What is Brabantio’s function in “Othello”?
Although Brabantio only features on stage in Act 1 and his death is mentioned almost as an after-thought later in the play, he is in fact a key character in Othello. This is signalled by a comparison between Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro” and Shakespeare’s text; whereas in Cinthio Desdemona’s unnamed family seek vengeance for her murder, in Shakespeare the figure of Brabantio is a vital, unforgettable presence whose final lines echo throughout the text.
Through presenting the figure of Brabantio as racist and misogynistic, Shakespeare exposes the prejudices of Venetian society. On hearing of Desdemona and Othello’s elopement, Brabantio’s question “How got she out?” is telling, hinting at his domineering attitude and his disbelief that his daughter would defy his instructions. As the embodiment of the repression Desdemona needs to escape from, Brabantio is very quick to disown his daughter, with this distancing evident in the use of a dismissive pronoun – “She has deceived her father and may thee”. Not only does this line sow the seeds of tragedy, but it also indicates that Brabantio may be more loyal to patriarchal structures of power than he is to his own flesh and blood.
Shakespeare also uses Brabantio to symbolise the racism endemic in Renaissance society. Without any sense of reserve, he condemns the elopement as “evil” and “treason of blood”. Through the use of legal diction, Shakespeare indicates that Brabantio’s xenophobia reflects his fear of wider social chaos: in Brabantio’s eyes, Desdemona’s marriage is a perversion of the social hierarchy and may therefore lead to the disruption of the state. A modern audience may be conflicted in their interpretation of this scene; is Shakespeare condoning or challenging the ideology Brabantio symbolises? The fact that Brabantio’s predictions come true and that this marriage does lead to personal and – almost – political chaos may indicate the former. However, a more compelling argument may be that Shakespeare’s use of comic conventions in his creation of Brabantio’s character indicates that he is actually critiquing Brabantio’s racism and misogyny. In the hands of the stock figure of the unkind father, political and personal power is impotent; he is unable to assert his power over his daughter, he is not invited to the Duke’s council meeting about the Turkish fleet, and his angry cries that Othello should be punished dissolve into pathetic statements. Comedy helps us to confront our own failings when we see them in a ridiculous format, and surely this must be one aspect of the play’s enduring power? It holds a mirror up to society to reveal its corruption.
Yet it is clear that, in some ways, Shakespeare shows that Brabantio does not speak for the state. Despite his high rank in society and his confidence in his own power, Brabantio is treated dismissively by the Duke when greater problems are at hand. Despite his initial agreement with Brabantio, when the Duke hears that Othello is the groom in this marriage, he advises instead that “to mourn a mischief that is past and gone / Is the next way to draw new mischief on”. Practically, the Duke depends on Othello to lead the Venetian fleet to victory and therefore he must permit the elopement – so for a moment Othello’s usefulness outweighs Brabantio’s status. However, the fact that Shakespeare emphasises how Brabantio is so easily cast aside should cause the audience to doubt the certainty of the state’s elevation of Othello, and this theme of the fickleness of status is continued throughout the play as Montano, Cassio, and Othello are all asked to relinquish their posts by a representative of the state. Shakespeare subtly contrasts Montano’s graceful acceptance of his demotion with Brabantio’s petty frustration at being excluded by the Duke in Act 1 Scene 3.
In the midst of this unsettled scene, Brabantio strives to have the last word and attempts to seal this with a rhyming couplet. Yet the play’s final words about Brabantio are given to his brother, Gratiano, who asserts in Act 5 Scene 2 that “I am glad thy father’s dead: / Thy match was mortal to him, and pure grief / Shore his old thread in twain”. For all Brabantio’s insistence that he no longer cared for his daughter, this final reference to him implies hidden depths of affection and emotion that heighten the pathos of the concluding scene. Yet any sympathy for Brabantio here is surely undermined by the sexism of Gratiano’s words; to blame his death on Desdemona’s assertion of her right to agency seems a misinterpretation of the play’s events – it is arguable that Desdemona has died partly because being raised in an authoritarian household meant that she felt compelled to remain loyally submissive to an abusive husband. Ultimately, although it is clear that Shakespeare critiques the values that Brabantio stands for, this final reminder of his objectionable views reminds us that social change is very difficult to enact.