyzing the 'Otherness' With Respect to Protestant England, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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