Shakespeare’s presents the world in which Othello is set as ‘a world riddled with corruption and prejudice’ however, The society of 17th century Venice depicted a hierarchy that favored the white males, such as Cassio, in the play resulting in the suppression of Othello and the female characters in the play such as Desdemona and Emilia. The main themes that exemplify the prejudice and corruption in Othello are the themes of race, femininity and the seeming distortion of The Great Chain of being. Shakespeare uses the character of Iago as the main tool to highlight the corruptibility of our own minds and uses the most civilized lauded European city – Venetian society in which Othello is set – to underscore the extent to which these “devilish” influences can reach.
Shakespeare uses contemporary fears to exemplify the culture and societal norms in the world of Othello. This is highlighted in the other characters perceptions of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona; “Black ram tupping your white ewe”. Tensions were high at that time in Venice as they were concerned with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Shakespeare uses the setting of the play to present corruption and the drastic change of people’s actions and mindsets with the change in setting. The move from civilization to an out posting highlights the destruction of societal restrictions and allows Iago unfettered access to Othello despite his lower position. Change in setting is portrayed in Othello as they move from Venice to Cyprus. Venice was presented as being a peaceful place where everything was in order, dichotomous with Cyprus which was chaotic and out of control, further highlighting the disruption in The Great Chain of Being which is exemplified as Cassio gets stabbed whilst in Cyprus; “I am, maim’d forever. Help, ho! Murder! Murder!”
Shakespeare depicts the issue of race through the character of Othello. Othello is of a high status in the Venetian military seen as a “Moor” by the characters in the play even by his wife; “That I did love the Moor to live with him”. Iago is used to highlight the corruptibility of Othello as Iago easily controls and manipulates him; “O beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the mat it feeds on”. Iago takes advantage of Othello’s guilessness; ”pouring pestilence in thine ear”, as he pushes Othello in a manic state as he corrupts Othello’s mind into believing that his wife was unfaithful to him; “confess-handkerchief-o devil!”, Othello cannot use full sentences as he is in a barbaric state of mind and loses his civility. The corruption in the 17th century Venetian society in which Othello is set is exemplified as critic Tim Wise on the ‘Shakespeare’s Unlimited Podcast’ stated that; “keeping black people off balance, keeps white people in power”. Iago describes his rhetoric working on the passions of Othello as “with a little act upon the blood, Burn like the mines of Sulphur” reminiscent of the fires of hell. The connotations of hell fire draw links between Iago and the devil not unlike Lucifer’s temptation of Christ; “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor…All this I will give you”- Matthew 4. This reinforces the corruption present in the Jacobean society as the mind of Othello is poisoned and manipulated by Iago. Prejudice is also displayed as Iago perceives that Othello is easy to manipulate due to his aporetic nature.
The femininity in Othello displays the prejudice that is present in the world of Othello. Women are not seen as men’s equal as they have demeaning positions in society as they are seen as either “housewives” or “whores” as stated by Iago. Shakespeare exploits the femininity and sexuality of Desdemona’s character to portray the submissive nature of women being objectified in the Venetian society; “I am obedient”. Her obedience to her husband is something that she keeps throughout the play due to the way she was taught and raised in society; “My lord, what is your will?” She also seems content with the fact that she will die at the hands of her husband; “A guiltless death I die”. Critic Ania Loomba asses how Desdemona is seen through the eyes of her husband, Othello throughout the duration of the play; “She passes from being his ally who would guarantee his white status to his sexual and racial other when her husband sees her as an adulteress”. This reinforces the way women are stereotyped in the world of Othello as she is objectified and treated as “bags” and “luggage”. In dichotomy with Desdemona, the character of Emilia is a bold and outspoken character who chooses to speak on the prejudices society puts on women; “If wives do fall: say they slack their duties…let husbands know their wives have sense like them; they see and smell, and have their palates for sweet and sour”. Emilia’s polemical speech highlights a common humanity for abused people in society, exemplifying the prejudice that is highly prominent in the world of Othello.
In Othello Desdemona and Emilia are the two only incorruptible characters. Desdemona did not change her ethics or morals throughout the duration of the play as her beliefs were strong even after Othello questioned her loyalty; “Your wife my lord, your truly loyal wife”. Emilia was portrayed as being a person of integrity, despite her misguided snatching of the handkerchief as she confesses her error as soon as she learns of it’s impact. Furthermore, her motives in her one duplicitous act was for the affections of Iago and thus once again highlight the gender prejudice as she seeks to please him through subservience. She remained truthful to an enraged Othello after he killed Desdemona even though it was a dangerous and compromising situation; “o thou dull moor! The handkerchief thou speak’st of, I found by fortune and did give my husband”.
Overall, the oppression and prejudice of characters in Othello illustrates that the Venetian society they live in is riddled with corruption. From the stereotypes “Moor” put on Othello to the oppression of women as “whores”, Shakespeare depicted the 17th century Venetian society as an advanced society but one that is still primitive at their core. This is also redolent of the disruption in The Great Chain of Being as they are civilized whist kept in the constrictions of Venice but then turn frantic when they move to “isle” of Cyprus where prejudices and corruptions are more prominent.