Theater is one of the most ancient forms of art. The beginning of Western civilization, ancient Greece, lived a very important part in the development of this form, with many plays reaching classical status, like Oedipus King and the Oresteia trilogy. Aristotle, one of the most important Greek philosophers, offered six elements of drama in his work Poetics: setting, characters, theme, plot, language and music. These have served as a reference to study these types of works of art from antiquity to this day. The first three will serve as a guide for the analysis and comparison of important works from two of the most important English-speaking playwrights: William Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. Differences between the former’s Othello and the latter’s The Glass Menagerie in terms of setting, characters and theme reveal changes through the years, even though love and the fragility of human nature will always be the object of artistic study.
While the setting of The Glass Menagerie is sparse and expressionistic, Othello’s includes different countries and whole battalions. Arthur Miller’s memory play is set in a dark and gloomy apartment in St. Louis between winter and spring of 1937. It intends to replicate the protagonist’s remembrances of the events that preceded his departure from his household; thus, the setting is heavily symbolic and is unrealistic, preferring an emotional reflection of his psyche. This is reflected in the first lines of the play “The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres of lower-middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism” (Miller). Another important aspect of this play’s setting is the use of a screen wherein words and images that offer an internal commentary to the ongoing action, are to be reflected at certain key points in the play. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s play is set in late XVI century while the wars between Turkey and Venice were taking place; as such, the spatial setting begins in the latter and then departs to the island of Cyprus. The former being one of the commercial capitals of the time and having one of the most powerful armies, it represented the civilized West, where laws were upheld and allows Othello and Desdemona to live in harmony, as she also has a support system to favor her. Nevertheless, the play’s relocation to Cyprus enables and reflects the fury and chaos that they play will depict. This is reflected in lines such as “Nothing at all: it is a highwrought flood; / I cannot, 'twixt the heaven and the main, / Descry a sail” (Shakespeare), where Cyprus is described as being unruly.
The difference between these settings is in accordance to the variations between the characters of The Glass Menagerie and Othello. In the former, the characters are middle- to low-class Americans, lonely and alienated to their past. They are tranquil people and their struggles are mostly individual in nature. The two main characters are Tom and Laura; the explorations of their emotions and demons are the subject of this play. The former is a man still haunted by his past and the play develops within his gloomy and emotional remembrances of an important event which has apparently traumatized him; he has always tried to escape from his troubles but, apparently has never achieved this. The latter is a fragile woman, who is apparently only interested in her collection of glass animals. In Othello, they are people of the noble class, monarchical royalty and military leaders. The turmoil that they go to is normally collective in nature. The eponymous protagonist is a tall and dark Moor, whose main struggle is his jealousy and emotional impulsivity. The other two important characters are Iago and Desdemona: the former being the antagonist whose preoccupation with Othello leads the Moor to lash out against his wife Desdemona due to perceived infidelity.
These plays have been so respected because their themes resonate universally with humanity. Even though, as has been argued, these plays are influenced by their respective eras, their insight into the essence of human nature has catapulted them into eternity. Both of the plays deal with love and both interhuman and intrahuman conflicts. Love is seen as a conflictive and almost unreachable ideal, influenced by the complications that people have with themselves and with others. Othello, due to its emphasis on collectivity, emphasizes more on the problem that its protagonist has with others and what rules them. On the other hand, in The Glass Menagerie the troubles that people have against themselves are more important.
As one can see, the settings, characters and themes of both of these plays, while different, have positions in common. Miller’s expressionistic settings contrast with Shakespeare’s more classical and Victorian staging; nevertheless, the surroundings of them both mimic the internal conflict of their characters. While The Glass Menagerie has few elements of staging, being a small apartment the exceptional use of a screen to project words and pictures; on the other hand, Shakespeare’s famous theaters are filled in Othello with the large cast and exotic settings. The players in these works have problems with their social environs; nevertheless, their difficulties are essentially different, as Othello’s are more with respect to social norms, while Tom’s are more internal. Finally, while the development of their themes are basically different, they are both centered on love and the troubles that men have reaching it.
In conclusion, Aristotle’s elements of drama serve as a guide to analyze and compare works of theater even to this day. While the setting of The Glass Menagerie is sparse and expressionist, that of Othello is extravagant and classical; nevertheless, both mimic the struggles that the characters go through in the plot. The characters in Miller’s play are described more in respect to their internal struggles and represent lonely, common America; Shakespeare’s characters’ physical factors are more important, as well as their relations to the collective. The themes in both of the plays center on love and personal struggles; however, in The Glass Menagerie, the turmoil is essentially internal, while in the other play, they are external. As one can see, both of these plays are universal in nature, even though they are essentially different.
Miller, Arthur. The Glass Menagerie. Burlington County College. Web. 18 March 2014.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Web. 18 March 2014.