Shakespeare in his Othello, and Wilde in his The Importance of Being Earnest, are about realising personality through creative strategies to exploit the hypocrisy of society. Oscar Wilde’s play was first performed on 14 February 1895 at the St James’s Theatre in London. It is a farcical comedy in which the protagonists maintain fictitious personae to escape burdensome social obligations and in doing so, the characters make comments towards the Victorian society and begin to reconnect with their own identity. Directed by Iqbal Khan for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 2015, Othello is unlike a simple renewing of Shakespeare’s tragedy; in its place, it was a production intended to stimulate and confront its audience on arguably the most compelling issue of our day by casting Lucian Msamati as a black Iago. Dr Peter Kirwan from notes that ‘for Khan, this was not a production about a society against one man, but a society divided against itself. By manipulating the casting of the characters, Khan was able to veer away from Othello as a race play and focus more broadly on the synopsis and what the play was ‘about’ Wilde uses a paradoxical theme in The Importance of Being Earnest, which shows the parallel existence of countervailing precepts in the culture of his time and exposes a system with double standards of morality that reflect on the deconstruction of Victorian moral and social values. Khan’s Othello and Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest both ascribe modes of reality to fictional persons as part of their plots.
The societal view of women is consequently linked to the construction of character, however, Desdemona’s characterisation in Othello is shaped by society, whereas the female character in The Importance of Being Earnest demonstrate a clear dominance over men. The role of Desdemona is traditionally cast as a white actress to create a contrast and a distinction between her and Othello. This is further exaggerated by casting a conventionally slim and diminutive blond-haired Joanna Vanderham who can appear to be defenceless opposite a taller, larger and generally more overbearing Hugh Quarshie. This creative function aims to comment on the fragility of their marriage as it was deemed improper for a white woman to marry a black man. As she flips the drill around aimlessly in her hand, the audience forms the impression that Desdemona is choreographed and characterised as a strong woman. Yet, Desdemona eventually had to accept her subordinate character as she was determined to “serve Othello, forsaking her father”. The word serve in this quotation implies Desdemona’s inferior status as a woman. Contrastingly, in Wilde’s play, Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen, Cecily and Miss Prism are strong, practical women who take control over their male counterparts. This is an unforeseen world in which Victorian patriarchal ideals are reversed. Instead of seeing women who succumb to the authority of their male counterparts, it is, in fact, the men who surrender to the needs of their female partners. In the context of romantic ideas, Gwendolen and Cecily subvert their patriarchal positions and take charge of their own romantic lives, while the men simply observe in a relatively inactive role. Contrarily to contemporary suffocating notions, they take a relaxed attitude towards gender roles, social norms and romantic ideology. Instead of dealing with serious aspects of marriage, their preference is for the name Earnest which proposes their attachment to romantic ideas and their discontent with the strict rules of marriage and family life. Gwendolen’s fascination with the name Earnest can be observed in her words: ‘we live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals …and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Earnest’ (1.239). therefore, what they say and how they act is cat3ergorised as an outburst towards the unnatural restraints of society which tends to imprison their desires. Gwendolen prefers manners of expression rather than the matter of it when she says, ‘True, in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing’ (III.276). Through this expression, her thought demonstrates an immediate reaction against the double standards of morality practised by the aristocracy at that time. Through the female characters, Wilde demonstrates how the subject is socially constituted, while allowing for individual acts of resistance against totalizing narratives of selfhood. In Othello, on the other hand, one may infer that Desdemona’s statement “I am obedient” is a result of her social conditioning enforced by patriarchal society where her expected duty is to obey her husband and father. In Act 2 scene 2, Cassio refers to Othello’s wife as “a maid/that paragons description and wild fame” and that she “excels the quirts of blazoning pens”. So, her beauty is described beyond the poetic language, but this then becomes unachievable for Desdemona to live up to. The alteration in language, which is associated with Desdemona, is no longer pure or divine, but rough and wicked as Othello refers to her as a “strumpet” and a “cunning whore”. As a misleading temptress, she becomes a danger to the devices of patriarchy and therefore “she must die, or else shell betray more men”. Khan’s intended message behind Desdemona’s death is that dependency leads to indulgence and respect while freedom leads to dissatisfaction and rejection. All in all, the genre of the play has a drastic effect on the characterisation that Khan and Wilde included.
Each male protagonist struggles with the question of personal identity and sits on the outside of who and where they want to be, however tragically in Othello’s case and laughably in Algernon and Jacks; all characters finally begin to assert autonomy and control over their destiny as an individual. Khan’s production with its deliberate rejection of a colour contrast between Othello and Iago and the play does its best to nullify the question of race. The play did not come across as either Othello- or Iago-based but as a choreographed dance between Quarshie and Msamati. The black Iago begins to express an overwhelming sense of power through his choreography by reading, manipulating, and even predicting Othello ‘s thoughts and acts to the audience, thus flattering Othello ‘s character, making increasingly evanescent linguistic depths like those required by other Shakespearean plays such as Hamlet and King Leah. Their performances in a multicultural and racially diverse world increased the available data to arrest our spectating gaze and so expanded received notions of what the play is ‘about’. In The importance of being Earnest, The fact that Jack’s heritage is linked to a train station appears to be a direct insult to Victorian titles and peerages that, in the 1880s, had expanded to allow ‘new money’ and more diverse social backgrounds to be part of the aristocracy, suddenly not everyone was born into a peerage (Sloan, 1943). Wilde exposes the fragility of traditional claims of inheritance and privilege. Lady Bracknell “advise[s] him “to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex” that would be a practical illustrative link to the aristocracy. Therefore, the fact that Jack has no connection to an identity makes him inferior in societies ideology. Returning to Othello, both Iago and Othello were visibly outsiders, not because they were black, but because they both held rank. Othello was aware of his race, and of his conflicted identity as a foreign man in a foreign country: “Haply, for I am Black, and have not those soft parts of conversation” (Othello 3.3.268). Yet, tragically, Othello was internally conflicted and could not come to terms with himself as a character and this resulted in his death. While in Wildes play, Algernon serves as an example of the length of time Victorians had to go to avoid the stifling moral repression and shame brought on by a culture that prizes the appearance of truth. However, he eventually told the truth and accepted himself for who he was. In summary, both the plays progressively introduce the idea of character by subverting the expectation of character. Othello and Iago are no longer consider as other and Algenon and Jack become one with themselves as soon as they realise that they need to part ways with Victorian standards of character.
By a comparison of Othello and the importance of being earnest we see protagonists scrutinising and, in some cases, adapting to the patriarchal restrictions set upon them and in turn, this either makes or breaks their character. Creative functions embedded throughout the plays heighten the audience’s awareness and responsiveness of the certain stereotypical conventions held when Shakespeare and Wilde originally wrote the works. Khan’s adaptation of Othello shifted the original focus and allowed more questions to be asked about the true nature of the play. Rather than destabilization, The Importance of Being Earnest arrives at a stable paradox enabled by characterological consensus, the genre of farce, and the materiality of theatre. The social status quo is both sustained and transformed, and the dandy characters are compatible with the set because they collectively embrace illusion.