Othello as a Renaissance Play

Othello is a drama that embodies some typical features and values of the Renaissance, or the Renaissance spirit. The respect given to achievement and abilities, the wars and colonial expansion, the romanticization of love and the intensity of emotions displayed by the play and the chivalry as well as chauvinism of men are a few exemplary features of the Renaissance spirits that make Othello a Renaissance drama.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Set in the urban and the civilized centers of Venice and Cyprus, the play begins with an atmosphere of talks about war and political expansion. In fact, the issue of war is not an essential element in the theme of the play; but Shakespeare seems to have cleverly inserted it in the background for satisfying the desire of the Renaissance audience's love of it. Thus, the military dignity of Othello is made his most important heroic quality which is supposed to arouse the necessary admiration in the minds of the audience. Indeed, he is shown as respected by the Venetian Duke and Senate (parliament) as the only alternative savior of their new territory of Cyprus. It was the Renaissance value system that had brought about this attitude of respect of the human genius, despite the color of his skin. Courage and imagination, knowledge and abilities were also respected due to the Renaissance liberal attitude towards the individual. Even if old Brabantio hates his daughter being stolen by the Moor, he has inspired Desdemona to love him because he used to admire the young brave man so much when he heard stories of his bravery, hardships, genius and success.

The liberal and respectful attitude of the Renaissance people towards the soldiers had also caused the ladies of the upper class get attracted to the brave warriors. This is the reason why Desdemona sacrifices her father for Othello the army general. The flexible social attitude towards and permission given to Cassio for engaging with Bianca might also be due to that liberal Renaissance attitude and the respect of the soldiers. But, we see that love is not limited to sexual intrigues and sexual passion. Othello says that he will not even take his wife to the battlefield because a sexual partner might hamper his success in war!

Othello's reasoning about the responsibility of war and the role of sex suggests another likely Renaissance element in the drama, the sense of chauvinism (proud of being male!) in the male characters in it. To some extent, this suggests that Othello represents what we may call the Renaissance man - a man of many abilities, much knowledge and diverse skills, a man interested in art, loving beauty, and full of emotions as well as the power to reason well. But, his chauvinism also represents a terrible evil in the Renaissance Society — the disregard of women. Despite all the glitter and glory attached to wars and violence, the Renaissance society did not much respect women. If men could be immoral without limits, women would be recklessly (and lovingly!) murdered like Desdemona, just for a 'doubt' of infidelity. Needless to say, even Shakespeare (who makes a reliably heroic and positive character Hamlet say: "Woman, thy name is frailty") doesn't seem to have cared about how to allocate "poetic justice" to Desdemona and Emilia. Even if it is both necessary to kill Desdemona — to cause the tragedy — should her ignorance be thus punished; and more important, it is neither technically necessary nor in any way justified to have Emilia murdered.