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In Shakespeare’s Othello, the primary obstacle in Othello and Desdemona’s relationship is Othello’s race, and hence, his status as an outsider. This difference becomes a barrier when Brabantio objects to their marriage, however, it plays much more of a role in facilitating Iago’s manipulation and amplifying Othello’s paranoia. Othello’s paranoia changes his perception of his relationship with Desdemona and, by extension, his actions towards consolidating it. On the other hand, Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night do not have to bear the burden of any social stigma by virtue of the fact that they are isolated from society. Though it could be argued that societal pressure, or lack thereof, is what lets Antonio and Sebastian’s relationship thrive and forces Othello and Desdemona’s to fail, the inner workings of the relationships and the forces holding the couples together are more powerful than external factors. The imagery that Shakespeare uses in the dialogue between Antonio and Sebastian suggests that they have had some sort of physical or sexual relationship, whereas each time Othello and Desdemona try to consummate their marriage, there is some form of comedic interruption. Sexual tension functions as a microcosmic representation of overall tension in these relationships. Shakespeare uses this physical expression of a largely emotional sensation to emphasize the links between conscious and subconscious processes. Sexual tension is the most important determinant in the path of these relationships, leading the audience to wonder why certain characters have so much chemistry while others are never able to pursue their connection.
The secluded setting of Antonio and Sebastian’s meeting ‘somewhere off the coast of Illyria’ (which presumably occurred before the play takes place) allows the characters to be entirely removed from the rules of society, and, by extension, the stigma surrounding homosexual relationships. At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare portrays Antonio and Sebastian’s love as pure and tender. He also gives the characters feminine qualities. For example, Antonio is ‘near the manners of [his] mother’, and wishes Sebastian the ‘gentleness of all the gods’ (2.1.32-37). This feminine imagery implies that these two men are not obligated to adhere to traditional images of masculinity. Regardless, in the final scene, Sebastian marries Olivia without a second look at Antonio. This suggests that once the two men have entered mainstream society, Sebastian feels the social pressures and quickly conforms to heteronormative ideals. The ease with which societal norms affect Sebastian’s desire gives the impression that his romance with Antonio was not a result of latent homosexuality, but rather a desire for intimacy that could have been fulfilled by a person of either gender. Shakespeare suggests that sexuality is based on a fundamental human need, and is hence fluid, adhering to whatever path obstacles carve for it. Societal pressures are ultimately more powerful than Sebastian’s feelings towards Antonio, and the nature of his desire changes as a result. Shakespeare never offers the audience knowledge of Antonio’s reactions to the denouement of the play, or shares what will happen to him after the play has ended. Rather, Antonio becomes a casualty of the web of arbitrary heterosexual pairings that come together in the play’s finale, suggesting that external circumstances prevail over emotion in determining desire.
Similar to the ocean in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare uses Cyprus in Othello as an isolated location where the characters are removed from their daily lives, and, more importantly in the context of the play, their social positions. Cyprus, an island sacred to Venus, the goddess of love, is removed from civilization and routine, and hence Othello and Desdemona are forced to explore the affective aspects of their relationship as the extenuating forces have been removed. Outside of his kingdom, Othello is no longer able to rest on his laurels, as he is now purely a husband and not a military officer. This is significant considering that Desdemona ‘lov[es] [him] for the dangers [he has] passed’ (1.3.171). In this play, Venice represents society, and hence rationality, but the absence of social forces suggests the absence of reason, and puts the characters in an isolated setting where emotions solely dictate their behaviour. Othello’s hamartia is undoubtedly his jealousy, and the isolated environment of Cyprus this natural human sentiment spiral completely out of control. Sebastian and Antonio’s love could bloom on an isolated island, but once Othello and Desdemona are away from their lives, they are forced to confront their emotions without hiding behind their social positions, which leads to the destruction of their relationship.
Othello’s insecurity and paranoia is centered around his race and status as a ‘moor’ during the Elizabethan period. At the beginning of the play, Brabantio targets him as a ‘foul thief’, implying that he must have used unjust means to attract Desdemona as she would never be attracted to someone of his race naturally. Although Othello manages to dispel that allegation, Iago constantly reminds him of his racial inferiority, thereby creating an internal conflict and the belief that he is not worthy of Desdemona’s affections. Iago’s statement that Desdemona would be better off with one ‘of her own clime, complexion, and degree’ which ‘in all things nature tends’ (3.3.236-237) consolidates this doubt in Othello’s mind, and Othello seems to acquiesce to his role from this point on. He becomes a victim of society’s racist ideologies and foregrounds them, using the darkness of his skin as an excuse for his darkening morality. Desdemona herself never explicitly addresses his race, and instead focuses on his ‘honors and valiant parts’ (1.3.281-282). She engages in a form of ‘color-blind racism’ by constantly neglecting such an important aspect of his persona. This is an example of silence as a dramatic device, because, paradoxically, Desdemona’s refusal to address race makes it more of an issue in Othello’s mind. He uses his race to hyperbolize any doubts he has about their relationship. When his reputation becomes tarnished, he states that it has become as ‘begrimed and black as [his] own face’ (3.3.390-391). The characters’ different perceptions of the importance of race acts as an obstacle to their relationship. Right before Othello kills Desdemona, he contemplates her infidelity and fixates on her skin being ‘whiter…than snow, and smooth as monumental alabaster’ (5.2.4-5). This implies that Othello feels that there is a power imbalance in the relationship due to racial differences, and it was this imbalance that caused Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. Shakespeare imbues Othello with the racist ideology of the other characters, and he becomes so agitated by his racial inferiority that he ends up fulfilling the racist stereotype that Black males are ‘savage’ (4.1.52).
Whereas the unequal power distribution fuels Othello’s paranoia and precludes an honest relationship with Desdemona, it is what makes Antonio and Sebastian’s love so realistic. Shakespeare makes it clear that Antonio dotes on Sebastian, but Sebastian can also seen as a ‘kept man’, which is euphemized by the descriptive phase ‘purse-bearer’ (3.3.48). Though Antonio is wealthier and in a better social position than Sebastian, he still pleads for Sebastian to ‘let [him] be [his] servant’ (2.1.31). The characters are not struggling for power, like Othello and Desdemona, but at the same time they recognize that they are not equals. Their willingness to compromise, seen through the interchangeability of power roles, suggests that they are partaking in the truest form of love because they understand the particular power dynamic of their relationship.
This power dynamic is visible through the ways that Antonio and Sebastian engage with each other and the audience, and in the way that they explore their love. Shakespeare describes Antonio and Sebastian only through dialogue, which could imply that all the audience needs to know about their characters is based on their feelings towards each other. However, Shakespeare develops Desdemona and Othello as individuals, and their monologues and soliloquies serve to develop their personalities outside of their relationship. Othello always needs tangible evidence or ‘ocular proof’ of their connection in order to ‘be sure of it’ (3.3.365), and he depends on material objects such as the handkerchief as symbols to attest their love. The handkerchief takes on a magical quality as it was given to his mother by a ‘charmer’ to keep his father ‘faithful’ under her spell. The moment Desdemona ‘loses’ the handkerchief, Othello feels that she has lost her chastity. That such an inconsequential object carries so much weight testifies to the susceptibility of jealous minds and the way that a seemingly small incident can be psychologically magnified into ‘proof’ of love or betrayal. The fact that symbols such as the handkerchief or the bed sheet become so pivotal in Othello and Desdemona’s relationship is indicative of the lack of depth in their love. Originally, Othello’s heroic tales and military rank attracts Desdemona, but there is not enough substance beyond that to sustain relationship. Shakespeare uses external objects to symbolize the internal issues in Othello and Desdemona’s relationship, as well as highlighting the lack of deep love between them.
Conversely, Antonio and Sebastian’s relationship is remarkably self-contained, which is not typical of Shakespearean relationships where letters, handkerchiefs, songs etc. often link love affairs back to a social context. In contrast to Othello’s heavy contemplation on the meaning of each symbol and gesture, the lack of intermediary objects in Sebastian and Antonio’s relationship allows them to speak more directly to each other, and this is perhaps even more effective in conveying love than lengthy speeches in describing the strength of their pairing. Antonio’s decisions are so instantaneous that they seem almost as if they are dictated by an innate biological force, ‘But, come what may, I do adore thee so, that danger shall seem sport, and I will go’ (2.1.654). Shakespeare’s use of passive voice gives the impression that Antonio’s decisions are not always well thought-out because he does not devote enough time in his speech to pondering alternatives or considering consequences. Ironically, Othello’s conscious and deliberate analysis of love makes his feelings for Desdemona seem more superficial and tokenistic whereas the lack of tokens in Antonio and Sebastian’s relationship creates a more realistic portrayal of love.
The sexual imagery in Twelfth Night is abundant, which can be taken to mean that there was some sort of physical relationship between Antonio and Sebastian before the play begins. Meanwhile, in Othello, Shakespeare projects the sexual imagery onto symbols such as the bed sheet, while he uses the imagery in Twelfth Night to depict the affectation itself. Sebastian describes his desire as ‘more sharp than filed steel’ (3.3.2), which is consistent with the imagery of sexual penetration seen throughout the play. Sebastian justifies his pursuit of erotic fantasies, telling Antonio that ‘danger shall seem sport ‘(2.1.35), which suggests that he receives gratification from the riskiness of the situation, both literally (since he is wanted in Orsino’s court), and figuratively, because he is leaving the transitive environment and entering society in pursuit of a forbidden affair. This sexual desire within Antonio and Sebastian’s relationship serves as enough excitement to keep the relationship animated, and seeing as it causes Antonio to break the barrier between the transitive environment and the social world, the internal forces within the relationship are stronger than any outside threats. Additionally, Antonio and Sebastian seem to engage in a servant-master relationship as Antonio ‘[takes Sebastian] from the breach of the sea’ (2.2.15), essentially giving him new life and leaving him in Antonio’s debt. Shakespeare extends this insinuation of a sadomasochistic relationship through Sebastian’s statement that Antonio makes ‘pleasure of [his] pains’ (3.3.14) and receives gratification from the ‘danger’ of his ‘desire’. The potent sexuality that Shakespeare expresses through his use of language (keeping in mind that during his time, insinuations of homoeroticism had to be kept implicit because homosexuality was an offense punishable by death) affirms the strength of Antonio and Sebastian’s relationship. Their lack of tension and this internal strength is the most important force governing the relationship.
Othello’s perception of sex changes throughout the play as the sexual tension builds. Shakespeare effectively uses interruptions each time Othello and Desdemona come close to consummating their marriage. As a result, the sexual tension between them continues to escalate, paralleling the tension in their relationship, and ultimately, the audience is led to believe that the couple never made love. At the beginning of the play, Othello tells Desdemona ‘The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue, the profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you’ (2.2.8-10). He speaks about sex in positive terms, describing it as ‘fruit’ to enjoy, and as an action that is mutually beneficial and ‘profits’ both male and female. His tone here is patient as he realizes that he has to wait for events to run their natural course before the figurative fruit to bloom. As Iago continues to sow seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind, and Othello becomes more dubious of Desdemona’s fidelity, he moves away from linking images of sex and the blossoming of new life, and starts to relate sex to death. The inner problems of Othello’s relationship start to affect his outwards persona, tarnishing his reputation and making him ‘a fixed figure for the time of scorn to point his slow unmoving finger at’ (4.2.59-60). When he kills Desdemona, he tells her ‘thy bed, lust-stain’d, shall with lust’s blood be spotted’. Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘lust’ connotes an unfulfilled desire, suggesting that Othello and Desdemona have not consummated their marriage, and the resulting anxiety has driven him to kill her. Othello finds it most fitting to kill Desdemona on the bed they share as a married couple, which suggests that the actions that are supposed to take place on the bed are the cause of the murder. After strangling Desdemona he says ‘Behold, I have a weapon; a better never did itself sustain upon a soldier’s thigh’ (5.2.55). The phallic imagery here forges a disturbing relationship between sex and death, suggesting that all the strong emotions ‘involved in Othello asserting his sexuality, such as ‘desire’ and ‘jealousy, are the same emotions that surface in the act of murder. The residual emotions of an unfulfilled desire affect not only the path of the relationship, but also the fates of Othello and Desdemona, making their unresolved sexual tension more vital than any external agent.
In conclusion, though extenuating forces such as location and race significantly affect the relationships in Twelfth Night and Othello, it is the internal chemistry that proves to be the most important force in determining the path of the relationships. The powerful sexual hierarchy amplifies Othello’s paranoia and leads him to project his delusions onto his relationship with Desdemona, which leads to Othello’s downfall. On the other hand, the lack of sexual tension and situational barriers in Antonio and Sebastian’s relationship allows them to fortify their connection, but it is diminished as soon as they leave the liminal realm and have to follow the rules of mainstream society. Society supports Othello and Desdemona’s relationship and manages to sustain it for a while, but the internal mechanics ultimately fail them, whereas Antonio and Sebastian’s connection is enough to support them until they have to submit to external cultural standards. Shakespeare juxtaposes internal and external forces to show how both need to work together in order to support a relationship, portraying love as a multi-dimensional force that has the power to expand from within a relationship and affect characters’ fates.
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