Literature

Othello Literary Perspectives Essay Breakdown

Timothy Clarke

August 26, 2020

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When it comes to VCE Literature, ‘Literary Perspectives’ is a major component of your learning and exams. If you’re studying any of the Shakespearian texts, the idea of using different ‘lenses’ to interpret 400-year-old plays seems silly and is a difficult task to approach. So today, I’m writing a plan for a Literary Perspectives essay on Shakespeare’s Othello. The question we are looking at is:

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Venetian society is depicted as unwelcoming to the ‘Other’. To what extent do you agree?

Breaking-it-Down

So what does this question mean? Well let’s first look at the keywords, and what each means.

“Venetian Society”-This is the group of people depicted in Othello. Whilst some characters like Cassio and Othello are from other city-states, they adhere to the norms and traditions of the Venetians, who live in Venice, Italy. 

“Unwelcoming”- In my essay, I consider “unwelcoming” to be active discrimination against people, with the intent of alienating them from society at large, but this is open to interpretation. 

“The Other”-This is a technical term from a few different literary perspectives. On a broad level, the Other is a person or group of people who are viewed as the ‘enemy’ or different from the dominant culture. 

These keywords are essentially what you have to include in terms of knowledge. But, what is the question? Our essay topic says “To what extent do you agree?”. You can choose to agree, or not at all, or be somewhere in the middle. Any of these options consider the extent of Venice’s welcomeness, but you have to use evidence, and uniquely, a literary perspective. 

My Approach

Before I even choose my contention, now is the time to decide which perspective to use for my essay. A few apply to the question and Othello, but I can only have one. Using Feminism you could argue that the women of the play are ‘Othered,’ but because they lack lots of meaningful dialogue I think it would be hard to uncover enough evidence. Marxism would also be good and would argue the working-class is othered. The issue with Marxist interpretations of Othello, however, is that there are almost no lower-class characters. Marxist theorists also regularly adopt feminist and postcolonial language, meaning I could appear as though I used multiple perspectives. I think Postcolonialism is the ideal perspective. The term “Other” was coined by postcolonial theorists, and Othello’s race and place in Venetian society give me the ability to flex my understanding of postcolonialism. 

So, now that I know I am writing from a postcolonial perspective, I can come up with a contention. First of all, who is the Other, according to postcolonialism? In Othello, it is quite clearly Othello himself, who is from North Africa, and is constantly the victim of racism, which begins to answer my second question; is Othello welcomed by Venetian Society? Well, it’s complicated, he’s an army commander and woos a Venetian woman, but he constantly has to prove himself worthy of these things. As a result, my contention will be somewhere in between complete agreement and complete disagreement with the question. 

The othered characters in Othello are orientalised by most members of Venetian society, and must constantly prove their material worth to maintain their agency. Despite this, the women of the play act as a foil to the racism and distrust of society.

Postcolonialism

Postcolonial theory has roots in a more modern context than Shakespeare. The colonialism of the 19th century and the decolonisation of the 20th century lead to colonised people reevaluating their lives and the role of the European colonists on a global, social, and psychological scale. When writing from a postcolonial lens, you should try to focus on some key areas. The most significant is the relationship between the colonised and the coloniser. How do they interact? What do they think of each other? The next area is the psychology of colonialism. One useful theorist here is Frantz Fanon, a psychologist living during the French colonisation of Algier. His text The Wretched of the Earth stated the ways that colonised Africans were mentally oppressed, viewing themselves as less than human. This is important when discussing the Other because ‘other’ represents the dehumanisation of Native lives which caused such psychological distress. A term I used in my contention should also be explained: orientalism. This term was coined by Edward Said and it explores the way the Other is viewed by the West. To ‘orientalise’ something is to portray it as something wholly different to European cultures, and exaggerate these differences. It results in non-Europeans being viewed as ‘backwards’ or ‘savage’ and justifies racist stereotypes. Other useful Postcolonial terms include: the Subaltern, who are the groups completely outside the margins of society, or people who lack any freedom; and Agency is the ability to act out of free-will and have a degree of power.

The Plan

With my contention and some useful postcolonial terms, I can now plan each paragraph. I am doing three, but it is possible to do four or more. I follow TEEL (Topic, explanation, evidence, link) structure quite closely, and have given simple but punchy topic sentences for each paragraph. When structuring the essay as a whole, I try to make sure each paragraph builds off of the previous argument, almost like a staircase leading to my conclusion. 

1. Othello is treated as an outsider and is a victim of racism and orientalisation due to his cultural background, constantly reminded that he is not fully Venetian. 

My goal in this paragraph is to agree with the question. My explanation has to show that Othello isn’t welcome in Venetian society, highlighting that his blackness and European views of the Moors fits Edward Said’s theory of orientalism. I will mainly rely on Iago’s perception of Othello, and Iago as a symbol of Venice’s intoleration towards the Other. 

Evidence of his culture being viewed as ‘backwards’ or fundamentally different from Venice will support this point. Iago’s first monologue (1.1.8-33) displays his intolerance to outsiders, specifically referring to Othello as “the Moor”, rather than by his name. Roderigo also displays a racist attitude, calling Othello “the thick-lips” (1.1.71). You should try to choose linguistically significant evidence. For example, Iago’s metaphor of a “black ram is tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” (1.1.96-7) provokes imagery of the devil (black ram) defiling a symbol of purity (a white ewe). 

To link this paragraph, refer to the use of orientalism as a method of othering that turns people against Othello, and intends to keep him separate (unwelcome) from society.

2. Despite Iago’s representation of an intolerant Venice, Othello displays a pathway for the Other to prove themselves in Venetian society, although this proof is constantly reevaluated by the dominant culture.

In this argument I’m going against my previous paragraph, saying that Othello is welcome, but on a case-by-case basis. My explanation will include an analysis of how Othello is othered and orientalised, but still displays agency and has a role of authority in Venice. Othello is trusted, but it is a very loose trust that relies on Othello’s continued adherence to society’s rules. To use postcolonial language, Othello is the Other, but he is not a subaltern; he has been given a place at the coloniser’s table. But despite viewing himself as a permanent part of this table, the colonisers are always ready to remove his seat. 

I could use Brabantio as evidence of this, as he had “loved [Othello” (1.3.145) but quickly begins to refer to his “sooty bosom” (1.2.85) and “foul charms” (1.2.88) when he thinks Othello has overstepped his place in Venetian society by marrying a white woman. Even though Othello has proven himself as a General, the senate makes him answer for accusations based on racism and stigma. Once Othello begins to fall for Iago’s trap of jealousy, Lodovico questions the faith placed in Othello, claiming “I am deceived in him” (4.2.310).

Therefore, despite being allowed a place within the Governmental structures of Venice, Othello’s agency is constantly at risk, being welcomed for his proven talents, but distrusted for his ‘Otherness’.

3. Although Venetian society at large is unwelcoming to Othello, either through racism or distrust, Desdemona represents an attitude of acceptance towards the Other.

This argument looks at a different aspect of the question; who is the Other welcomed by? Besides Othello, Othered characters are the women and Cassio, who is from Florence. Despite not fitting into the key areas of postcolonial thought, women still have a place in this analysis, as a subcategory of the native’s relationship with the coloniser. How does a group that is discriminated against in their own society treat someone else who is discriminated against? Well, we see in Othello that the women treat him quite well. 

Desdemona is the obvious source of evidence for this. Her adoration of Othello transcends his colour and she accepts him as part of her Venetian world. She is unswayed by the racist commentary on Othello from those around her, such as Emilia, and instead represents the welcoming of the Other on a personal, although not societal level.

Thus, Desdemona in her own Otherness and orderliness acts a foil to Iago’s disorder and discrimination. As a discriminated against woman, she represents the acceptance of the other in Venetian society, and the unbridled trust of Othello that the men of Venice lack.

Conclusion

Your conclusion should include a restatement of your arguments and your contention but also look at them in another way. I usually go through my points and how they relate to each other and my contention in a logical step-by-step way, each point building on the other to reach my contention. Point 1 leads to point 2, which leads to point 3, and combined, makes my contention. 

Hopefully, this brief guide to literary perspectives in Othello, focusing on postcolonialism, acts as a starting point for your studies. It’s about understanding the beliefs of the lens and then using this to form an argument. It certainly isn’t easy, so I encourage you to read around and practice this writing style as much as possible. 

Recommended Resources

On Shakespeare

How to Approach Shakespeare-Studying Shakespeare for the First time

Post-colonialism in Shakespearean Work by Alina Popa (2013)

On Postcolonialism

Literary Perspectives 101

List of Postcolonial Terms

Definition of Postcolonialism

Benefits of Critical Essays for Literary Perspectives Essays

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (2001), Penguin Modern Classics, Great Britain.

Orientalism by Edward W. Said (2003), Penguin Modern Classics, Great Britain.

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