Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, and Othello, by William Shakespeare represent the affixation of society on the hearts of man. Society, in these two tragic plays, spawns many character quirks, problems, and plot invasions. Society is the reason for each character’s psyche development, is responsible for each problem that arises to confront the protagonist and other characters, and provides the meaningful plot twists. The substrata of society, as the initiating influence on the mind-set of the characters, directly causes the creation of, the climax of, and the resolution of the problems in Othello and Death of a Salesman. As the critic Warken put it, “Both act on a false set of premises.” (C.N.). Originally speaking of Othello and Iago, this statement can be applied to each of the aforementioned plays. The characters in each play act on the ground rules provided by society. The ground rules represent the “false set of premises” which the characters follow instead of what they feel is right. This false sense of what is right brings the plays to their final stages.
The creation of people and how they think is greatly influenced by society. To determine how society has affected the two tragic plays at hand, the characters that society has made must be examined. In Othello, three main characters must be looked at. The characters of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona. Othello is a result of his upbringing in a Moorish culture. Othello is a very noble and trusting person. This is one of his faults that bring his downfall. Iago, a sentiment of pure evil, takes his place in society through his disillusionment. How Iago has become so evil is unknown, but it can be assumed that something traumatic may have happened to him. Desdemona is a prime example of how women were expected to act in that time period. Willy, the protagonist in Death of a Salesman, is a result of the American Dream, a concoction of the over-optimistic American male. Linda, like Desdemona, is a great example of the women of the Loman’s time period. She cooks, cleans, raises the children, and rarely takes sides. Biff and Happy are modern children. Although grown up when the play takes place, they are offspring that have been under-disciplined and easily impressionable. Their whole lives have been affected by Willy’s warped idea of the American Dream.
The characters are greatly affected by their environment and by their societies. The play Othello takes place in two areas: Venice and Cyprus. These two places have totally different societies. Venice, as critic Nuttall described it, is “. . . greedy, racist, socially unfair, and governmentally unfair.” (C.N.). This type of society plays hard on Othello, and also gives Iago a little push in his plans. Othello is looked down upon by the people of Venice and by Desdemona’s father. The fact that Othello is dark allows Iago to play on the racism of others, especially to take advantage of Roderigo. Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, the woman that is eloping with the Moor, Othello. This jealousy of Roderigo contributed to the racism felt toward Othello. Cyprus, the staging later in the play, is isolated, according to Nuttall. (C.N.). This isolation is a play on how Othello acts toward society once he is on the island. Also, Nuttall claims that Othello “. . . does not merely belong to another culture but an earlier one.” Othello, therefore, does not fit into the society that Iago was a part of and brings on the problems to come. Willy is also stuck between the rock of society and a hard place. His ideas of a typical society are out-dated and he no longer fits into the boundaries of society. This idea puts Willy in the same boat as Othello, one of an earlier culture. Bigsby, a critic, said that “[Miller] is uncertain whether Willy is a victim of his own weakness or of a brutally-minded society.” (C.N.). This “brutally-minded society” that embodies the thinking of this time period no longer holds respect for the elders of their people. The elderly, by this time-period, are not wise but only a roadblock in the way of success. Willy fits into this category and paves the way to the problems that arise.
With the combined effect of the mind-set of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona, the problems are just beginning. With the cunning of Iago and with the willingness to trust that Othello’s earlier culture dictated, the problems begin. The woman that Desdemona personified was the ideal mate of that time period. Her morals and ideals of trust, loyalty, and support aided in the downfall of Othello. This molded woman held so closely to her beliefs that Iago was able to bend her to shape to fit the orb of Othello’s odd culture. This leads to Iago’s statement “Men should be what they seem;” (Shakespeare, p.1154). These three characters are not what they seem for they are all dictated by society. Iago can be viewed as the evil tempter of society, while Othello can be viewed as the easily persuaded of society. Desdemona represents the selfless, uninfluenced of society. Othello’s easily swayed opinion destroys Desdemona. On the other side, in Death of a Salesman, Willy’s problems begin with his preoccupation with the American Dream. This dream of success is instilled by society and can be very blinding and persuading. Hayman stated that “. . . the family is being used as a microcosm of a success-oriented materialistic society.” (C.N.). The society that Willy Loman lives in is a society based on how much an individual can own and how well the individual is known. There is no realistic root in this dream, but it is appealing. The Lomans are subjected to this idea through Willy and the preoccupation with the American Dream creates many problems in the Loman household.
“Chaos is come again.” (Shakespeare, p. 1153). This quote spoken by Othello clearly states the coming events. The climax of Othello is, mainly, the point when Desdemona drops the handkerchief that Othello once gave her. Othello’s isolationism brings him to the point of insanity, by society’s terms. His isolationism is a result of his differences in thinking than the thinking of the masses. On the other hand, Willy’s inability to see reality also makes him seem insane to others. Biff’s comment “The man don’t know who we are . . . We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” shows that Willy’s dreaming could never allow him to accept the reality dictated by society. (Miller, p. 131). Biff finally realized that the American Dream was something that happened by chance to very few people and no longer allowed that idea in his head. Willy could not accept this after his whole life has been in search for this dream.
The resolution of these two plays falls under the wing of honor. Godfrey supplied the idea that Othello killed Desdemona out of honor. (C.N.). Othello did not want Desdemona hurting more men like himself. This idea of honor, which also led to Othello killing himself, was offered by society and took root in the hearts of man throughout time. This idea of honor also carried over to the time of Willy Loman. Willy believe that if he committed suicide, then he would die for a just cause, namely to bring twenty-two thousand dollars to Biff. Willy said to Ben while in a spell, “He’ll worship me for it.” (Miller, p. 135). This false sense of honor brought this tragedy to an end. But it was not Willy’s fault that he had a sense of honor, it was the idea that society has instilled upon mankind throughout the ages.
The substrata of society that surrounded these many characters brought on tragic consequences. Miller’s idea that people want to gain a rightful position in society is shown throughout both of these plays. (C.N.). Iago’s search for his rightful position brought the downfall of all the characters in Othello. Willy’s attempt to rise above the rest to fulfill the American Dream brought on his downfall and the downfall of his family. The problems that plagued these two plays were a result of society and the small faction of society that surrounded the characters.