Power and ideology in Othello

Examine power and ideology in Othello and Doctor Faustus

Shakespeare and his contemporaries were writing during a time of great flux in power. Queen Elizabeth I had not produced an heir, meaning King James VI of Scotland was first in line to the throne of England, causing unprecedented political problems and a power-shift towards Scotland and a united kingdom. The English Renaissance period was at its climax, and playwrights in particular held social power and influence over the uneducated masses they entertained. It was an age of exploration and adventure, with England gaining more economic power over other countries, and the military growing stronger. This new sense of national and personal power is evident in the writing of the time; plays often dealt with the ideology of power, how it affects the individual and society, and some went to the extent of exploring the negative effects of too much power. Two plays that look at these concepts are William Shakespeare's Othello, the Moor of Venice (1603) and Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604). Othello is a play based all around power: those in power, those seeking it, the power of language, and how power destroys lives. Doctor Faustus is a more critical examination of the nature of power, and the result of too much of it being bestowed upon a mere mortal man. It is for these reasons that I shall be looking at these two plays.

Othello, the Moor of Venice was first performed on November 1, 1604 in London, and has proved an enduring play. The plot revolves around three main characters: Othello, a general in the Venetian army, his wife Desdemona, and his friend and subordinate, Iago. Othello holds both military and social power: he is respected as a General and controls an army. It is his holding of this power that one could argue is the basis of the plot, as Iago is seeking Othello's power. Othello has a firm sense of his place in society; he is a servant of the state, but Iago resents his own position, and is quite bitter about the fact that ‘We cannot all be masters' (Act 1 Sc 1: 43). However, Othello could also be seen as being corrupted by his power. He desires control over everything, even his destiny (hence his suicide), and is thus unsure of how to react when the events of the play spiral out of his control. Another influence that Othello holds, and inversely everyone holds over him, is his ethnicity as a Moor. It bestows upon him a reputation as a fearsome fighter, and a man ruled by his emotions, but also makes him susceptible to racist remarks and accusations of infidelity. Howard and O'Connor posit that ‘Othello is both hero and outsider because he embodies not only the norms of male power and privilege represented by the white male. . .but also the threatening power of the alien' (2005: 153). This power of the alien is hardly an issue at the beginning of the play; he is just accepted as if he were Caucasian. It is not until other characters are angered by his marriage to Desdemona that it becomes a problem and his race starts being used as an insult against him with dirty connotations, e.g. ‘an old black ram is tupping your white ewe' (Act 1 Sc 1: 90). This is where Desdemona's power lies; she is the stabilising force and the key to his acceptance by the white population. He is accused of witchcraft by her father, as a white woman in her right mind would never fall in love with a Moor, but Desdemona defies her father and stands against society. Despite her youth and gentle nature, she exhibits an iron will and strength of belief in her actions.

The role of the women in Othello is an interesting one. The traditional Elizabethan view was summed up by John Knox when he said that ‘in her greatest perfection woman was created to be subject to man' (1999: 12) Young girls were taught that they had to obey their father, this meant that women generally grew up to instinctively obey men. They were taught that their sole purpose in life was to marry and look after their husbands, and that God had commanded them to be obedient to men. This means that the power of the women in Othello is quite complex. Desdemona, for example, should be more loyal to her father than her husband in accordance with patriarchal order, yet she defies him to be with Othello: ‘My noble father . . . to you I am bound for life . . . but here is my husband' (Act 1 Sc 3: 180-185). She is still being submissive to a male; the only power she really holds is in deciding which man. Desdemona has more of a sexual power. As Kernan puts it: ‘Throughout, a woman's power is less social or political (though it may have social and political ramifications) than emotional' (1998: 193). It is obvious that Desdemona holds something over Othello, the power of sexual attraction. She is the source of his jealousy and essentially his harmatia: loving her proves his downfall. In accordance with Elizabethan ideology however, she is treated as an object to be possessed, and all men covet her, thus adding fuel to Othello's suspicions, therefore her own sexual power is both empowering and undermines her.

This is the main difference between Emelia and Desdemona. Emelia's marriage to Iago is largely based on point scoring and one upping each other. She believes herself equal to Iago, saying ‘let husbands know/Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell/And have their palates both for sweet and sour/As husbands have' (Act 4 Sc 3: 93-97). She understands the power that women can hold over men, and that only through their husbands do the women have power, so it is important they know how to manipulate them. Emelia is good at this: although she states she would commit adultery if the price were right, and makes a list of the flaws of men, she realises she needs Iago to retain power for herself. She is a stronger character than Desdemona as well, in that she is not afraid to answer back to men, arguing with both Iago and Othello when she believes herself to be right. Bianca also serves as a polar opposite to Desdemona, as her power over men lies solely in her sexuality. Bianca always utilises her femininity, as a courtesan men come to her instead of vice versa, and she is quite shameless about it. Although immoral by Elizabethan standards, it can be argued she holds the most power of all the women. She has no man to answer to, she is fiercely independent, and men come to her when they want something. Another intriguing aspect of the power of Desdemona is in her death. Desdemona's death is quite incongruous with her character, as it is passive and she blames herself: is she brave or pathetic? Even after Othello has suffocated her she still tries to come to his defence, remaining loyal to her man until the end, therefore, although she comes across as a strong and powerful woman, Desdemona still conforms to the Elizabethan ideal.

Two of the most important powers at work in the play are jealousy and language and Iago is a master of creating both. This puts him in the position of the most powerful character in the play; it can be said that when he is not speaking the plot slows down. Iago's main characteristic is his yearning for power. He resents the social power and privileges that the ruling and higher classes have, and he plots Cassius's downfall for being promoted, as he feels he should be the one progressing up the social ranks. Iago harbours bitterness towards Othello because he has the power and privilege that Iago craves. Othello is successful, a respected leader, a fierce fighter, and easily wins Desdemona's heart and devotion, whereas Iago is constantly working at his marriage with Emilia. Othello, therefore, is the target of Iago's envy and he plots to ruin those around him in an attempt to destroy Othello. Iago's most enduring power is his understanding of human nature. He works with people's own nature, and never pushes them to do anything they weren't already predisposed towards. This is why he is effective as a manipulator: he is able to predict how the other characters will react to varying situations, and uses those reactions to his advantage.A good example of this is the power Iago holds over Roderigo, who gives nothing to Iago that he was not already willing to give for the hope of attaining the love of Desdemona. Roderigo's flaw is thinking that Desdemona can be bought and sold like a possession, which could be seen as challenging the typical Elizabethan notion of women as objects. Each of the characters who come into contact with Iago fall victim tohis or her own weaknesses: theyare all destroyed by vice. They may have all the power they could desire, like Othello, but in the end they are susceptible to themselves and human nature. Another power of Iago's is his moral duality. References are made throughout the play to his morality: ‘Honest Iago' (Act 2 Sc 3: 325); ‘A man he is of honesty and trust' (Act 1 Sc 3: 284) ‘And what's he then that says I play the villain/ When this advice is free I give and honest' (Act 2 Sc 3: 336-337). The only power that a man like Othello can respect is moral power, and when confronted by that in the person of lago he is helpless before its sway. Andrew Bradley says that ‘the ultimate power in the tragic world is a moral order' (2008: 44), and this is certainly the case in Othello. The characters all adhere to a moral code except Iago; his power is his ability to lie. No one sees any reason to doubt him, they have never encountered a duplicitous personality like his, and thus Iago succeeds because he has the power to transcend the boundaries of the genre and the moral limits of human nature.

Another example of a man who strives for power no matter what the cost is Faustus. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is a play based on the Faust legend, which details a man selling his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. The play is generally seen as a warning about the dangers of man acquiring too much power, but also against the squandering of power, and to an extent, the merciful power of God. One of the main ideas running throughout Doctor Faustus is absolute power corrupting absolutely. Faustus is consumed by the power at his fingertips, and in sacrificing his soul he condemns himself to damnation for a mere 24 years of using and abusing this power. There can also be parallels drawn between Faustus and Lucifer: both are destroyed by seeking more power than was theirs to have, both turn their back on God, and Jeffrey Russell claims that ‘Faustus' original sin is the prideful desire to obtain knowledge for its own sake and for the sake of the power it gives' (1990: 64), which is much akin to Lucifer's original sin of pride. Despite this though, Faustus comes across as a sympathetic character for the most part. The audience sees how he wastes the power he is given and turns his back on God only to play pranks, and although his fate is uncertain, it is generally accepted he is condemned to hell. This may come across as unfair, as he didn't do anything particularly terrible with his power. Early in the play, before he agrees to the pact with Lucifer, Faustus is full of ideas for how to use the power that he seeks: ‘all things that move between the quiet poles/Shall be at my command' (Act 1 Sc 1: 78), and ‘I'll be a great emperor of the world/And make a bridge through the moving air,/To pass the ocean with a band of men;/I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore' (Act 1 Sc 3: 104-111). Though they may not be the most admirable plans, nevertheless they show ambition and make his scheming seem more moral. However, once Faustus gains the power that he so desires, his seems to lose his ambition. Instead of the mighty plans he made he spends his time performing tricks, and takes delight in playing practical jokes on peasants. His power has not exactly made him malevolent and evil, rather his only corruption is in his ambition being sapped, and this is where the sympathetic response is rooted: all he has done to deserve damnation is waste his time.

However, there is a less sympathetic side to Faustus as well. Christa King notes that ‘An important aspect of ‘alchemical magic' is that it elevates the one who practices it into a position of almost supreme power' (2008: 93), and yet this is not enough for Faustus. His reason for wanting to practice magic in the first place is that he has reached the limits of alchemy, maths, astrology, and the other sciences, and he desires to know more. He resents the fact that ‘Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man' (Act 1 Sc 1: 24), and thus in his search for power he is not ruled by passion, but by cold logic as he talks himself out of the potential delights of a heavenly afterlife, and rationalises that his soul is a fair bargain for the power he seeks. He is so consumed by this desire that he claims the power given to him from Lucifer is actually his own: ‘My gracious lord, I am ready to accomplish your request, so far forth as by art and power of my spirit I am able to perform” (Act 4 Sc 1: 36-37). Act 2 is important as it continuously makes reference to Faustus' failure to achieve his own power, and that everything he wishes for must be granted by the power of Lucifer: in Act 2, Scene 1 Mephistopheles declines his request for a beautiful wife, and in Act 2, Scene 3 he refuses to tell him who created the universe. Grande posits that ‘Faustus never succeeds in usurping . . . the demonic imitation which he has grasped' (1999: 103), and Faustus does eventually realises he has sold his soul for an empty power. His final soliloquy reflects this as he says ‘‘Fair nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make/Perpetual day; or let this hour be but/A year, a month, a week, a natural day' (Act 5 Sc 2: 72-74). Faustus wants time to stop or slow down, to delay his inevitable damnation, but the way one line of verse runs into the next serves only to accelerate the rhythm, almost signalling the pointlessness of wishing. Faustus realises that he has no power over Lucifer saying; ‘The stars move still; time runs; the clock will strike; / The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned' (Act 5 Sc 2: 76-7). After the clock strikes the half hour, Faustus pleads with God to place a limit on his time in hell, finally realising that his mortal power is nothing compared to the omnipotence of God: ‘Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, / A hundred thousand, and at last be saved' (Act 5 Sc2: 103-104). He throws himself upon the mercy of God, the ultimate power. One of the most interesting aspects of the speech is the way it marks a full circle. The dream of power that Faustus expressed in his first soliloquy, his desire to be more than mortal, to be a god amongst men, is reversed. As he faces his eternity in hell, he wishes that he were less than human. After his fate is sealed, the epilogue, like the prologue, begins with the chorus acknowledging Faustus's greatness, but also sends a warning to the audience that his fate is what awaits all those who ‘practise more than heavenly power permits' (Epilogue: 7-8). David Bevington believes that ‘Doctor Faustus can be seen both as an object lesson of hubris and as a dark speculation on what is intolerable and tragic about divine limits placed on human will' (1998: 12), and this is essentially the tragedy of Faustus, the desire for more power than God will allow, and the deadly consequences of aiming for omnipotence.

Both of these plays appear to be condemning and examining the devastating effects of power. Othello shows how powerful emotions can be, how they can overrule common sense and destroy people. It also shows how the desire for power corrupts, and a similar theme is seen in Doctor Faustus: both Iago and Faustus strive for more power than they've been given, and in both cases this is their downfall. However, Doctor Faustus and Othello also give examples of good use of power, for example challenging the Elizabethan notion of a weak woman by giving them the power of sexuality in Othello, Doctor Faustus conforming to the ideology that God is omnipotent, and even the most powerful rely upon him for grace and mercy. They both also cling to the idea that those in positions of power have earned it, and a person cannot simply cheat their way into power, thus reinforcing the social class system that was prevalent in the Elizabethan era and serving as a warning for the audience to know their place.


Bradley, Andrew Cecil, 2008. Shakespearean Tragedy, BiblioBazaar, LLC

Grande, Troni Y. 1999. Marlovian Tragedy: The Play of Dilation, Bucknell University Press

Howard, Jean E., O'Connor, Marion F. 2005. Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, Routledge

King, Christa Knellwolf, 2008. Faustus and the Promises of the New Science, c. 1580-1730, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Knox, John, 1999. On Rebellion Ed. Mason, Roger A., Cambridge University Press

Marlowe, Christopher, 1998. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in Doctor Faustus and other Plays, ed. Bevington, David, Rasmussen, Eric, Oxford University Press

Russell, Jeffrey Burton, 1990. Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World, Cornell University Press

Shakespeare, William, 1998. The Tragedy of Othello: the Moor of Venice, ed. Kernan, Alvin B., Signet Classics.

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