Monstrosity in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’
A consideration of the notion of monstrosity in Othello and its significance to the play's content and context
How does Shakespeare explore Monstrosity in the play ‘Othello’?
The notion of monstrosity features prominently in Shakespeare’s play Othello. The precise words ‘monster’ and ‘monstrous’ occur a number of times in the script, directly used by a variety of characters to characterise a variety of phenomena – for the most part, this conforms with the general English usage denoting something evil, terrifying or unnatural. Yet, certainly for contemporary audiences, monstrosity is something of inherent interest, relevant to the play’s eponymous subject matter beyond any direct use of wording. The title character is a Moorish general whose ethnic features – often through the description ‘black’ – are repeatedly remarked upon by himself and other personas. Though it is unclear, given the contemporary usage of the descriptors ‘Moor’ and ‘black’ to refer to a broad range of peoples and societies beyond Europe, exactly what Othello’s racial status or cultural origin is, the fact remains that he is an alien to Venetian society, although he has become a trusted military servant of its rulers. Brabantio, in particular, is prejudiced against Othello as a husband for his daughter, believing he has wooed her by witchcraft, and early modern English audiences would doubtless similarly associate his exoticism with evil and monstrosity. In one sense, this is vindicated by his climactic act of murder on Desdemona.
Yet this would be myopic in ignoring the extensive machinations that occur throughout the play to incite this murder, which all proceed from Iago, a figure with no remarkable ethnic features who is trusted by Othello and nearly every character he interacts with. His soliloquy at the end of Act I reveals his designs against his master and describes the plot as a ‘monstrous birth’ to be brought to light. All of the strife that follows, from Cassio’s dismissal, through the incitement of suspicion and jealousy against Desdemona in Othello, to Desdemona’s murder, purely occurs as a result of Iago’s scheming. Overall Iago’s acts are far more recognisably evil, perhaps to any audience, than anything associated with Othello, and thus he can reasonably be designated as the real monster in the play, along with the jealousy which is both his motivation (he desires revenge against Othello because he believes the Moor slept with his wife) and the emotion he stirs to accomplish his ends – jealousy is characterised by Iago himself as a ‘green-eyed monster’.