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How far do we see different attitudes to love presented in Othello?

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Introduction

How far do we see different attitudes to love presented in Othello? Othello has always been seen as a play that has love as its primary focus. Indeed, almost every main character, not just Othello and Desdemona, is somehow involved in a love affair. Not everyone treats love the same way, however. In a play that has so many strikingly different characters, it is thus natural for us to see an accordingly vast range of conceptions of love. In the next few paragraphs, I will attempt to uncover what these various attitudes to love are, hence in the process illustrate the variety that exists in the play. In many instances, characters come very close to expressing their love in a way that is similar to that by the poets following the Petrarchan tradition. The best example of this is, of course, when Cassio engages in a paean of praise for Desdemona the moment he arrives in Cyprus (Act II, Sc. 1). To him, she is to be equated with the gods and heavens - "the divine Desdemona". Even nature, usually thought to be the most powerful, is simply inferior compared to her: "Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds...As having sense of beauty [Desdemona's], do omit / Their mortal natures". Indeed, the language he uses to describe her is extravagant and excessive - "our great captain's captain", having a sustained appearance of hyperboles which shows his exaltation of and admiration for her. To him, her physicality is immaculate: She "paragons description and wild fame", "excels the quirks of blazoning pens" and hence "tire[s] the ingener". In here, he sees himself as artist who is so overwhelmed by the perfection of her physique that it is simply impossible for him to capture it on canvas or paper. Othello also takes this view of Desdemona when the end of the play is nearing (V,2). He calls her a "cunning'st pattern of excelling nature" and goes a step further by using typical Petrarchan tropes to assert her chastity - "whiter skin of hers than snow" and "smooth as monumental alabaster". ...read more.

Middle

The men's notions of love aside, love to the main women means both a personal and complete devotion to the partner. For example, it is obvious that Desdemona has a very clear sense of duty to Othello. She speaks of how she "perceive[s] here a divided duty", one to her father "for life and education" but the other to Othello for her love (I,3). Even Emilia - arguably the most feminist character in the play - subscribes to this idea of love as when she refers to herself as "nothing but to please his fantasy" (III,3). Indeed, Desdemona even defines herself in terms of the love she has for Othello. When Othello asks her demandingly "what art thou?", she replies to him not "Desdemona", not "a girl", not a "Venetian lady", but "Your wife, my lord, your true and loyal wife" (IV,2). It is, therefore, clear how much her love for Othello has taken over her sense of identity. Naturally, she also takes the character of her husband in full, accepting any defects he has - "even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns...have grace and favour in them" (IV,3). All in all, a transcendental quality can be imputed to the two women's devotion. Desdemona exclaims that "his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love" (IV,2). Even her last breath was a sacrifice for Othello: When Emilia asks for the person who has killed her, she decides to lie - "Nobody; I myself." - damning herself to hell so that Othello's crime would be covered (V,2). Likewise, Emilia may be less na�ve than Desdemona, but the greatest irony of the scene in which she asserts her sexuality comes when she says "why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch" (IV,3), clearly demonstrating an innocent devotion to her husband amongst that willingness to be unfaithful that she apparently claims to have. ...read more.

Conclusion

The idea of a bipolar world amongst the characters, then, brings forward one of Shakespeare's most powerful comments about men and women - that they are essentially different and that mankind must work to find a way to reconcile this difference. To go even further, Shakespeare's highlighting of the difference between the two genders also reveals his slightly feminist stance. In portraying the women as much more balanced and realistic, he is in fact holding them in high regard. That is why he has revealed their infinite devotion to their husbands (as proven in paragraph 6) and why he has presented the men in contemptible light - they are chauvinistic, expecting their wives to be devoted to them yet never speaking of a clear devotion back (eg. Iago cites the apparent affair between Othello and his wife as the motivation for his plot; Othello's downfall can be attributed to the fact that he cannot accept the idea of Desdemona cuckolding him, amongst other reasons); they are murderous (Othello, Iago, Roderigo all attempt murder); their idealism can sometimes be described as foolish and empty (especially when it becomes Petrarchan poetry). In summary, a detailed study of the attitudes to love in Othello has revealed a multitude of different views. On closer look, however, there is overwhelming similarity amongst the men's views and amongst the women's views, and that they form a conflict with each other. A further examination of the play as a whole shows that this conflict does not just exist in terms of love but in very much everything else. This conflict, summed up best by using the idea of a bipolar world, highlights the difficult difference amongst men and women and puts across some of Shakespeare's feminist comments. All in all, perhaps the most significant insight that can be taken away about Othello is its amazing balance between a dramatic plot that is exceptionally focused thematically (it is mostly about love) and a vast potential for interpretation (yet it can lead to ideas about gender difference and inequality). ...read more.

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