Comparing Power in ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Othello’
Both plays are about the ultimate struggle for power. Power can be shown in many ways such as race, gender, ‘others’, social class, and most importantly through use of language. Power can be shown in both plays through the use of ‘otherness’. This can be associated with power as characters such as Othello or Caliban are ‘others’ because they are from ‘elsewhere’. One such character who could be described as an ‘other’ is Othello. Bill Bryson suggested that ‘before he reworked it ‘Othello’ was insipid melodrama’ and perhaps it was the addition of ‘others’ by Shakespeare that added to the drama. Characters such as Othello and Caliban were considered dangerous and unnatural because they were foreign. In the Elizabethan times, these were the characters that the audience would have wanted to have a bleak ending. Especially people of a higher class, such as James I, would have enjoyed and found amusing how the people of a lower class or the ‘others’, people in context and relation with them, who in their lives may symbolise a threat, die in the play.
Caliban can be compared to Othello in the way that they are both the “noble savages” in each of the plays. Othello’s extreme thoughts provoked by Iago and consequential imaginings cause him to doubt Desdemona. The contemporary audience would have found this fascinating, as they would have seen how a person of a different ethnicity, such as Othello, felt towards a different social hierachy. With both characters there are comparisons, Caliban is savaged and deformed; Othello is black, which in the 16th Century was seen as essentially deformed and different to the ‘normal’ white person, in addition they are easily fooled by deception, as expected by the contemporary audience. Trinculo, Stephano and Iago have their evil intentions and conspiracies to gain power by deceiving others to believe in them fully. Caliban, a half human and half beast, is easily fooled by the two men, the derivatives of a higher civilization. Similar to how Othello is deceived by Iago. Iago’ use of power through language can have a significant impact on the audience, for example in Act 2, Scene 3, he shouts, “Divinity of Hell!”. However, it is Iago who is the divinity of hell, the devil incarnate; it is his facades of honesty, subtle powers of manipulation and personal control over Othello’s life that encapsulate his evil ways. This is similar to how Hazlett argues “Prospero has a devilish ability to craft”. This demonstrates that Prospero and Iago have similar devilish qualities, this associates with power since the devil is controlling, potent and manipulative. Ironically, Prospero’s judgement of Caliban is “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick”, Shakespeare is showing Prospero to be sly and hypocritical, because in actual fact Prospero is the devilish character in the play, as Sebastian says “The devil speaks in him”.
Likewise in ‘The Tempest’, Trinculo and Stephano have plans to turn every situation into their own advantage, like how Iago tries to listen into every private conversation as possible, by doing this, they gain information, therefore gaining power. Caliban appears to the contemporary audience to be weak, foolish and narrow minded; however he is the one who speaks in blank verse and iambic pentameter. This illustrates Caliban’s use of complex and sophisticated language which can be seen in his lines. Another character in ‘Othello’ who possesses intellectual use of language is Iago. Here he’s saying that Iago is the person who causes all the trouble, the antagonist, and that without him, as an audience one could put the blame on Othello, the protagonist. Throughout the play Iago possesses the majority of the power. By using convincing, rhetoric and eloquent speech, Shakespeare reveals what a powerful-and dangerous tool language can be. However, the contemporary audience would believe that Othello would easily fall prey to Iago, as a blackamoor he would be gullible.
The character of Othello has risen through the ranks as a military hero despite his race, but still has self-doubt. Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, cannot believe that his daughter had fallen in love “with what she feared to look on”. In the 17th Century, marrying a person of another colour was seen as dangerous; Desdemona shows her disobedience to her father by not only marrying Othello, but leaving her father. Othello has insecurities stemming from racial prejudice, questioning Desdemona’s love for him as he states, “Haply I am black and have not these soft parts of conversation”. Lack of power is shown through Othello’s insecurity, and can also be seen in
Caliban. The audience is first introduced to Caliban through Prospero’s description of which as “a freckled whelp, hag-born, not honoured with a human shape”. Shakespeare is already demonstrating to the audience that Caliban will be the character that is the outcast from the rest of the characters in the play. Similar to how Othello is described with various racial terms, such as “thick lips” which a 21st Century audience would find very offensive and insulting. So Prospero has power over his daughter, unlike Brabantio over Desdemona, this would be respected by the contemporary audience. However, Prospero’s power is more complex than this, These two opinions show that Prospero can be seen in different ways by audiences and critics alike. Caliban is discriminated in the play, treated like a slave. Prospero appears to hold the majority of the power. The contrast in tasks given to Ariel and Caliban by Prospero also shows us the contrast between Ariel’s and Caliban’s roles and the higher status and power Prospero possesses. Caliban is only allowed near Miranda as he performs the unskilled jobs ‘he does make our fire, fetch our wood and serves in offices’ reminding the audience that Caliban is a slave. Ariel on the other hand is given much more important jobs, but this is not because Ariel means any more to Prospero than Caliban does, but simply because of his magic.
It is evident that Miranda is aware of how powerful Prospero is, as she says “Had I been any god of power, I would /Have sunk the sea within the earth”. This indicates that she understands the extent of Prospero’s power, and that if she had possessed the same amount of power, she would use it differently to her father. Shakespeare shows differences in power between Othello, Desdemona and Iago. The use of gender differences and the changing perception of them suggest a powerful gender based conflict. Othello and Desdemona love each other for the ‘differences they perceive in one another’. Desdemona perceives Othello as a valiant warrior, and Othello perceives Desdemona as a woman with genuine feminine grace.
Iago’s relationship with Othello becomes a power struggle where Iago attempts to degrade Desdemona in order to position himself so he can ‘poison’ Othello. Here Shakespeare is showing how powerful and manipulative Iago can be with his use of words, and how powerful they can be. This power struggles is exemplified through Iago’s words at the end of Act 3 Scene 3, ‘I am your own forever’. Iago has intrigued audiences for generations through his combination of realistic malice and seemingly unjustified lust for revenge, his motiveless malignity. Shakespeare purposely made Iago the devilish character he is to intrigue the audience at how someone like him can have so much hate for people, even when things in his own life are perfectly fine. She’s implying that because she was a female, and females in the 17th Century weren’t equal to men, her disobedience contributed to her death and it was inevitable.
Iago’s professional and sexual jealousies cause him to ‘hate the Moor’ and with this character, Shakespeare plays with master/servant relations to demonstrate power. Furthermore, in ‘The Tempest’, Prospero is master to both Ariel and Caliban (air and earth) – although Prospero conducts each of these relations differently, both Ariel and Caliban are aware of their position. This leads to Caliban challenging Prospero’s control by taking on Stefano as his new master. However, in trying to escape one power relationship, Caliban quickly creates another when he persuades Stefano to murder Prospero by promising that he can marry Miranda and rule the island. This is also similar to how Iago challenges Othello’s control, by manipulating his thoughts and feelings through lies, use of language and deception. Many of the characters compete for colonial control of the island – a reflection of England’s colonial expansion in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare created the plays for King James 1, and Sycorax, the original colonizer, came from Algiers with her son Caliban and reportedly performed evil deeds. When Prospero arrived on the island he enslaved its inhabitants and the power struggle for colonial control began. This is similar as to how Iago is almost a servant to Othello, Iago challenges Othello’s control by betraying him without Othello even knowing.
Iago is hungry for power, and he will do anything to get it. He realises that by using character’s emotions such as anger and jealousy, he can control them. The people he controls are like pawns in a chess game. This led to his rise in power but caused the deaths of Othello, Desdemona, and Roderigo, eventually leading to his downfall. In conclusion, Iago wanted power, and he
used manipulation to get it. Iago, like Stephano and Trinculo are really the lowest life beings of society who attempt to gain respect and power by deception. Each character has a plan for the island if they were in charge: Caliban wants to ‘people the isle with Caliban’s”, this compares to Othello, Stefano plans to murder his way into power and Gonzalo imagines an idyllic mutually controlled society, which this can be compared to aspects of Iago. Ironically, Gonzalo is one of the few characters in the play who is honest, loyal and kind throughout – in other words: a potential King. This could be compared with Roderigo; however Roderigo is also the fool in Othello. This can be associated as to how Iago in Othello wants to be promoted in his job. Thomas He says that the play is ‘a condemnation of woman who run away with black moors’ so Desdemona got what she deserved. People in the 1700’s would have thought this comment was true. However in today’s society, it is completely different. Power has changed people’s lives through many generations, through the use of language, the act of Women’s rights in the early 1900s, and this is what makes Shakespeare’s plays so interesting still to this day.