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Renaissance and Revolution 101: Jacobean Culture and Shakespeare’s Othello


This series explores the literature that arose from the conflicts, ideologies, and rapidly changing cultures of 17th-century England. Fostered in the reigns of both James I and Charles I, it is the purpose of this series to discover the progression of literature and culture from the early Stuart period to the Restoration era which harboured struggles of power, ideology, and paradigms of the monarchy. Examining the English Civil War as an ideological war so much as it was a physical war, this article series explores the literary and political progression of contemporary ways of thinking about the social structure of England in a time of unparalleled change. As the century progressed, attitudes to the monarchy, the government, and the rights of the people polarised, with literature such as poetry, pamphlets, and manifestoes becoming significant players in the social and political debates of the period. 17th-century writers were keen to address major political questions such as: Should the powers of the king be curtailed? Can power be absolute? Are the civil liberties of the people greater than the authority of the king and government?

This series responds to these key questions, discovering how writers and political groups used literature to propagate their understandings of these key ideological interrogations and to persuade and influence political mindsets and decisions. Considering literature as a vehicle of politics, this 101 series uncovers the ways in which prominent writers of the period used literature to address the hostilities and instabilities that characterised the period, as prevailing attitudes towards the monarchy, the nation, sex, and religion came under pressure.

This series will be divided into eight articles:

  1. Renaissance and Revolution 101: A Literary and Historical Overview

  2. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Religious Contexts of the English Civil War

  3. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Jacobean Culture and Shakespeare’s Othello

  4. Renaissance and Revolution 101: The Cavalier Poets

  5. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution I – John Milton

  6. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution II – Andrew Marvell

  7. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Radical Voices

  8. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Sex and Desire in the Restoration

In order to understand the literature that arose from the Jacobean period, it is important to first consider the effect of royal writing, patronage, and politics which were predominant during the time. As explored in the first article of this series, royal writing had a significant impact on the literature produced in the period, encouraging authors to respond to the writings produced by the King. As Cyndia Susan Clegg specifies, in his employment of the written word as a tool to solidify his royal authority, James I subsequently “unwittingly empowered his subjects as readers, interpreters, and imitators, giving rise to alternative discourses of authority” (Qtd in Laski, 1919, p. 2). James I wrote several texts throughout his reign, including endorsing the publication of the new King James Bible. These texts included – though they were not exclusive to – a treatise on the divine right of kings, the practice of kingship, and witchcraft. His commitment to writing opened up a possibility for commentary, critique, and new discourses that were previously either not desired or simply not possible in previous monarchical periods. Writers found themselves reflecting on the political period and the powers of the king, as opposed to that of the people, in ways they never had before.

A particularly interesting scholarly viewpoint on Jacobean literature’s role in the political stage of the 17th century is the ways in which theatrical dramas “blurred the fundamental categories [of] nobleman and commoner, king and subject, male and female” (McGuire, 1994, p. 12). Men performed as women and commoners played the roles of noblemen and kings. It did not matter whether the dramas were fundamentally subversive in their narrative because, as McGuire (1994) states, “knowingly or in ignorance, they acted out an alternative to the official doctrine of a rigid hierarchal order” (p. 13). Jacobean plays were a significant contributor to the cultural formation of ideas, discourses, and ways of thinking about authority. McGuire (1994) elaborates on how Shakespeare’s plays in particular were significant in “the ongoing process of cultural formation, both reflecting and forming perceptions and conceptions” of the contemporary period (p. 14). Thus, James I’s monarchical writings, which sought to establish, reiterate, and solidify his royal authority, encouraged both alternative and supporting discourses of authority.

Figure 1: William Shakespeare (John Taylor, c. 1600s).

In the case of Shakespeare, it is significant to take into account the influence of the King’s patronage. When King James took the throne, Shakespeare’s company was renamed from “the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men” (McGuire, 1994, p. 18), which in turn produced a far more directly symbolic relationship between the company and the King than it had ever been in the past. The King was now directly their patron and so, both his patronage and monarchical writings would have impacted Shakespeare’s stance in political commentary and reflection. As McGuire (1994) elaborates:

“That change in the company’s relationship to the sovereign was one of a set of changes associated with or occurring after James’s accession that altered the circumstances within which Shakespeare's plays came into being and were performed. Those altered circumstances, in turn, had effects on the plays themselves – on their content, their generic identity, their audiences, and their dramaturgy” (p. 19).

Whilst the first of Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays was a comedy, a defining feature of the rest of the plays from that era was that they were tragedies. Many critics have speculated on the reason for this turn, from the death of Elizabeth I, to the death of his father, to the fact that he was approaching old age himself. The climate of the period was also filled with tension and uncertainty that swept over the nation as debates regarding the power of the people versus the king continued to manifest, which certainly may have contributed to the darker turn in Shakespeare’s plays.

Figure 2: William Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. Robson and Crane (n.d.).

It is significant to explore the ways in which Shakespeare responded to such discourses concerning the monarchy. Amy Smith’s (2005) conception of the relationship of early modern texts to contemporary debates of the period explores this through their representation of marriage and the patriarchy:

“such texts provided not only a realm in which to explore the idea of a wife’s subjection to her husband and marital tyranny and resistance, but also a safer realm in which to explore subject’s subjection to their ruler and political tyranny and resistance” (p. 100).

In her interpretation of the political potential of early modern drama, Smith (2005) is acutely aware of the ways in which these texts and performances opened up spaces for subversion of the political order within a safe literary space, and as such “allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, its audiences to envision the possibility of change” (p. 100). In this way, it is clear that early modern drama was a significant contributory factor in fostering alternative ideas about societal structures at a time when such structures were already under threat.

Shakespeare’s Othello

Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello is a play which explores ideas of jealousy, betrayal, power, and the patriarchy. The play’s conflict is centred around Othello, a general in Venice, appointing Cassio rather than Iago as his chief lieutenant. Blindsided by this decision, Iago seeks revenge and plots to ruin Othello and his relationship with his new wife, Desdemona. Iago plants seeds of infidelity in Othello’s mind, convincing him that his wife and new lieutenant are involved in an affair. Overwhelmed by jealousy, Othello kills Desdemona, and after learning the truth and that Desdemona was actually faithful to him all along, he kills himself in despair.

Christina Illig (2010) provides an interesting scholarly view which considers the patriarchal relationships of Othello in the light of monarchical relationships between the king and his subjects. Her article explores the ways in which the father-daughter relationship between Desdemona and her father, Brabantio, can be read as an allegory for the contemporary relationship between the King and his subjects.

Figure 3: Othello, The Moor of Venice (The British Library, 1603).

It is significant to note that James I himself wrote about this very patriarchal comparison. As Illig (2010) notes, in 1609 James announced, “Kings are compared to fathers in families: for a king is truly parens patriae, the politic father of his people” (p. 20). Further, in his Basilicon Doron, the monarch insists that “a good king is comparable to a natural father, [whilst] a tyrant is a step-father and an uncouth hireling” (p. 20). Shakespeare’s writing responds to James’s own literary evocation of the relationship between kingship and fatherhood and again this illuminates the impact of monarchical writings upon the literature of the period. It sheds light on the fact that not only did the king view himself as a father to the people, but the people also held him in this regard.

The relationship between Desdemona and Brabantio acts as a direct commentary upon patriarchal notions of the early 17th century and is a common theme throughout Shakespeare’s plays and early modern literature in general. As Illig (2010) suggests, in Jacobean plays:

“In these plays, the unreasonably high expectations and the varying abuses practiced by a patriarch on a child are clearly illustrated and explored in terms of a tragic end, thereby suggesting the faulty nature of patriarchy” (p. 21).

Figure 4: Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago (Oliver Parker, 1995).

The opening scenes of Othello envision a loss of patriarchal control in which Brabantio loses his daughter to another man when it is revealed to him that Desdemona and Othello have eloped. While Roderigo and Iago present this betrayal as racial incompatibility, it is clear that the founding cause for dissatisfaction is that for Brabantio, his daughter’s elopement represents a loosening of his power as the patriarch of the family. Desdemona’s display of disobedience and independence from what he believed was absolute control over her, is depicted as a “treason of the blood” (I, I, 169). It is significant that Shakespeare is insistent on the disobedience of Desdemona as the fundamental factor in Brabantio’s loss of control. Brabantio refuses to accept his loss of patriarchal power, insisting Othello is a “foul thief” (II, I, 62) who has “enchanted her” (II, I, 63). Accepting Desdemona’s power to decide her own fate means that Brabantio has to accept that he has lost some of his own patriarchal dominance, which injures his pride. Instead, Brabantio insists that Othello has resorted to magical intervention to seduce Desdemona and that he is abusing “her delicate youth with foul charms” (II, I, 73). By displacing the true cause of his loosened grip on his daughter, and hence his power, Brabantio desperately seeks to diminish the true nature of their relationship.

The absolute power of the patriarchy, as embodied by Brabantio, holds its authority only by commanding obedience. Once the subject, his daughter, displays disobedience, such authority crumbles. This is supported by Illig (2010) who argues: “patriarchy survives and flourishes only so long as it is not questioned or challenged, so long as both the patriarchs and their subordinates fully accept the natural justice of the relationship.” (p. 22). The compromise of Brabantio’s authority, which he views as a “complete failure” (p. 21), serves as a striking parallel to the structuring of kingship in 17th-century England. Brabantio’s position as the patriarch relies on the obedience of his daughter to maintain his power, just as royal authority relies on obedience from its subjects. In support of this parallel, Illig (2010) writes:

“The reassertion and reinforcement of patriarchal practices that occurred during the reign of James I are probably largely due to the well-publicized concept of patriarchal absolutism promoted by the king himself” (p. 19).

Figure 5: Stage Adaptation of Othello (Patrick Weishampel, n.d.).

At a time when obedience towards James I was slipping from his control, with his reign beginning to evidence a “disorientation, disorder, and relentless pressure for change” (Hanley, 172, p. 6), Shakespeare’s implementation of a father parallel serves to show exactly how much his authority relies upon obedience. In this way, Desdemona becomes an allusion to the people of England, beginning to show disobedience to the absolute authority of the monarchy as they searched for a vision of a society where the king’s powers would be restricted. Her disobedience mirrors the “rising disrespect” surfacing “for the Church establishment and for the court itself” (Hanley, 1972, p. 6), as parliamentary rights became a prominent topic in the societal debate.

The lack of a royal figure within Othello does not necessarily serve as a direct reflection of Shakespeare’s monarchical views. Rather, the Republican nature of the play offers Shakespeare a “safe realm in which to explore subject’s subjection to their ruler and political tyranny and resistance” (Smith, 2005, pg. 101). In this way, excluding royal figures from the play allows Shakespeare to safely present discourses on obedience and authority without directly subverting royal power. Indeed, Shakespeare’s depiction of a patriarchal figure losing its grip on its subject is not to be assumed a reflection of his views upon the failings of his king, but rather an acute study of the workings of the monarchy and the power systems within which it operates. This point is expanded by D.H. Cohen (1992) who contests:

“the political plays and his tragedies demonstrate […] the formally dominant ideologies of monarchy and patriarchy and their protagonists expend themselves in attempting to sustain what is consciously constructed as the political and personal interest of those in power. The action of the tragedies, engaged, as it always is, with the relation of the subject to the dominant ideology, refocuses the tenets of the ruling class onto a struggle between the single subject and the formal modes and notions of power” (p. 4).

Figure 6: Desdemona Cursed by her Father (Desdemona maudite par son père) (Eugene Delacroix, c. 1852).

Arguably, the death of Desdemona and Othello at the end of the play resolves the issue of disobedience raised in its origin. Their deaths symbolise the fault of their actions and the distrust, jealousy, and rage that originated in the act of elopement and spiralled out of control. One could argue that their disobedience thus becomes negatively framed – not as an act of love, but rather a foolish act with disastrous consequences. As such, Shakespeare’s Othello offers a thorough political commentary on the ways in which patriarchal, and through allusion, monarchical, power can be threatened. This is not to say that Shakespeare encourages this change, disobedience, or tension. It can rather be read as a representation of the ways in which early modern drama used the written word, following in the footsteps of the king, as a mediator and navigator of contemporary events.

Shakespeare’s Othello is a significant early modern text, symbolising the very ways in which royal writing opened up space for authors to contribute their own contemporary political commentary, criticism and reflection of current events. Whilst the tragedy does not serve to subvert or challenge the power of the king, not only because of James I’s position as patron, the text is significant in illuminating the ways in which Shakespeare represented the fraught and tense atmosphere of the Jacobean period through allusions in the narrative. The disobedience of Desdemona to her patriarch encapsulates the growing disobedience of the nation, though her deathly fate does seem to offer a warning to those keen to question absolute royal authority. Ultimately, the text captures the mood of the nation and the ways in which early modern writers used literature as a vehicle for political commentary.

Bibliographical References

Cohen, D. (1992). Shakespeare's Culture of Violence. Springer Press.

Hanley, C. (1972). Jacobean Drama and Politics. Temple University Press.

Illig, C (2010). “Patriarchy and Power: The Parent-Child Relationship in Shakespeare’s Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth”. Symposium.

McGuire, P. (1994). Shakespeare: The Jacobean Plays. Pan Macmillan.

Shakespeare, W. (1992). Othello (C. Watts, Ed.). Wordsworth Editions.

Smith, A. (2005). Holy Estates: Marriage and Monarchy in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (review). Comparative Drama, 39(1), pp. 100-103.

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Ella Fincken

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