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Allegory and Irony in Othello

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2007

Stanley Wells
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
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Summary

Othello is Shakespeare's Spenserian tragedy, in which the theme of slandered chastity becomes a vehicle for exploring the problems of an allegorica art. Allegory is the mode of selfconscious faith, and Spenser's corpus may be read as a portrait of the artist as allegorist, wrestling first with the burdens of selfconsciousness and then with the burdens of faith. In Othello, Shakespeare compresses and objectifies this struggle. Unlike Spenser, he is not committed to the maintenance of allegory, and so he freely dramatizes the internal weaknesses and external onslaughts that lead to its destruction.

What I am calling the 'Spenserian' quality begins with the chivalric elements in the tragedy. Truly, Othello is a kind of Savage Knight, Desdemona, the absolutely, almost miraculously, worthy lady, and Iago, something of a manipulator like Archimago. But more particularly I would call attention to a specific engagement with Spenserian rhetoric. Consider Cassio's words of welcome to the disembarking Desdemona:

Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds,

The gutter'd rocks and congregated sands,

Traitors ensteep'd to enclog the guiltless keel,

As having sense of beauty, do omit

Their mortal natures, letting go safely by

The divine Desdemona.

(2.1.68-73)
Type
Chapter
Information
Shakespeare Survey , pp. 123 - 134
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1988

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