Every Shakespearean hero has his own unique qualities, whether those be virtue or savagery of the soul, a tragic turn to the character or a humorous nature. To some degree this may be altered and shaped by the play-actors. Othello, as a character, is a prime example of this. He may be seen, in differing productions, as a villainous and barbarous fellow and as a savage, or he may be the innocent and naturally gentle victim of the serpentine Iago. Either interpretation would be fair, for the play proposes so many different ways of looking at him through the eyes of the other characters that one would be justified in drawing any number of conclusions about the way he should be acted. In analyzing the play for character then, it is important not to base one's interpretation of Othello solely on personal instinct or the image of the way one's private and perfect imaginary actor would perform the role. Rather the interpreter should consider the nature of Othello as Shakespeare is most likely to have imagined him in relationship to the original audience and time. Even more importantly one must take into account the archetypal role which Othello plays. The details of character and nature in terms of personality may rightfully take back seat to the importance of the character of the archetype which is being presented through Othello. Understanding the characters fulfillment of and struggle with this grand archetypical role may provide far more insight into character and motivation than would a partisan description of personality. According to historical sources and a close analysis of the play, it would seem that Othello is cast into the archetype of the classical Fool -- one who is tricked and infected by evil, becoming a scapegoat for the community and bearing pain for their enjoyment and enlightenment -- yet he is defined not merely by his part in that role but in his awareness of the role and struggle against it.
To understand the way in which Othello's nature is defined by the Fool archetype, one must first understand the history and nature of that archetype itself. This history and its relationship to Othello is clearly put forth in an excellent essay by Hornbaker. One of the more awkward aspects of performing Othello for modern audiences is the fact that the main character is obviously meant to be dark-skinned, and that he is subject to any number of racial epithets and stereotypes which he eventually proceeds to fulfill. It is well-known that in Shakespeare's time the play was performed in blackface, with a white actor darkening his skin to an inhumanly black shade -- and this is a tradition which today is generally done away with because it seems contrary to the promotion of racial harmony. However, Hornbaker makes a very credible and fascinating case to the point that the blackface in Othello was not meant to be racist, but rather was designed to provide a realistic mode by which to tie the story and character into a long tradition of using blackface in morality plays which dated back to ancient pagan religious rites in which characters such as the Harlequin, the traditional Fool, and certain devils were all played in blackface for symbolic rather than racial reasons.
Before delving more into the relationship between Othello and the ancient theatrical Fool tradition, it is important to stress that this is not merely a symbolic or literary point. Rather it must be understood that if Othello was originally meant to be played as an archetypal Fool, then this says more about his nature and character than any other single insight into his existence. Many elements of his personality, such as the fine balance between innocence and cruelty which one sees displayed in his open trust of Iago and his willingness to brutally butcher his wife make far more sense once they are brought into a more medieval perspective in relationship to the Fool tradition. In this light, his character melds with an ancient ideal, and to some degree is freed from the difficulties of the script to become part of a tradition which gives vital personality to his character. That said, one may return to the interaction within the text of the Fool tradition and the Shakespearean reworking of it.
As earlier referenced, the blackface of pre-Elizabethean theatre was not designed as a racial commentary. Inasmuch as Othello becomes a racially charged story, that is a reinterpretation of the tradition. In the original form, blackface was used to indicate specific metaphorical roles: the demon and the fool. Medieval drama was based in pagan celebrations which dealt with the story of the God and the Goddess and their antagonist. Over time, the black horned god figure was Christianized and identified with the devil -- he was only to reappear on certain contrary church holidays such as the Feast of Fools and within the context of drama. "For your horned and blackened devil is the same personage, with the same vague tradition of the ancient heathen festival about him...the blackfaced devil was quite often blurred with the fool, and their origins in pagan festivity are virtually indistinguishable in medieval and early Renaissance tradition." (Hornback, 26) Blackface, in its association with the sooty faces of horned demons, was associated both with diabolical evil, but also far more innocently with the natural fool and scapegoat. The horned God played an important role as a sacrificial figure and a bringer of enlightenment in the original cultures -- in the morality plays, the fool was an object lesson in morality and intelligence, and served as a scapegoat for the pressures of the community. Othello who is in the play blackfaced because of his race is being simultaneously cast after the tradition of the abject natural fool of the old morality plays. This creates a necessary link within the text between the textual obsession with blackness and darkness and its repetition of the idea of fools and foolish -- which are referred to dozens of times. (Hornback)
Other elements of the Fool tradition are also visible in Othello. For example, throughout the play those duped by Iago are called fools, though this most particularly is applied to Othello. Iago becomes important here because he plays opposite the Othello-Fool as a perfect updated version of the "villainous trickster/wit-intriguer Brighella" who in the post-Rennaissance theatrical era was generally "scarcely more than [a] lackey" (Hornback, 26), just as Iago is scarcely more than Othello's ancient. Additionally, Othello's obsession with his handkerchief is a classical sign of the Fool. Othello speaks of it, saying: "That handkerchief / Did an Egyptian to my mother give; / She was a charmer, and could almost read / The thoughts of people" (Othello, 3.4) This is reminiscent of the traditional medieval fools who carried "ever-present handkerchiefs of the Morris dance and the natural fool's 'muckender.'" (Hornback, 26) which served as a necessary part of their identity and symbolism.
Given the wealth of evidence of associations between blackface, natural fools, and Moors, I am suggesting that Burbage in blackface as Othello, especially, as we shall see, in light of Shakespeare's deployment of other emblems of natural folly, would have been quite as likely to call to mind the now-lost natural fool tradition of comic abuse on the Renaissance stage as the now more familiar association with evil. In addition, other obvious emblems of natural folly, such as the Moor's standard stage apparel, would have reinforced associations between Othello and the abject, a scapegoat natural fool." (Hornback, 26)
If one accepts that Othello was designed to be viewed as the traditional fool, then much of his motivation and his tragedy comes into sharp relief. The play can be seen as his battle against fate and nature as he struggles to divest himself of the role of the Fool. He attempts this first through fine language and storytelling, but his language is perverted and destroyed by Iago. He still will not give in to the role of the Fool, and is determined above all not to be cuckolded (as traditional theatrical fools so often were in the most humorous fashions). Only at the end, having finding himself tricked into killing his own faithful wife does he accept his foreordained role, crying out about himself "O fool! fool! fool!" There is a sense throughout Shakespeare that his characters are aware that they are on stage and living their lives within a playhouse. Consistently through monologues and puns, characters show themselves aware of the limits of their world. "Characters address the audience and introduce themselves in Shakespeare, as do Trinculo in The Tempest or the porter in Macbeth." (Moore) One may assume, then, that if Othello is being cast as a devil and a fool, he is to some degree aware of this and may experience the need to overcome this theatrical stereotype in addition to the racist stereotypes which may exist in Venice or Cyprus. One may view…