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There are many powerful stories in the world. Tales of intrigue, revenge and redemption. But it is the skilful craft of storytelling which makes these narratives memorable. Narratives which are well told that involve the compelling characterisation of complex individuals, an engaging and suspenseful plot which reflect the values of the narratives context and masterful use of language to create a story which has withstood the test of time.
Great storytelling appeals to the audience with its engaging plot through the universal themes that have been demonstrated in the tragedy of both Othello and New Boy through their individual context, utilising the Aristotelian elements. William Shakespeare’s Othello has been reimagined by Tracy Chevalier, where she encapsulates the solid and timeless themes of jealousy, duplicity and the use of the tragic hero and transports them onto a school playground. With the shift in time, from the 17th Century Venice in Othello, to New Boy’s much more contemporary era, 1970’s Washington DC, the same themes are explored in both texts and are used to their full potential. So, what is it that makes Othello so powerful and memorable that its’ story can be reimagined to todays time? How skilfully the story must be moulded so the untouched themes can fit the drastic change in context?
“A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;… in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.”
“A cartharsis of pity and fear”, that is what has made Othello so memorable. Words spoken by the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, has recognised the basis of what consists of powerful storytelling, the plot, the character, the melody, and has aided some of the most classic and timeless stories having Othello being one of them.
When Chevalier chose to mirror Othello in New Boy, she felt that “an American school playground” would be most appropriate, where there is active evidence of dramatic affairs taking place, a clear order of hierarchy and a lot of room for drama. All these factors that come with the playground context make room for Chevalier to write a more contemporary version of Othello, where the times and values have changed. One thing Chevalier noticed in Othello was the lack of the involvement of the ladies in the play as the values of the people at the time saw women as weak and submissive, so she chose to give the girls in New Boy, Dee, Mimi and Blanca more of a voice, fitting to today’s contemporary era as the feminism movement grows stronger. This would appeal to a wider audience considering ‘girl power’ is much more prominent today compared to the 16th century when Othello was written, further making New Boy a powerful narrative through time whilst still encapsulating those same timeless themes of jealousy and duplicity.
Characters are what bring the story to life. Compelling characters are what keep the story alive. Othello is an outsider, a moor in Venice and has eloped with the most sought-after girl in the city. Osei is a new boy, the Ghanaian son of a diplomat and has earned the title of ‘Dee’s boyfriend’. Sound similar yet? This is what makes these characters complex. They’re not one-dimensional and have sides to them which are revealed throughout the play and novel. The tragic heroes of both Othello and New Boy have been developed and twisted by the antagonists, Iago and Ian respectively. They have been adapted for the sake of creating what the author feels best about how to intensify their story, how to mould each character and their perspectives by utilising the language forms, with one being a drama and another, a novel. The skill of crafting a story is essentially how well the author can shape the language forms and features to create and enriching experience that highlights the core themes and the context. Through time, the concept of an unreliable narrator has only recently been coined, where the narrator’s credibility is questioned, and the perspective of other characters has been closed off by the author. This concept has been recognised by Chevalier as her novel can be read from the point of view of many characters. Not only has she created an unbiased view but her deliberate choice of a playground setting has created intensity by concentrating all the drama into one day and one setting. She makes her novel follow the recognisable language features that are prominent throughout Othello, the motifs of the handkerchief and the pencil case, the bestial imagery, having race as a line defining who the outsiders are, only to showcase how the shift in time from when Othello to when New Boy was written is very much reliant on how those same themes and language features is being represented. Shakespeare’s Othello, however, has been a culprit of potentially having unreliable narration. The conscious choice of exploring the aspects of jealousy and manipulation through a play has restricted Shakespeare by limiting him to create the multiple perspectives, which is what builds up intensity. Instead, he depends on the dramatic irony and soliloquys that are mostly presented by the malign Iago. He’s first shown as an intriguing character,
“Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce…either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.” Presenting himself in this soliloquy as the ‘master gardener’ because of his great self-control over himself and his actions and his ability to plant the seeds of doubt and jealousy in Othello’s mind. This powerful and skilful use of language features, with the analogy about the garden is used by Shakespeare to enhance and further contribute to the characterisation of Iago, to mould his perspective of himself and others, creating dramatic irony which further involves the audience making the play more powerful. Shakespeare also explores Othello’s language as he uses Iago as a puppet that works on him, showing the decline of his character through how his language has changed. His once calm and educated tone, twisting him into a “Green-eyed monster”. The character development that has been written for Othello is remarkable. Watching him undergo a transformation that makes him so fascinating contributes to how powerful the story of Othello and New Boy really is.
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