An interpretation of civilisation being nothing more than smoke and mirrors in the tragic classic.
To many readers, the distinction between the atmospheric civilisation in Venice, and the abundant lawlessness in Cyprus is perhaps one of the more prominent inferences that can be had upon viewing or reading Othello, and for good reason. The majority of the violence in the play occurs outside of Italy, and the denouement of the play can be seen as man’s descent from civilised ideals to barbarism. However, although minor, there are often signs that the isolation caused by the characters’ placement in Cyprus is not the cause for their eventual lack of sanity; instead, it is the warped and false ideals of civilisation that follow the characters from a deceitfully primitive Venice, to an overtly maddening Cyprus that ultimately produces the plays grim nature.
Yet there is sense in claiming that the characters experience the biggest moral descent after Act 2. When the characters reach Cyprus, it becomes clear that they begin losing the apparent civility they once had- this is first symbolised by the “foul and violent tempest” that ‘parts’ the ship’s commanded by Othello and Cassio, which also foreshadows the eventual separation between a supposedly civilised Cassio and a morally-decaying Othello. The drunken brawl at the end of Act 2, Scene 3 represents the importance of upholding Judeo-Christian values and an abhorrence of hedonism and roguish behaviour, as suggested by Othello’s scold; “Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that/ Which Heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?”- clearly showing that, as a leader, Othello values order and wishes that those who he represents uphold this order. However, the introduction of the peripeteia in the third act ironically juxtaposes this sentiment, through the symbolic kneeling of Othello and Iago at the end of Scene 3, as well as the powerful religious imagery in “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven…Arise black vengeance, from thy hollow cell!”. From this point onwards, civility is replaced by violence and oppression, such as Othello striking Desdemona, which Lodovico remarks “would not be believed in Venice”, and culminating in “the tragic loading of [Desdomona’s] bed” in the final Act. Such chaos, as well as a plethora of verbal abuse directed at all women characters, represents an abandonment of civility and the supposed virtue of “reputation”. However, upon closer inspection of the play, it becomes arguable that the characters’ values based on order and Christian societies are feigned in order for the cast to fit in- it is only the isolation of Cyprus that brings out the violent impulses of the cast.
Although Venice is only prominent in the first Act, which is slower paced and much less violent than the rest of the play, as would be expected, there are clear indications that ideals of a fair society aren’t held up to standards when it comes to the Senate’s questioning of Othello and Desdemona’s legitimacy as partners in Scene 3. Desdemona’s father Brabantio accuses Othello of witchcraft multiple times, suggesting that he must have used “practices of cunning hell…with some mixtures powerful o’er the blood”. Notably, the Senate takes these claims seriously, and, before learning that Othello is the accused, the Duke threatens the supposed perpetrator with the hyperbole of the “bloody book of law”. This response subtly implies a wish to condemn a man to death without any evidence, and it is clear that Othello’s “service” as a Venetian general is the only thing preventing the accusation being taking for a crime. Brabantio’s own conviction that Desdemona cannot “fall in love with what she feared to look on”, as well as his constant possessive referral to Desdemona as “my daughter”, reveals both misogyny and racism inherent in a man who wields vast power to his position as a Senator. This is the first indication that Venice’s mask of civilisation isn’t adequate; it almost openly conveys a belief that different humans deserve different treatment based on status (this is what saves Othello), race and sex, and it allows for a man to interrupt important political discussions for their own personal conundrums, simply because of their status.
A more thorough example of Venice’s lack of civilisation is the disregard for Othello’s PTSD by the entire cast, especially his own wife. After Brabantio’s trialing of Othello comes to an end in Act 1, Scene 3, the duke is imperative and politely demands that Othello “must therefore be content” to go on the “boisterous expedition” to Cyprus. This shows a complete lack of sympathy to Othello’s private affairs, but more importantly it also reveals an apathy to Othello’s troubles, despite his previous elaboration of the “most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents by flood and field”, his time in slavery, and his experience with “cannibals that each other eat”. The fact that this is what “won” Desdemona, which Brabantio suggests would ‘win his daughter as well’, indicates a general lack of consideration for Othello’s troubles, and instead a veneration of him fighting for the Venetian state. Later performances of the play have emphasized the affect trauma-in-conflict may have had on Othello; it can even be suggested that it ultimately leads to the murder of Desdemona, which he sees as a “duty”, similar to his military conquests. Although the term PTSD didn’t exist until the 1970s, that’s not to say that soldiers wouldn’t show psychological effects from basing their lives around serving their country. The negligence of Othello as a person, especially a racial minority, yet the reverence of his military service is clear hypocrisy, and serves to undermine the very foundation of civilisation as a way to tie all citizens of a community together through care and aid. Had Venice had the makings of a more progressive society, the tragedy may have altogether been avoided.
It remains entirely unclear whether or not Shakespeare was presenting Venice (as an allegory for his own British society) as a city lacking in empathy, without the true purpose of civilisation, which is to allow all citizens to prosper. It’s plausible that such a representation of Venice is simply meant to serve as a minor background, with no deeper contextual purpose or meaning. However, if we were to believe that Shakespeare was taking the more progressive route and was in fact chastising his society for its alienation of those without power, then there is an abundance of evidence in Othello to support this; Iago, a respected Venetian citizen, proves most of all that order can be feigned, and his solilquies reveal a disregard of moral values in favour of self-gain. Furthermore, the verbal abuse of Bianca by Iago and Emilia, as well as Cassio’s using of her reveals a disdain of the only character who likely belongs to the lower-class. Such actions reveal that the values of civilisation and reputation are only important to the characters when it benefits them- perhaps contradicting the idea of community in its entirety.