An exploration of society

Social constraints

In one sense, the fate of characters in Othello is determined by their social status. Within the ruling elite are the Duke, Brabantio, Gratiano and Montano. The offspring of these people includes Lodovico and Desdemona, who would also mix with the officer class of the army, such as Cassio and Roderigo. Born to wealth and privilege, they were served by non-commissioned men like Iago and the other gentlemen who report on the Turkish war, who have respectable working wives like Emilia. Least socially secure were casual labourers like the clown, musicians and Bianca.

The chance to change

The army (like the navy) was one of the few institutions where someone could change their social status, defined by merit rather than background. Othello, a child of the army since the age of seven, may well have originated from the social situation inhabited by Bianca. Like Iago, he worked for years in the field as a soldier, but then he is promoted into the officer class, where his experience and skill propel him to the high rank of general. As such, he has straddled all social backgrounds, but as an outsider (‘the Moor’) doesn’t quite fit in any of them.
The fact that Iago is not given a position of command motivates his attack on the class which excluded him, embodied by Cassio:
A fellow …that never set a squadron in the field
Nor the division of a battle knows…
        Mere prattle without practice 
Is all his soldiership; but he, sir, had th’election,
(Act 1 Scene 1)     
Iago’s depraved mindset and amoral selfishness demonstrate that in fact he is not worthy to lead others, but he would merely blame his education and social standing as not being sufficient to become an officer. There is some sympathy for Iago’s resentment when the audience encounters Roderigo, who has wealth and status yet is a self-seeking fool.

Three classes of women

The social status of each of the three female characters in Othello determines how they are treated dramatically:
  • Upper-class Desdemona is honoured and revered, which is why Othello’s brutality towards her is so shocking. Her life and death occupy the most stage-time and her end is much lamented
  • There is no such outrage when Iago is disrespectful to Emilia, the working wife, who expects to receive peremptory orders. She appears in few scenes, mainly as an adjunct to another (Desdemona or Iago) and although her voice gains in significance, once it is silenced she is hardly mentioned
  • Lower-working-class Bianca is a figure for the men to ridicule, particularly for her apparent aspiration to become respectable. She is an easy victim of accusation, with no one to stand by her. Appearing only briefly, her story does not even merit a dramatic resolution.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.