Shakespeare, War and Othello

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Othello as warrior

Othello, like many Shakespearean heroes, is ‘noble’, a warrior – thus associated with what was perceived to be ‘good’ state controlled violence for the good of society – a man of honour. Warriors are seen as men of special worth in Shakespeare eg Hotspur in 1 Henry IV; Prince Hal can only become Henry V when he has learned to assimilate some of the warrior virtues embodied in Hotspur eg courage, fortitude, willingness to sacrifice self for the glory and safety of the state.

Shakespeare often shows his warriors to be vulnerable, their very warrior qualities leading to their downfall in a world where the qualities of the Renaissance courtier were becoming more admired than those of the warrior, associated with the old order eg Hotspur dies, as does Coriolanus – they die honourably but must die because they cannot survive in the new order. Othello is part of the same value system as Hotspur and Coriolanus. Othello is a man of action, not a subtle politician – this leads to his downfall; Lodovico calls him ‘this rash and most unfortunate man’.

Rather like Titus Andronicus, Othello’s warrior instincts become tainted by illegitimate violence – both become corrupted by the evil they think they’re fighting in spite of noble intentions. This familiar tragic theme – a noble man of great abilites who loses moral direction in a world where moral choices are complex and confusing – is one of Shakespeare’s favourite themes. In Titus Andronicus, the focus is on political and social consequences, not the personal psychology of Titus but Othello comes from a different tragic tradition, hence the focus on Othello himself.

Othello, like Hotspur and Coriolanus in particular, has led his people to victory many times – he’s a well respected public figure. Shakespeare presents war as good if it’s for just purposes eg he celebrates warrior virtues and just victory in Henry V.

Shakespearean England and Attitudes to violence:

Dual view:

1. Violence leads to disorder so is dangerous to society. It is innate in human nature, individual and lawless. Private revenge was prohibited by Elizabethan law but the code of honour required defence of family eg duelling.

2. Violence is necessary, sometimes even good, when disciplined and for the sake of good government eg state governed ie warriors.  The notion of an avenger offering himself to Providence as a tool to punish evil was also acceptable in that the violence was not for personal satisfaction or gain – Hamlet presents himself in this way.

For more see Othello lecture notes here.


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