May 18, 2005
Disproving Othello as a Religious Narrative
In “Othello, the Baroque, and Religious Mentalities,” Anthony Gilbert argues that William Shakespeare’s Othello is a religious narrative. However, Gilbert does not take
into account the moral shortcomings within the characters, and how their fates seemingly discourage, rather than encourage, any belief in Christian doctrine or belief in religion altogether. Instead of rewarding those characters who represent morality, such as Desdemona, she is killed at the end of the play while Iago, the character who symbolizes treachery and evil survives, defying most religious doctrine. In “Othello, the Baroque,
and Religious Mentalities,” Anthony Gilbert claims that Shakespeare’s Othello is a
religious narrative, but the moral failings, primarily jealousy and cowardliness, illustrated within the relationship of Othello and Desdemona disproves this piece’s validity.
Othello’s suspicious nature and lack of trust in Desdemona signifies his irrational
jealousy, which is a major failing within a relationship. Desdemona and Othello, who elope in the beginning of the play, are truly in love with each other, but Iago soon persuades Othello that Desdemona is sleeping with another man, inspiring uncontrollable amounts of jealousy. Though Othello would like to kill Desdemona, Gilbert claims that “The so-called enlightenment (which is the reverse), that Iago has achieved in Othello, is unable to destroy his love for her” (Gilbert 4). However, after the temptation scene (Act 3,
Scene 3), in which Othello is convinced that Desdemona is having an affair, he is unjustifiably harsh when dealing with her. When confronting Desdemona about his
suspicions, she denies everything because she is not having any sort of extramarital affair, but Othello still believes that she is “that cunning whore of Venice/That married with Othello—You, mistress,/That have the office opposite Saint Peter/And keep the gate of hell!” (4.2.88-92). The strongest word in this statement is “whore”—Othello is
insinuating that Desdemona has no moral compass and will sleep with anyone who rewards her enough. “Whore” is one of the strongest insults used within Othello, and
because Othello is willing to use this word in order to describe his wife, who Gilbert claims he loves, it is evident that Othello’s love for Desdemona is ruined by his jealousy by this point in the play. He then sends for Emilia, but before he goes, he tells Desdemona to “keep the gate of hell!” implying that she is the worst sort of sinner—she
is so horrible of a sinner that she could be the one guarding the gates of hell. The use of these insults illustrates that Othello does not love Desdemona, as he is willing to make degrading comments about her and undermine her love for him. For this reason, the lack of love demonstrated within Othello does not correspond to any sort of religious ideal,
and the degradation of Desdemona, who is the only pure character in this play, further emphasizes this point. Because of the way Othello treats Desdemona after he is convinced she is having an affair, it becomes evident that Othello is not a religious
narrative because of the irrationally jealous nature of Othello.
Gilbert makes more claims regarding Othello’s being a martyr for Desdemona
and in honor of Venice, but in reality, Othello only dies because he is too cowardly to face the consequences of his actions. Othello’s reasoning for killing Desdemona is that
she is supposedly having an affair, and after he finds out that Desdemona is innocent, he kills himself out of guilt. However, Gilbert attempts to make Othello’s suicide seem more
positive because he “affirms in his death his loyalty to Venice, and his sense of a betrayal not only of the Venetian world and Desdemona, but of a religious truth as well. Can he really be thought to kill himself, another infidel?” (Gilbert 4). Though Othello does address the fact that he has helped the state in his last speech in Act 5, Scene 2, he never comments on any sort of religious truth. On the contrary, Othello is superstitious. He tells Desdemona that a handkerchief he gives her will “make her amiable and subdue my father/Entirely to her love; but if she lost it/Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye/Should hold her loathly” (3.4.60-63). Othello’s belief in the handkerchief confirms that he still
holds onto certain superstitious traditions, demonstrating that he is not religious enough to necessarily sacrifice himself and his life because he considers himself an infidel. Also, during Othello’s last speech, he speaks of “one whose hand,/Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away/Richer than all his tribe” (5.2.347-349). This contains Biblical references,
such as the Judean, but Othello is discussing the loss of the pearl as the reason for his suicide, not because of any sort of realization that he is an infidel. Instead, by comparing Desdemona to the pearl, Othello realizes that he has killed the most valuable thing within his life and he cannot live without her. Gilbert then argues that Othello is a martyr, because he “dies to make a statement about some transcendental truth more valuable than
life itself” (Gilbert 5). In Othello’s last speech in Act 5, Scene 2, he claims that he cannot survive with the wrongs that he has done against Desdemona and that he cannot survive without her. Othello’s motives for his death have nothing to do with gaining a greater understanding of the world, but are instead something much simpler—he is afraid of life
without his wife and is simply too cowardly to go on. In Othello’s death scene, Othello is
not depicted as a character within a religious narrative because he is cowardly and believes superstitions outside of the accepted European religions during this time period.
Though religious undertones have been found in thousands of books written throughout time, Othello is a play that does not follow this precedent because its
characters, especially Othello himself, have major moral shortcomings, such as being unreasonably envious of everyone who talks to his wife and then demonstrating his cowardliness by committing suicide. Because Othello has his own moral failings that are amplified to the rest of the characters within the play, it cannot be a religious narrative.
Gilbert, Anthony. Othello, the Baroque, and Religious Mentalities. Sept. 2001. Lancaster
University. 14 May 2005. <http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-2/gilboth.htm>.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. New York City: Wiley Inc., 2000.
I was surprised when I saw the grade I got on this essay. I didn’t think it was a B essay at
all, and I felt that it was probably the weakest thing I had written all semester—so the
whole thing was a complete surprise. After reading the essay over, I think it’s a lot better than what I thought the first time around—it has a specific thesis, decent analysis in the
second body paragraph, and a good conclusion. And miraculously, it makes sense! And
my voice isn’t all sarcastic, so there’s actually some good communication occurring
within this essay.