Shakespeare – A Man of All Times
By Verada Salimath
Shakespeare is often lauded as a playwright because his works, written hundreds of years ago, still hold meaning with readers today. The relevance of his plays’ themes, characters, and conflicts, has lasted through the ages. But as much as Shakespeare is a modern man, writing literature that has stood the test of time, he was also a man of his age. Shakespeare based many of his plays on historic occurrences, but adapted them from the original stories by emphasizing certain themes, to more closely parallel the social issues of the Elizabethan society in which he lived.
In Othello, Shakespeare gives significant attention to Othello’s racial identity as an African. He emphasizes race as a theme because at the time he wrote the play, racial attitudes were undergoing change. “Scholars have identified the principal source of the story as Cinthio’s Italian novella Hecatommithi (1565), which features in broad outline the characters and incidents that Shakespeare adapted into his tragic drama (LaBlanc).” In Cinthio’s version, Othello’s race as a Moor was not emphasized – Cinthio refers to him as a Moor in the very first sentence but does not give importance to this fact later. Contrastingly, Shakespeare makes multiple references to Othello’s race: Othello is introduced as a “Moor”, “black ram”, and “Barbary horse”, all within just the first two scenes of the play (818 – 820). Shakespeare adapted the story to “appeal to a British audience” (Moss and Wilson), by emphasizing the racial identity of the main character, because in his society, prejudicial attitudes were beginning to be challenged.
Similarly, in Hecatommithi, Cinthio does not give attention to racism faced by Othello. It is never mentioned. Shakespeare, however, diverges from his source and shows the racism Othello undergoes, numerous times. The other characters use racial slurs to refer to him, such as “Thick-lips” (818). Also, Iago, the play’s scheming villain, goes so far as to say that Othello, as a Moor, is a thing of fear (821). He suggests that there is no way Desdemona could love him, and that Othello has tricked her into wedding him with witchcraft. Shakespeare “establish[es] his extreme difference from typical Europeans” (Aubrey) and shows Othello as the scapegoat of terrible racism. It is in fact Othello’s complex of racial inferiority that leads him to fall for Iago’s trickery, therefore, racism is the root reason why Othello believes the lie that causes his destruction. In such a way, Shakespeare portrays racial attitudes held by the Venetians in a strongly negative light. While Cinthio did not make a major theme out of Othello’s race, Shakespeare chose to, because it was a relevant issue in his time period of shifting racial attitudes, and he was making a point about the immorality of racism.
Cinthio gives little attention to Desdemona as a character, but Shakespeare spends a significant amount of time developing as a character, and portrays her in such a way as to show women in general as independent, intelligent, strong-willed, and grounded. He did this because in Elizabethan society, formerly rigid gender stereotypes were being challenged. He does not take a masochist approach to Desdemona, rather, he portrays her in a positive light, by showing how highly people such as Cassio thinks of her, with glowing descriptions (826), and how her desire for Othello is the result of an intellectual attraction, not a fanciful sexual one. This shows that she is of considerable intellect. Further, her assertion to her father, of her “divided duty” to her husband and father (823), characterizes her as independent, thoughtful, and strong-willed in her loyalties. Shakespeare was communicating this view of women in general because at the time in Elizabethan society, the notion that women ought to be submissive and only think what they’re taught, was being upheaved.
Shakespeare spends a significant amount of time in Othello showing Desdemona’s morality and loyalty, and portrays the men of the story as irrational and distrusting of women. He juxtaposes, portraying men in a negative light, and Desdemona in a positive light – specifically, he shows in a very tragic way Othello’s furious rage directed at his innocent, moral wife right before he kills her (838). His negative portrayal of men, as irrationally angry and distrusting, and positive portrayal of women, as innocent and respectful in even the worst circumstances, was a revolutionary idea in his time, when typically, it was the opposite – women portrayed as immoral while men were portrayed as moral. Shakespeare shows Desdemona in a glowing way, establishing her morality, loyalty, independence, intelligence, and innocence, to portray women in general in a positive light, making the point that it is tragic that such good beings are subject to the angers and schemes of men. Such views for women, that they were respectable individuals worthy of much more respect and honor than they got at that time, were starting to gain momentum in his time period, culminating in a social upheaval of the previously held image of women in society.
Such diversions from the original source continue in Julius Caesar. Unlike Plutarch’s historical account, which he used as his source, Shakespeare makes the story of Julius Caesar’s fall accessible to the audience of his time by emphasizing the chaos that followed Caesar’s assassination (Act 5 Scene 1). This was a key concern of the Elizabethan public, as English people were worried about what social mayhem would ensue upon Queen Elizabeth’s death, which seemed to be fast approaching.
He also does what he can to heighten the similarity between Elizabethan society and Rome, to highlight this impending doom, of history repeating. Literary scholar Barbara Parker comments on how the “resemblances between Caesar and Elizabeth…. almost all of them Shakespeare’s additions to his source… seem calculated to press the connection”. These include Caesar’s heirlessness, just as Queen Elizabeth did not have a child; and the adoration the public holds for both leaders, throwing processions in their honor. Shakespeare makes the situation of Ancient Rome appear similar to that faced by the Elizabethan public, by emphasizing similarities between the two time periods. He does this to warn of a similar fate befalling his society after Elizabeth’s death.
Shakespeare also diverges from Plutarch’s historical account of the rise and fall of Julius Caesar by emphasizing the manipulation of the public by leaders, which was key concern of the Elizabethan public. Unlike Plutarch’s historical account, Shakespeare makes the public masses an important force in his play. According to Moss and Wilson, “the scene in which Cassius and Brutus first speak about Caesar is presented in much more detail by Shakespeare. Finally, the playwright added the speeches Brutus and Antony give to the Roman people after Caesar’s death”. It is not difficult to guess why Shakespeare places this extra emphasis on the politicians’ speeches. He does this to show the manipulation the plebeians undergo by the patrician rulers and portrays the terrible inequality of the political system. He does this because at that point in Elizabethan history, transparency in government was increasing, as the growing middle class of English citizens acutely felt the unfairness of wealthy lords controlling everything in government. In the aftermath of Caesar’s death, Shakespeare characterizes the Roman public as honest commoners who want an explanation for the tragic fate that has befallen their beloved leader – which they never get, because the leaders that address them do not care about their well-being – all they do is manipulate them into thinking that they are the best leader for the country. The manipulation faced by the public is shown by how quickly they change their minds, from allegiance to Caesar to Brutus to Antony, all within minutes, because their patrician leaders employ wordy rhetoric to convince them that they are best. This shows Shakespeare’s attitude against government being controlled by a few wealthy individuals who have their own interest, and not the comfort of the public, in mind.
Shakespeare further diverges from Plutarch by emphasizing that Brutus, the single leader who acts not for himself, but for the common good, is quickly victimized. He did this at a point when the English public wanted leaders that represented the common good, and not just the wealthy. At Shakespeare’s time, people feared elitist leaders such as the Earl of Essex, who had little concern for the well-being of the public: “Why Shakespeare composed Caesar is suggested by a number of parallels between the play’s political milieu and England’s. At the time, a continuing concern remained in the person of the Earl of Essex, whose arrogant pride, assurance of high place, hold over Elizabeth’s affections… made him a standing danger to the state” (Parker). Brutus is the lone leader who acts for the good of the Romans, and not out of self-interest. It is tragic that this singular good Senator is the one who is victimized and quickly manipulated into joining the assassination plot. Shakespeare creates this point in his adaptation from Plutarch’s work and emphasizes it, to show the need of the Elizabethan public, for leaders who stand up for the interest of the general populace and not just the wealthy, because if there is only one such genuinely good leader, they are easily overpowered by the other scheming politicians, as they were in 17th Century England.
In writing several of his historic works, among them Othello and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare adapted them to better reflect the social issues of his time period. He wrote with the Elizabethan audience in mind; he could never have known that the works he intended for his fellow citizens, would become the celebrated classics of many generations to come.
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