Humor in Othello
By the time Othello was produced, Elizabethan theater-goers were accustomed to the conventional elements of comedy and knew what to expect from a comic play: a story of love and courtship with some deceptive twist of plot, all worked out to a happy ending through good fortune and human ingenuity. But in Othello, comedy appears as a precursor to tragedy. It presented the audience with the expected comic conventions gone awry.
Although Othello is a tragedy, a miniature comedy is played out until Act II, Scene i, where the reunion of Desdemona and Othello takes place. First we are given the frustrations of Roderigo, who is paying Iago to convince Desdemona that she should love Roderigo. Apparently Roderigo has already failed to do this for himself, so he comes across as a fool. This impression is compounded by the fact that Iago is taking Roderigo's money but doing nothing in return. Next we are given the villain Iago and his own set of frustrations. At this point in the play, the extent of Iago's evil is not known; he appears to be an example of another comedic element familiar to Elizabethan audiences: the Vice, one who caused mischief but was essentially a fool. Roderigo and Iago carry their grumblings to Desdemona's house, hoping to cause trouble by telling her father, Brabantio, of her elopement with Othello.
This elopement introduces another set of comic elements. The marriage is considered a mismatch, since there is a vast difference in age, race, and cultural backgrounds between the lovers. Such mismatches were common targets of Elizabethan comedy, with special emphasis put on the image of the cuckolded husband, betrayed because he is too old to satisfy his wife's needs. An additional comic touch is the response of the irate father of the bride, in this case, Brabantio, who flaps hysterically about the street in his nightshirt when he learns of the elopement. He continues his ravings at the emergency meeting of the Senate, where he asks for punishment for Othello. Good fortune comes through, however, in the form of the suspected Turk attack on Cyprus. The Senate finds it more expedient to stand behind Othello in hopes that he will defeat the Turks.