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‘Compare the ways in which alienation of individuals from their societies is presented in the two texts you have studied.’
George Bernard Shaw once said that ‘conflict is the essence of drama’, and if that is true, then the plays Othello and A Streetcar Named Desire would thus be rife with drama, as conflict in inexorably presented by the two respective playwrights, Shakespeare and Williams, through the alienation of individuals from their societies. This creates constant conflict and friction within the plays as the relentless efforts of their ‘outsiders’ is constantly pushed back by an even greater force that rejects them from being a part of society. In each of these plays, there are common literary devices that each playwright uses to bring about this alienation, with the most obvious of them being the juxtaposition of the characters to other characters and to their ‘newfound’ homelands, as well as the imagery and words that the other characters use against them or to describe them (with diction and its various forms also being an overarching factor that achieves this effect of alienation).
In the very first scene of the play, Iago already plays on Othello’s ‘otherness’ towards Brabantio, purposefully making jabs at Othello’s race, giving him a reason to disapprove of his daughter’s new marriage by painting a vile picture of what Othello will do to his daughter in ‘you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse’. The bestial imagery invoked by Iago is only further propagated throughout the play in which he constantly uses Othello’s skin-colour to give others a reason to distrust him.
The most obvious way in which the alienation of individuals is presented in the two plays are the juxtaposition of the ‘outsider’ to their new surroundings, namely Othello the Moor from Othello and Blanche Dubois from Streetcar. For Othello, the Moor general is considered an outsider to everyone in Venice, where the play is set, simply because he is of African descent whereas everyone else is a fair-skinned Venetian. Thus, every single character that he interacts with paints an almost immediate contrast as he does not share the same heritage as them. The most crucial contrasts that are portrayed through Othello are that between his wife, Desdemona and his counterpart and adversary, Iago.
Similarly, in Streetcar, the alienation of Blanche Dubois, an ‘upper-class’ woman who comes from a wealthy background (Belle Reve) is presented through her sister Stella, and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski as they are unable to accept the changes that comes with her moving into their lives. Stanley, whom Blanche considers to be a Polish immigrant (derogatively referring to him as a ‘Polack’) has already established an extremely comfortable lifestyle with his wife and the introduction of Blanche threatens all of this, and so he ultimately decides to eliminate her from the picture. This is presented in the contrast between these two polar opposites. Where Stanley is proud to be in his own skin and confident of his physical attractiveness, ‘My clothes’re stickin’ to me. Do you mind if I make myself more comfortable?’, Blanche is shown to always be covered up and shielded from natural light, as she is afraid that the people and company in her life (what she needs the most) will resent her when they see her real and natural looks. The extent to their differences run further than that though, as Stanley (along with the other characters who lives in the French Quarter) is used to being outspoken and blunt, speaking his mind towards whatever he sees fit, whereas Blanche is constantly hiding behind lies and falsifications, and it is fundamentally, in these conflicts of interests and behaviors that society as a whole is generally unable to accept Blanche into their lives, because she is so different from them and is unable to adapt wholly to them.
As an offspring from the characters being unable to accept these individuals into their respective societies, it can be seen that the setting itself is another dramatic device in which the playwrights use to highlight the alienation of an individual from its society. In Othello, Shakespeare uses the setting of Venice in Act 1 and then later on, Cyprus in the rest of the play to again, show how Othello (at the time of the play) would never be accepted into such cultures. Firstly in Venice, there is an inherent xenophobia within the society that is unable to accept Othello into their personal lives, thus showing that Othello’s value in society is nothing more than a tool, and that the respect that he is accorded with is only due to his contributions to the state, without which he is nothing. This can be seen from the treatment he receives from others, most notably the First Senator and the Duke in ‘Here comes Othello and the valiant Moor’ and ‘Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you’ respectively. Even though the noblemen speak to him with respect and dignity, it is shown that they treat his ‘otherness’ as an intrinsic part of his character that they cannot refrain from addressing him with, therefore showing that Othello had always been considered an outsider that only has a place in the Venetian society as someone who can offer service.
In Act 2 onwards, the introduction of a new setting Cyprus shows Othello’s further alienation from his society. Ironically, Cyprus is a somewhat more ‘hostile’ environment in which most of his travelling companions are unused to feel uncomfortable in as it is much more ‘rough’ than genial Venice. It is in Cyprus which Othello feels more at home at, unleashing his innate behavior such as the rage he unleashes in Act 3 and the violence he commits onto Desdemona in Act 4, showing the contrast that he is much more comfortable in this ‘foreign environment’ than the rest of his Venetians. Thus, the dramatic setting is another device that Shakespeare uses to present the alienation of the individual Othello from the rest of his society.
Again, this is true for A Streetcar Named Desire as the main setting, ‘Elysian Fields’ is basically a cramped apartment that Blanche is completely unable to adapt to, given her background living in a huge plantation in the Southwest for most of her life. In Elysian Fields, Blanche is not only forced into a small two-room compound shared with what she feels are ‘foreigners’ above her but also, to share it with the very person she is most uncomfortable with, Stanley, and it is her constant efforts to change this environment to better suit her that so enrages Stanley in the first place, as it threatens his very way of life. In the very introduction of Blanche in scene 1, ‘[She touches her forehead shakily.] Stella, there’s – only two rooms?’ she already expresses her disappointment and disdain in putting up in such an environment, and thus it shows that from the start, Williams had already shown that Elysian Fields is a place that Blanche definitely does not belong in. Furthermore, Blanche constantly revels (or shows off) to the other characters about her old home in Belle Reve, which literally means ‘beautiful dream’, juxtaposes heavily with the cramped and obviously uncomfortable Elysian Fields in which she currently resides in, and this inability to let go of the past thus shows that Blanche will never
be able to fit into society, which is what Stanley will inevitably drive her out from. Therefore, the use of dramatic setting is also used in Streetcar to alienate Blanche from the society.