Discuss how Othello’s sense of identity leads to his destruction.

The ambivalence and contradictions in Othello’s perception of his self and identity in his attempt of inculcating and molding himself into a ‘foreign’ culture and seeking belonging into the mainstream Venetian society as a black ‘Moor’ ultimately leads him to the path of degeneration of the self and destruction in its literal worth. Throughout the play, we see Othello sincerely trying to model himself into the perfect Venetian of high birth, internalizing the Venetian society’s conceptions of race, gender, Christianity, marriage, sexuality and power and working to break free of those qualitative traits stereotyped on the ‘Moor’.

The play depicts “Othello’s passage from an ‘honorary white’ to a total outsider, a movement that depends on the impact of both racial and sexual difference.” Othello moves from being a colonized subject existing on terms of white Venetian society and trying to internalize its ideology, towards being marginalized, outcast and alienated from it in every way, until he occupies his ‘true’ position as its other. His precarious entry into the white world is ruptured by his relation with Desdemona, which was intended to secure it in the first place, and which only catalyses the contradictions in Othello’s self-conception. So instead of the unified subject of humanist thought, we have a near schizophrenic hero whose last speech graphically portrays the split – he becomes simultaneously the Christian and the Infidel, the Venetian and the Turk, the Keeper of the State and its opponent.

In the beginning of the play, we are shown the Othello completely identifies himself with the Venetians; his self perception is based on a white patriarchal masculinity of excellence in the public sphere, militaristic exploits, rational control of passion, emotions and sexual excess and control of women as one’s possession. However, his sense of vulnerability and insecurity of his position in Venetian society is also evident, in his constant reiteration of his intrinsic merits, his lineage and his achievements; he appears confident that his qualitative similarity to the ideology of Venetian society will match and counter Brabantio’s racism, “My services which I have done the signiory/ Shall out-tongue his complaints….” To inculcate a sense of secure identity, Othello makes himself believe that “my parts, my title and my perfect soul/ Shall manifest me rightly”. Also noteworthy is his submission to narrativity, the notion of self as a story. When Brabantio brings before the Signiory the charge that his daughter has been seduced by witchcraft, Othello promises to deliver “a round unvarnish’d tale…../ Of my whole course of love” and at the heart of this tale is the telling of tales: “Her father lov’d me, oft invited me,/Still question’d me the story of my life.” The telling of the story of one’s life – the conception of one’s life as a story – is a response to public enquiry: to the demands of the Senate, sitting in judgment or, at least, to the presence of an enquiring community.  He also completely internalizes the dominant racist ideology of his adoptive society, where colour comes to be invested with moral connotations, where discrimination is legitimized in the guise of ‘natural’ leading to a process that Edward Said calls the “Orientalist Split” between a superior European culture, constituting ‘us’ and the inferior non-European people and culture constituting them, establishing the hegemony of the former. This complete acceptance of this belief of superiority of white society in Othello is evident both in the beginning when he looks at Desdemona as his “fair….” and in the end when he is unable to reconcile the fact that Desdemona in spite of being a white angelic woman could be devious and adulterous, qualities he associates with being black. So, for him, Desdemona’s supposed dishonesty becomes “nature erring from itself”.  His identification with Venetian society is complete when he regards the Turks as the ‘other’ and himself as a Christian entrusted with the noble responsibility of protecting the state.

Othello is not just another black man; his self identity is hence shaped by the fact that he is a black man involved in the process of social mobility and self fashioning, in a space already occupied by divisions of class. As Brecht points out, “he doesn’t only possess Desdemona, he also possesses a post as general, which he has not inherited as a feudal general, but won by outstanding achievements……He lives in a world of fighting for property and position, and his relationship with the woman he loves develops as a property relationship.” Desdemona is not only the woman he loves, but his entry in the most literal sense into white patriarchy, through her he seeks to ‘house his free condition’  to find a cultural rootedness and stability and a more solid grounding in his adoptive society. Thus, slowly his conception of his own worth comes to centre in the fact that she chose him over all the “curled darlings of Venice”. Her desire for him, “for she had eyes, and chose me” – replaces his heritage or exploits as proof and measure of his worth. It thus becomes the primary signifier of his identity; that is why “my life upon her faith” and “when I love thee not/ Chaos is come again”, “Othello’s occupation’s gone”. However, the ambiguity in his identification with white Venetian society comes across in the contradiction that Othello actually emphasizes his difference in order to win Desdemona. His ‘magic’ consists of invoking his exotic otherness, his cultural and religious differences as well as his heroic exploits, which involves strange people and territories. He oscillates between asserting his non-European glamour and denying his blackness, emphasizing through speech and social position his assimilation into white culture. For instance, in the senate scene, while Desdemona is surprisingly bold and explicit for a modest maiden facing the Venetian state, Othello finds it necessary to deny ‘the palate of my appetite’. Cowhig says that “these speeches relate directly to Othello’s colour. Desdemona has made it clear that his ‘sooty bosom’ is no obstacle to desire; while Othello must defend himself against the unspoken accusations, of the audience as well as of the senators, because of the association of sexual lust with blackness. At the end of the scene, Othello is exonerated from the sexual slur and accordingly pronounced, “far more fair than black’. Again during the meeting of the lovers at Cyprus after the storm, Othello’s desire to freeze this moment of immense joy in contrast to Desdemona optimistically looking forward to a future of marital bliss, betray an insecurity which has already been catalyzed by Brabantio’s reaction, his present ‘wonder’ and ‘joy’ are partially compounded by his disbelief at actually possessing her as his desire to revel in the moment betrays uncertainty about the future. Even when he is convinced of Desdemona’s betrayal, he attributes her infidelity to his race and lack of sophistication; it suggests insecurity in Othello in assuming white man to be more attractive and he sees Desdemona marrying a white man as a natural choice.

Also the above references are an effort by Othello to deny his sexual desire for Desdemona in wishing for greater happiness or excess, the need to regulate and control his self and passions. Stephen Greenblatt accounts such behaviour to the sense of guilt in articulation of self-identity that Christian Orthodoxy imposes upon all forms of passion or sexual pleasure and specifically excluding racial difference. Christian orthodoxy in both Protestant and Catholic Europe could envision a fervent mutual love between husband and wife, however it all began and ended by affirming the larger order of authority and submission within which marriage takes its rightful place, where family is “a little Church, and a little Commonwealth…whereby trial may be made of such as are fit for any place of authority, or of subjection in Church or Commonwealth.”  Adultery under this system was deserving of death, and even excessive desire for one’s own wife was seen as blasphemous, as Calvin writes, “the man who shows no modesty or comeliness in conjugal intercourse is committing adultery with his wife.” Othello, hence, being a black man adopting Christian doctrine in terms of being a converted Christian feels an even greater need to adhere to this ideology of control to legitimize and strengthen his position in white Christian society. He, thus, also begins to subscribe to what can be called as a Christian patriarchal view of the woman as deceiver and sinful wherein he begins to construct his identity solely in terms of his control and possession of Desdemona under a dominative masculinity. In his descriptions and references to Desdemona, Othello constantly identifies her as an object of possession and domination. Desdemona’s supposed adultery not only makes Othello construct his identity as an emasculated ‘cuckolded’ husband with his reputation destroyed, but becomes all the more disintegrating for Othello as it makes him realize his sexual desire for Desdemona (which he has constantly tried to deny) in the graphic sexual images of her adultery that haunt him, insinuated on by Iago’s improvisations. Such is the achievement of Iago’s improvisation on the religious sexual doctrine in which Othello believes; true to that doctrine, pleasure itself becomes for Othello pollution, a defilement of his property in Desdemona and in himself. Othello hence is unable to reconcile his desire for Desdemona and his Christian identity, he compares his emotional upheaval to the “Pontic Sea”, his violence of emotions cannot recede but will only increase. This self-conflict and division in framing his sense of identity in Othello manifests itself in the violence that he inflicts on his wife. Othello sees his murder of Desdemona a rightful course of justice endorsed by Christian doctrine, his revenge is enacted in a sense of sacred duty so that Desdemona cannot cheat more men and is rightfully punished for her adultery.

When Othello realizes Desdemona’s innocence, this self-conflict between his non-European and Venetian identity is totally exemplified. In his murder of Desdemona, he identifies himself with the constructs of naivety and innocence associated with the ‘base Indian’ synonymous with the New World in not being used to the ways of civilization as his natural self is uncivilized. He attributes his inability to value Desdemona to his Moorishness and jealousy of Turks. When Othello is speaking of his non-Venetian identity, a complete homogenization of various racial and ethnic identities is observed, there is a fluidity of identity – he can be a Moor, an Indian, a Turk – so long as it is defining difference. His understanding of cruelty and violence is in terms of race and difference, which is integral in shaping his self identity and he never see him questioning this construct. Othello at the same time also stresses his Venetian self and his loyalty to the Venetian State, elucidated in his narration of him carrying out the life-threatening act of murdering a Turk who had beaten up a Christian in the Turkish stronghold of Aleppo. This division of self identity ultimately destroys Othello and leads to his death. It seems as if by his action of killing himself, he is killing his Turkish, non-European self. In death, he identifies himself as a Venetian general. Anything he sees as a threat to Venetian society, it is his responsibility to destroy, even if it is himself.

Bibliography

  1. Sexuality and Racial Difference: Ania Loomba
  2. The Improvisation of Power: Stephen Greenblatt

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