Love's Obstacles in Othello

Seminar Paper, 2004
14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Patriarchy
2.1. Self-fashioning and Class-Consciousness
2.2. Renaissance Womanliness

3. Racism

4. Religion

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Shakespeare's Othello is full of interpersonal relations, which are determined by a large range of different emotions. However, to look at each of them in detail would go beyond the scope of this paper, therefore the focus will be on Desdemona's and Othello's relationship, trying to investigate why their love could not last in the given circumstances.

What might come to mind first while reading the play could be the idea that if it was not for Iago Othello's and Desdemona's love could have existed and they could have lived happily ever after; yet this paper is going to show that there are various reasons apart from the evil figure Iago which would have been a constant threat for their love and eventually would have destroyed it. The major ones are patriarchy (or to put it in a broader sense, society and its class structure, what is expected of decent women, etc.), racism (Shakespeare touches upon prejudices against coloured people, e.g. as being wild and barbaric in sexual ways, etc.), religion (Christianity vs. Islam or pagan believes and orthodox vs. nonorthodox ideas). In other words the context and background of the character's influences their way of thinking in such ways that make ideal love impossible. Iago actually just combines and uses the obstacles for his intrigue – he himself is no distinct one, but rather serves as a catalyst.

Once again it seems as if the ideal of love is the exact opposite of the love introduced by Shakespeare's play.

2. Patriarchy

The "dice of patriarchy"[1] was one of the strongest Early Modern conceptions of order. Using this image Mahler says that patriarchy combines as its vertical axis the category 'class' where power is distributed, a horizontal axis 'race' with which one could distinguish the foreign from the familiar and therefore constitute such as thing as a national identity, and a third axis 'gender' describing the relation between men and women[2]. These coordinates of Renaissance order of society strongly influence the play's characters relationships towards each other.

2.1. Self-fashioning and Class-Consciousness

Othello is one of the modern 'self-made men', who achieved to climb the social ladder actually higher than they could have in the more conservative and more class-conscious past, where a certain status could only be achieved by an equivalent 'high birth' or noble background. Othello's past remains very vague, though – at the beginning he tells the senate "the story of [his] life" (I.iii.130) but it rather is a tale than a biographical report relying on facts because in some points he contradicts himself[3]. However, already at this stage it becomes quite obvious that Othello's personality is not easy to grasp since he subtly arranges it himself, or "self-fashions"[4] himself in such an elaborate way[5].

Nevertheless Othello seems to be a very ambitious soldier, eager to rise in his social status. He tries very hard to overcome his 'otherness', having already gained some acceptance (he is actually indispensable for the Venetian society in matters of war-strategy) and being a Christian convert he still needs a final step to totally assimilate into European culture. It was a quite frequently practiced custom among genteel people around this time to use women as bartering objects to build up relations between different families or countries. Therefore it is not out of place to assume that Othello might not only have acted out of mere love, when running of with Desdemona, but that there is a rational element within his actions. The rash and secret marriage is not suitable for a middle-aged man, who is famous for his prudent and calm actions in difficult battle-situations. Maybe such pubescent behaviour is understandable in Desdemona's case, who is still very young and therefore might tend to thoughtless actions; in Othello's case it rather seems to be a symbolic action to tie 'black' and 'white' together by the strong bond of lawful marriage, which of course implies God's consent, an even stronger confirmation of Othello's successful integration.

Another proof for the dubious quality of Desdemona's and Othello's love Othello himself gives in his speech for the senate, in which he defines their love in a rather curious way:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed

And I loved her that she did pity them.

(I.iii. 168-169)

Once more Othello successfully 'self-fashioned' himself, i.e. he made Desdemona love him by telling her stories about his past, she liked to hear. So actually he did not give her a chance to really get to know him, but carefully arranged stories of arguable content, constructing an image of him he knew Desdemona would not only sympathise with, but wished to be herself:

she wished

That heaven had made her such a man.


2.2. Renaissance Womanliness

Not only Othello's actions are strange when considering his age and status, but also Desdemona's actions are inappropriate. Comparing her behaviour with what her father says about her personality is very contradictory:

a maid so tender, fair and happy,

So opposite to marriage that she shunned

The wealthy, curled darling of our nation


These lines, spoken at the very beginning of the play, already show how little the figures know about each other's true feelings and inner selves. Brabantio and Othello are quite similar in their ways to deal with Desdemona. Brabantio projects the ideal of an Elizabethan daughter onto her, and Othello the ideal of an Elizabethan wife. In other words Othello not only paints his own personality for Desdemona in bright colours, he also is not aware of her true character because he sees in her just the Renaissance stereotype of a woman and not herself, which will later on, when he becomes aware of this discrepancy lead to major problems. By acting in such a way, Othello confirms his conservatism – he is the male, active part ('self-fashioning' himself and giving an identity to his wife), Desdemona is the passive, female part giving up not only all her legal liberties with her marriage, but also (what she does not now yet) her identity, which Othello substitutes with his picture of her.


[1] Mahler, Andreas. "Das ideologische Profil."Shakespeare Handbuch. Ed. Ina Schabert. Stuttgart: Kröner, 42000. p. 301.

[2] For a detailed analysis of the Early Modern society's ideological profile see: Mahler, Andreas. "Das ideologische Profil."Shakespeare Handbuch. Ed. Ina Schabert. Stuttgart: Kröner, 42000.

[3] E. e.: Considering the given circumstances it is rather unlikely that Desdemona's father "loved" (I.iii.129) Othello.

[4] Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. From More to Shakespeare. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[5] On several other occasions Othello speaks of himself as if of a character, too: I.ii.83-84, I.iii.229-34. Even with his last words he constructs himself again, although he requests the others to speak of him without adding or leaving out anything: "Speak of me as I am." (IV.ii.340), but in the following sentences he does not give insight into his self, but once again 'self-fashions' himself.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Love's Obstacles in Othello
University of Stuttgart  (Institut für Literaturwissenschaft, Abteilung Neuere Englische Literatur)
Shakespeare's Venice
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ISBN (Book)
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Shakespeare's Othello is full of interpersonal relations, which are determined by a large range of different emotions. The focus of this paper is on Desdemona's and Othello's relationship, trying to investigate why their love could not last in the given circumstances.
Love, Obstacles, Othello, Shakespeare, Venice
Quote paper
Eva Forster (Author), 2004, Love's Obstacles in Othello, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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