Compare the way the issues raised in Othello by William Shakespeare and The Rover by Aphra Behn are established in the first Act of the plays.
In the following essay I will discuss the main issues raised by Shakespeare and Aphra Behn in their respective plays Othello and The Rover. I will also explore how both of these playwrights establish these issues within the first Act of their plays using different approaches.
According to Steven Greenblatt (1987: 31), Shakespeare’s play Othello was written at a time when his knowledge of human nature and his ability to dramatise it in both language and action were at their height. The play therefore gives a very in depth study of humanity and its relevant issues. These main issues of race, jealousy, love and revenge are raised within the play and quickly established by Shakespeare through his adept and comprehensive use of characterization. Every character and the theme they represent are presented and also contrasted or balanced by another similar or dissimilar character thus further illuminating and establishing the issues they represent to the reader and allowing the pivotal themes to become quickly established within the first Act.
For example, Desdemona is contrasted by her opposite Iago; love and concern for others alongside hatred, egocentrism and manipulation. Iago is then balanced by the true and loyal soldier Cassio. Othello can be seen as a complex character who embodies both of the qualities of Iago and Desdemona. Desdemona’s love in its various forms is expressed not only in her commitment to Othello, but also in her gentleness and kindness towards others. Othello captures her qualities when he states: ‘She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them’ (I.iii.166-67). Iago is her opposite in every way – he is her antitheses. It could be seen that while Desdemona represents life, Iago is an anti-life force who fails to see the good in anyone. This point is highlighted within the first Act, when he speaks ill of Othello to Desdemona’s father Brabantio: ‘I am one, sir, which comes to tell you/ your daughter and the Moor are now/ making the beast with two backs’ (I.i.118-119).
Othello embodies the qualities of both these characters. He is at once the ‘lascivious Moor’ and the ‘noble Moor’. The issue of race is also concurrently raised here through the term Moor, which is a derogatory term used by Brabantio and Iago with reference to Othello’s relatively dark skinned appearance and north-western African race; perhaps more important than race, however, is the fact that ‘Moor’ implies Muslim, and Othello is, after all, a convert to Christianity. Othello is portrayed at tactful and wise, jealous and vindictive. He does not fight Brabantio when he accuses him of bewitching his daughter in Act I; instead he demonstrates his nobility by speaking with Brabantio before the Duke where Othello proves his marriage to Desdemona is one of love not witchcraft. He addresses the Duke and his company in Act I as ‘My very noble and approv’d good masters’ (I. III.77), further accentuating his polite and respectful manner. However, he allows Iago to manipulate him into believing Desdemona’s infidelity based upon Cassio’s possession of her handkerchief and appears vengeful and violent when he publically strikes and ultimately murders his wife to appease his own pride.
In my opinion, the dramatisation of Othello, in general, further defines the nature of the characters and themes discussed. Iago, in particular is particularly well portrayed as the wolf in sheep’s clothing; he is capable of hiding his evil nature behind his glib and often humorous speeches and respected position. Towards the end of the play Iago’s manipulative qualities are far from dismissed as we see from his dealings with the foolish Roderigo. He almost seems to wink at the spectators as he revels in his own skill. As entertained spectators, we find ourselves almost on Iago’s side. However, the audience also gains an insight into Iago’s cowardice: a quality previously hidden, when he kills his own wife.
As we become aware, many of the themes raised within the first Act through the main characters are never resolved. Desdemona dies at the hands of Othello in the final Act. Whilst he stares at her with murderous eyes, she loves and forgives him for his insane jealousy singing a song: “She was in love; and he proved mad / And did forsake her. She had a song of willow. / . . . / And she died singing it. That song tonight / Will not go from my mind” (IV.iii.27–30).
Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677) was her most successful play and was described by critics of the time as breaking conventions with its provocative, brave and confrontational conventions. It is a dark comedy that balances and contrasts the serious themes of prostitution and rape with comic barbarism. From a feminist perspective, the play clearly expresses the author’s objections to the vulnerability of women in Restoration society, as is poignantly highlighted through the tragic results of Angellica’s being jilted by Willmore.
The women within the play also demonstrate their sexual power and equality with the men in the play and the overriding theme of sexual politics is quickly established by Behn. This is expressed within the second scene of the first Act when Florinda, Hellena and Valeria enter dressed like gypsies, and promise to tell the men’s fortunes. Hellena then reveals to Willmore that she is to become a nun, to which Willmore replies ‘There is no sinner like a young saint’. Hellena then sets a date with the English sailor declaring that she ‘loves mischief strangely, as most of our sex do, who are come to love/ nothing else’(I.i.21-22). Captain Willmore shares her goal of enjoying as many encounters with the opposite sex as he can during his two-day leave and Ned Blunt decides to go to dinner with the harlot Lucetta a ‘jilting wench’, whilst anticipating an evening of physical pleasures.
This highlights the somewhat ironic nature of the play as it at once deals with the sensitive feminist issues of women within patriarchal restoration society whilst simultaneously appealing to the libertine interests of the audience by putting women in morally compromising situations. As we can see Behn, like Shakespeare also uses contrast to confound her message, although how successful this approach is remains arguable. Like Shakespeare’s Othello, the themes within The Rover are quickly established by Behn within the first Act, although more through their morally questionable intentions of her characters than through their actual characterisation.
When John Barton adapted and directed Behn’s play for the RSC in 1986, he stuck more closely to Killigrew’s Thomasco and deleted many of Behn’s original lines. This in my opinion led the women to become the weak, flat creatures that they were in Thomasco, lacking the vitality and moxie that they famously possess in The Rover. This then causes a conflict between how the play is written and the dramatisation. However, Behn’s play is in itself conflicting and If the play is to be read as a feminist play then the ending is contradictory as it shows all of the women wed to their various partners: Belvile, Florinda, Valeria, and Frederick all exit to get married. Hellena enters, still in boy’s clothes, and banters with Willmore, who wants to sleep with her but not marry her. Hellena finally convinces him to wed her. At the end of the play Willmore’s life is in the hands of Angelica who rages at him whilst threatening to kill him with a pistol. It is Angelica who decides to let Willmore live. Again, in opposition to this, the play ends with vows of love between Hellena and Willmore.
In conclusion, although some of Shakespeare’s play does stand in conflict to the previously expressed themes, there is no firm resolution. This is particularly apparent if we look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello and the underlying theme of race which he portrays. Although it could be argued that the play was in part designed to overcome racial stereotyping, it arguably has not succeeded from a modern day perspective and the tragic ending appears to confirm what it is trying to reject. Sadly Othello’s honourable speech, given in the first Act: ‘My parts, my title, my perfect soul/Shall manifest me rightly (I.ii.31-32), becomes thwarted at the end of the play, and in its place appear Othello’s graphic illustrations of his wish to seek ‘great revenge’ upon Desdemona. This thus confirms the audience’s expectations of black brutality. As Emilia states upon Desdemona’s death: ‘O, the more angel she, /And you the blacker devil’! (V.i.134)
This is also the case with Aphra Behn’s The Rover as it possibly set out to break the conventions of the time, but as we can see from the ending of the play, the women all end up married off. However, many of the characters and sizeable chunks of Behn’s dialogue come from Killigrew’s Thomasco which she successfully adapted to create a polished intrigue comedy. Behn does cogently dispose of Killigrew’s world of stereotyped women and develops them beyond the insensate creatures they are portrayed as. Hellena, for example is an audacious and bold virgin who is the central player in a very active group of women with complex desires and opposing motives. While Willmore is still the central character of Behn’s plot, as we can see, the women she created are both intelligent and sensual and unfortunately this was not expressed within Barton’s adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare company.
Greenblatt, S (1987) Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Shakespeare, W (1992) The Complete Works of Shakespeare. London: Harper Collins, 1992.