Exceptional Outsiders in OTHELLO
All of OTHELLO’s major characters would be unwelcome in Venice’s halls of power
Originally scheduled for spring 2020 and postponed until further notice, Lantern Theater Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s Othello features a cast of major characters who are all outsiders, on the periphery of the Venetian establishment. Venetian society was very strict about who could hold power in the republic. Noblemen could — and that was all. Those of foreign birth were excluded, as were women and those from less wealthy families. All of the major characters in Othello would be unwelcome to take a permanent place in Venice’s halls of power. And yet they are all extraordinary in their own ways.
OTHELLO: The Moor
The character most on the outside is also the one with the most power at the start of the play. Othello is a highly respected military leader and a favorite guest of Venice’s elite families. The Venetian rulers grant him even more power when they send him to Cyprus to defeat the Turks and then rule the island. He has even converted to Christianity, actively bolstering his connection to the Venetian society that seems to have accepted him. His military prowess and fascinating orations make him an exceptional outsider in Venice.
But Othello is also the character most on the outside. He is a Moor — in Shakespeare’s time, anyone with dark skin — and a former Muslim; Christians in Shakespeare’s time would have a hard time trusting his conversion. His foreign birth and extensive travels would prevent him from securing a place in Venice’s power structure, which demanded a spotless record and high native birth.
His outsider status both benefits and ultimately dooms him: Venice habitually hired mercenary soldiers and foreigners to lead their military campaigns and to govern foreign territory, which works in Othello’s favor. But they did this in order to make it easy to dismiss these foreigners once the conflict passed, as we see late in the play. Othello’s power is short-lived by design. His status as a cultural, religious, and racial outsider keeps him outside of Venice’s power structure, isolating him and providing Iago insecurities to play upon.
IAGO: The Climber
Of the major characters, Iago is the one who, at first blush, seems to be most inside. He is a native-born Venetian, a respected member of the military, and has friends like Roderigo who are members of the upper reaches of Venetian society. He is exceedingly clever and capable of building and maintaining relationships with people who are deeply loyal to him. He should be closer to Venice’s elite than any other character.
What he is not, though, is a member of the nobility, and by function of his birth he never will be. His best hope for social advancement is to climb the ranks in Venice’s military; by achieving military power, he could gain stature, wealth, and influence. When Othello denies him that advancement, Iago plans revenge. As a frustrated climber, Iago feels most entitled to be brought into the Venetian fold, and when denied he leverages his extraordinary intellect and likability to bring the other outsiders down.
DESDEMONA: The Rebel
One character is a member of the Venetian nobility, born into the republic’s upper echelons of wealth and power: Desdemona. However, she can access none of it, outside of the comforts of her noble house.
Venetian women outside of the noble class had options: rich ones could live lives of leisure, while less wealthy women could make their way by working. They could participate in Venetian culture, if not its power structure. But noble women, despite their families’ resources, had no such options. An ideal Venetian noblewoman was silent and seldom seen — in fact, the more they could literally stay inside their homes, the better. Their marriage prospects — and therefore their virtue — were closely guarded commodities, goods to be traded among the nobility to consolidate and expand power.
Desdemona is the one character who actively pursues her outsider status. By simply leaving her home without permission, she rebels. By taking her marriage decisions out of her father’s hands, she rejects Venice’s power structure. And by eloping with Othello, she actively joins him on the outside. She would never be an insider due to her gender; by making the choices she does, she embraces and pursues her own place with exceptional bravery.
CASSIO: The Florentine
There is one more outsider in the play’s main quartet: Cassio, a Florentine. The Italy of Othello’s time was not the unified country of today; Florence and Venice were entirely different countries. Cassio is a foreigner in Venice.
Florence was a wealthy state — on par with Venice. It was also considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, with its explosion of art, architecture, and literature. In addition to his being a foreigner, Iago objects to the things about Cassio most identifiable with his country of origin: his refinement and his academic nature. But it is, perhaps, these things that endear him to Othello and other members of Venice’s elite; just as Othello’s rich stories win him friends, so too do Cassio’s pleasing manners and impressive intellect.
By the time Othello’s characters and their compatriots land in Cyprus, everyone is an outsider. All of the Venetians on Cyprus’ shores are strangers in a strange land, one with echoes of their home but new rules and norms. The strictures of Venice fall away, leaving a new sense of freedom and the possibility of building a new kind of life. But it also means that guards are down and loyalties are upended — leaving Iago the space he needs to weave his deceitful web, using the particularities of their outsider status to ensnare them.