The school of deconstruction developed by Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and others, denotes a particular kind of practice in reading and, thereby, a method of criticism and mode of analytical inquiry. In her book The Critical Difference (1981), Barbara Johnson clarifies the term:
“If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another. A deconstructive reading is a reading which analyses the specificity of a text’s critical difference from itself.”
Jack M. Balkin further explains, “deconstruction seemed to show that all texts undermined their own logic and had multiple meanings that conflicted with each other”. In this view, readers can analyse the Shakespearean tragedy, Othello (written in 1603 and published posthumously in 1622), under feminist and racial lens. Othello was often known as The Moor of Venice in its own time, and had concerns in common with The Prince of Denmark, reflected by these titles. Giraldi Cinthio’s novella The Moor of Venice is the main source for Shakespeare’s Othello which A. C. Bradley reinvented as a Love Tragedy or domestic tragedy. In this story of sexual intrigue and jealousy, we have a black man as protagonist in a time when black men (let alone women) were not even allowed to perform in theatres. Shakespeare depicts in Othello, the greatest fall of a noble man; the only black in a white man’s world i.e. Venice. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) comments upon Othello, “He does not belong to our world, and he seems to enter it we know not whence — almost as if from wonderland. There is something mysterious in his descent from men of royal siege; in his wanderings in vast deserts and among marvellous peoples; in his tales of magic handkerchiefs and prophetic Sibyls; in the sudden vague glimpses we get of numberless battles and sieges in which he has played the hero and has borne a charmed life; even in chance references to his baptism, his being sold to slavery, his sojourn in Aleppo… The sources of danger in this character are revealed but too clearly by the story. In the first place, Othello’s mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect. On this side he is the very opposite of Hamlet, with whom, however, he shares a great openness and trustfulness of nature. In addition, he has little experience of the corrupt products of civilised life, and is ignorant of European women.” We feel a sense of rejection of the unknown. Othello was baptised in an attempt to fit into his catholic brothers. Moreover, nowhere in the play are we introduced to kings or royalty except Othello’s mention of him being from royal descent. Shakespeare cunningly elevates the outsider while maintaining the modesty of royalty, trying to say that kings are not infallible and flawless beings.
Some critics argue the victimisation of Othello, whilst other believe it was his innate Moorish nature that led to our tragic end. Is then Othello truly a savage? Or is he simply a victim of Iago’s deception? The school of deconstruction allows for both the possibilities to simultaneously exist in the minds of different readers.
“Venice in the seventeenth century could be regarded by many as a model republic, and Shakespeare may partly have shared this view; but he clearly thought of it as having, in common with his London, a more disputable side. To this Iago belongs; he is ‘native here, and to the manner born’.” as described in Othello: A Marxist Study by Victor Kiernan. For the first few scenes, the major racists of the play, Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio clearly establish Othello’s position as an outsider by constantly excluding him through their mentioning of him as “the Moor”, “his Moorship”, and anatomise him in an extremely derogatory manner by referring to him as “thick lips”. When Iago and Roderigo inform Brabantio of Desdemona’s marriage with Othello, they reduce Othello’s love to sex and refer to him terms of animals; “tupping your white ewe!” and “your daughter covered with a Barbary horse”. Thus they clearly fail to see the “man” in him and rather regard him as a “talking animal”.
For an upper class white woman to love a black man was considered an unnatural act of miscegenation according to Brabantio and thus he accuses Othello of using witchcraft and black magic to woo his daughter. He says to Roderigo “O, would had had her!” whom he had rejected multiple times before, suggesting that anybody is better than an outsider, even if the outsider has risen from nothingness and and acquired the post of a general, purely by merit. Brabantio almost instantly views the situation as a communal problem and says “This is Venice” (1.1.104) justifying Alan Sinfield’s comment, “The racism and sexism in the play should not be traced just to Iago’s character or to his arbitrary devilishness but to the Venetian culture that sets the conditions of plausibility.” We see how deeply ingrained these ideas of racial hierarchy are in society which are simply mirrored in seventeenth century English literature. However Brabantio’s remarks could also be interpreted as merely in a fit of rage because his only offspring had married without his permission bringing in issues of patriarchal authority. This argument can be supported with the evidence of Brabantio’s friendship with Othello in Othello’s words, “[Desdemona’s] father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life / From year to year” (I.iii.127–129). Either way the well-structured and stratified society seems to be falling apart in both scenarios, on one hand with the violation of gender hierarchy, and on the other, with the collapse of racial hierarchy. Additionally, Victor Kiernan brings to our notice that none of Othello’s associates except Iago and Brabantio find fault with his marriage.
It seems Othello will forever be inferior to the native whites like Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio, in spite of his loyalty and services. Even in praising him the Duke regards his colour as undesirable. He says, “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” (1.3.291). Thus the idea of connotations of ‘blacks’ remains unchallenged. Othello himself constantly feels the need to justify his presence in society and his stature as general, for instance when in spite of his obvious eloquence he protests, “Rude am I in my speech, / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (1.2.81–82). We even witness him using “Turks” as an insult, much like Iago, which is extremely ironic. He can be seen as self-conscious and it’s as if his race becomes a synecdoche of his identity which he looks to secure (specially in his own mind) through Desdemona’s ardour for him. By possessing Desdemona he finally makes his way into the white patriarchal world according to Sukanta Chaudhuri in Shakespeare and the Ethnic Question. Walter S. H. Lin in Representing The Other: Othello, Colonialism Discourse argues, “The antagonism towards the miscegenation, indignation at not being given a lieutenancy and hatred for the ethnic other are all given in what is remarkably an effortless manipulation of Othello. Part of Iago’s ability to manipulate Othello with such ease can be traced to his recognition that Venice’s great general harbours deep seated anxieties about his place and identity inn Venetian society.”
“But when I do not love thee! and when I love thee not
Chaos is come again.”
The above lines show Othello’s investment in his relationship with Desdemona. His identity is lost as he loses her loyalty. His sense of inferiority becomes clearly visible subsequently, “For she had eyes and chose me.” (3.3.192). Othello’s fall begins as he begins to need her approval and acceptance in order to retain his pride. His choice of words has shifted from ‘deserve’ to “chose”. He further suggests that his marriage itself is unnatural and adulterous [“And yet how nature, erring from itself” (3.3.231)] and that nature will bring her back to the right course and she will love another man, a white man.
Most crucially, Iago arouses in Othello a consciousness of his race that he never evinced before. He sees himself in terms of a racial stereotype, in others’ eyes and finally in his own. Chaudhuri proposes that when Othello “reopens this fantastic vein” (the allusions to magic in the play, bearing early testament to an “orientalism” supporting the sense of racial otherness) by his own words,
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it
‘Twould make her amiable”
he alienates himself and reduces himself to an “other”, even in Desdemona’s eyes. Chaudhuri further posits that a self-division in terms of race is trenchantly reflected in Othello’s last speech. “he is both Turk, the “circumcised dog” -–no doubt ethnically different from the Moor, but equally oriental, adverse, “other” –-and the Venetian’s champion, imaginatively the Venetian himself.” From Act 3 begins Othello’s tragic fall as we approach the climax. He insults Desdemona and even uses physical violence in public. He becomes increasingly rude and for the sake of the plot or because of lack of nerve, never confronts his wife. These characteristics can be attributed, as A. W. Schlegel does, to Othello being a savage at heart. However they can be read as a reaction of a broken hearted lover in a patriarchal society which makes it very easy for men to suspect their wives. Besides he is not the only male in the text who reveals a certain dominant masculinity, but he is the only one who’s called a savage for it.
In the play fathers treat their daughters as property, and husbands do much the same. The women were expected to follow men’s wishes and the patriarchal authority simply shifts from father to husband. This echoes the orthodox beliefs of the traditional Indian system which is still subsisting in the backward areas of the country. Desdemona is a more plausible, well-rounded figure than much criticism has given her credit for. Arguments that see Desdemona as stereotypically weak and submissive ignore the conviction and authority of her first speech, “My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty” (1.3.179-180) and her terse fury after Othello strikes her, “I have not deserved this” (4.1.236). In Act 2 Othello himself comes across as a liberating husband, “My wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, / Is free of speech”. She later displays the chiding, almost mischievous wit in Act III, scene iii, lines 61–84, when she attempts to persuade Othello to forgive Cassio.
Desdemona is at times a submissive character, most notably in her willingness to take credit for her own murder. In response to Emilia’s question, “O, who hath done this deed?” Desdemona’s final words are, “Nobody, I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell” (5.2.133–134). The play, then, depicts Desdemona contradictorily as a self-effacing, faithful wife and as a bold, independent personality. This contradiction may be intentional, meant to portray the way Desdemona herself feels after defending her choice of marriage to her father in Act I, scene 3, and then almost immediately being put in the position of defending her fidelity to her husband. Thus we see that women are constantly attacked and have to defend themselves time and again. She begins the play as a supremely independent person, but midway through she must struggle against all odds to convince Othello that she is not too independent. The manner in which Desdemona is murdered—smothered by a pillow in a bed covered in her wedding sheets—is symbolic: she is literally suffocated beneath the demands put on her fidelity. The handkerchief that once was a gift, becomes a threat and the ocular proof that Othello demands for her fidelity. Thomas Rymer calls the play a “tragedy of a handkerchief” believing it to be frivolous. (Rymer, 1693.) However some critics do believe that the school of deconstruction allows for the possibility that Desdemona perhaps did ere and give Othello reason enough to suspect her. Othello’s almost obsessive fanaticism is reminiscent of Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover where passion turns to obsession. There is a sense of ‘madness in reason’ and ‘reason in madness’ that also concurs with most of Shakespeare’s tragedies like Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.
Another school of thought explains the Madonna-whore complex. In psychoanalytic literature, a Madonna–whore complex is the inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving relationship. First identified by Sigmund Freud, under the rubric of psychic impotence, this psychological complex is said to develop in men who see women as either saintly Madonnas or debased prostitutes. We see the female characters of this play divided exactly so. In the beginning of the play we see Desdemona in a saintly light though in the readers’ eyes she remains guiltless. However once Othello starts to suspect Desdemona, he wishes the punishment of her being “tasted” by “Pioneers and all”. In this we see the manifestation of his cruel masculinity. He regards Desdemona as whore and Emilia as pimp, “Some of your function, mistress, / Leave procreants alone and shut the door; / Cough, or cry hem, if anyone come. / Your mystery, your mystery: nay, dispatch!” (4.2.26-30). The tragic end is marked by Othello murdering his wife which is also the end of Emilia, Desdemona’s loyal and compassionate servant, who’s husband murdes her. In this manner the play depicts a bleak picture in gendered terms, with death as the only reward for women’s suffering and service. Looking at Ophelia and Desdemona, it appears to be harder to find their guilt that caused their deaths. Ophelia may or may not be found guilty by the audience in betraying and rewarding Hamlet’s love.
Emilia is the intuitive character who is practical in her understanding of the world and issues around her, and has all the insights that Desdemona does not have. Her experience and realism acts as a contrast against Desdemona’s idealistic views of the world. She loves Cassio beyond the treatment she receives from him. Ergo, the women characters have been constructed with depth yet they turn out to be victims of a patriarchal society, reduced to puppets at their husbands’ hands. Initially she plays a submerged character willing to go to any lengths to please her husband without question. As the play progresses, Emilia’s loyalty and goodness comes forth when she stands up for Desdemona’s integrity. In 5.2 she regards Othello as the “Moor” and admits to have stolen it at the order of her husband. Hence she emerges as an earnest, loyal and confident female character, who met a tragic end for such honesty.
David McPherson believes “Bianca’s most important function is to serve as a powerful contrast to chaste Desdemona, especially considering that Othello in 4.2 treats his wife as if she too were a mere “customer.” Desdemona is not a “cunning whore”, but Bianca is. The contrast is crucial. The existence of Bianca enriches the meaning of Desdemona’s purity, and the reputation of both women is more clearly understood in the light of the city’s reputation for whores.” Although Bianca enjoys more freedom as a courtesan, at the same time she is also suppressed by society for the same. It’s as if she pays the price for her freedom. She truly loves Cassio but because of her status in society, none of the characters in the play take her seriously. Act 4, scene 1 plunges into sexist humour with Cassio’s Speech which David McPheson in Othello and the Sexual Reputation of Venice emphasizes upon,
“This is a monkey’s own giving out. She is
Persuaded I will marry her, out of her own love and
Flattery, not out of my promise.”
No one takes Cassio to be censured, the audience is rather expected to laugh along with him. Thus we see the dehumanisation of Bianca by other characters once again portraying the bleak prospects of independent women. The sub-relationships in the play, both Iago and Emilia, and Cassio and Bianca also give insights into the reality of woman in society. Ergo, women continue to play the oppressed victim which was only a realistic form of depicting society.
McPherson concludes, “As for the sexual reputation of Venice, the characters seen against it are more understandable but also more helpless, more easily prey to the forces of their social environment.” Race is a tangible matter, and a recurrent theme of Shakespeare’s. Racial prejudice has always shown more virulently where sex relations are concerned. Martin Rosenberg believed that Othello’s colour consciousness was only a contributing factor and not the basic cause of his disintegration. He was flawed in character and fell prey to patriarchal structure that believes the worst in women. Even Brabantio, Desdemona’s own father says with utter certainty, “Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see / She has deceived her father, and may thee.” (1.3.293-295). In conclusion each reading assists with the understanding of the play and era. The Race reading emphasises the social boundaries of race, juxtaposing the Gender reading which depicts the oppressed status or seventeenth century Venetian women; both helping us transcend boundaries that society often imposes on the people. Chaudhuri concludes by rejecting any one “full” or “true” reading of the play but allowing the wider possibilities and the alternatives to flow. “I would propose that a truly universal reading of Shakespeare can come only if we follow him into this world of humanity’s uncommitted encounters with its own divergent selves.”