Department of English
Master of Arts
Othello is the forgery of a comedic play turned tragedy, for the play begins where the ordinary comedy would end. While many critics prefer to discuss the racial and exotic aspects of William Shakespeare's tragedy, there are several critics who focus on the role of love and the marital relationships that are also important in terms of interpreting the actions of key characters. Carol Thomas Neely, Maurice Charney, and several other literary critics have focused primarily on the role of marriage and love in Othello. The topic of marriage is generally discussed in terms of the wooing scene (Act 1, scene 3) and the perverted consummation of the marriage rights (Act 5, scene 1), but there is little reflection on the courtly love rules and conventions from most critical approaches. Courtly lovers were a dying breed in Shakespeare's time, yet he employs the use of basic courtly love principles not only in Othello, but in many of his works, particularly comedies like the Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like Lt. The use of such principles allows ridicule and scorn to take place in the plays, but in Othello, courtly love introduces the themes of cuckoldry and, most importantly, women's loss of power. Women's loss of power is another issue that critics often deconstruct, yet this concept is also linked to the principles of courtly love. Within the courtly love tradition men were often submissive to women—in Chretien de Troyes' Lancelot and Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale," men tended to bend to the will of women, often finding happiness and true love by doing so. The Moor General Othello is first presented as a submissive husband, but as the play progresses, the embarrassment of Desdemona's presumed infidelity begins to unravel his ideas of love. Instead of following the courtly conventions of dealing with adultery, Othello transforms into the Renaissance ideal Petrarchan lover, one who seeks spiritual love over physical love and views sexuality as sinful. The ideas and rules of courtly love contradicted the principles of the Renaissance Petrarchan lover. However, Shakespeare employed the tradition of courtly love to emphasize mockery and satire as overall themes of the play. For example, Othello and Desdemona are presented first and foremost as lovers that uphold the conventions of courtly love—they try to keep their relationship as secretive as possible and Othello appears subject to the will of his beloved. However, later in the play, instead of listening to the guidance and innocent speeches of his beloved, Othello returns to the love philosophies of antiquity. To the philosophers of classic love philosophy, love, and therefore passion, was considered sinful and untrustworthy, especially as a firm foundation for progress. Ultimately, it is Othello's devotion to his militaristic and social images that outweighs his love for Desdemona. Yet, instead of separating from his wife, the Moor feels that the only way to win control over the lord-vassal relationship is to murder her, or as he claims in Act 5, scene 1, to "sacrifice her." Othello depicts the ideas and rules of courtly love outlined and recorded by Andres Capellanus in The Art of Courtly Love. Whilst his contemporaries still dreamed of fair maidens with sparkling eyes, Shakespeare explored other methods and conventions from the Middle Ages and combined, as well as contrasted, them with the newer conventions of the Renaissance. His story is one of anti-courtly love—a story focusing on the death of chivalry, romantic courting, and Othello's inability to love. The play detests, destroys, and mocks the ideas of courtly wooing, marriage, and fidelity. A play of power, Othello reflects such characteristics through a verisimilitude of circumstances, specifically seen in the wooing of Desdemona, the marriage bed of Othello and Desdemona, and the loss of women's power in the play. Tainted with "honorable" murder, jealousy, and the fabliau tradition of cuckoldry, Othello has been preserved as Shakespeare's great tale of love gone awry.
English Language and Literature
Copas, Leigh, "Courtship, Loe, and Marriage in Othello: Shakespeare's Mockery of Courtly Love" (2006). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 449.