Thoughts on the Clown in Shakespeare’s Othello

One of the more elusive characters in Othello is the Clown, a minor figure who appears briefly in Act III scenes i and iv. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other plays, excluding the Fool in King Lear, the Clown in Othello remains nameless. Who is this strange and surprising figure? As it turns out, the Clown plays a key role in the play –he appears moments after a group of musicians plays a “brief” song of “good morrow” (a traditional aubade to wake a bride and groom after their wedding night). The Clown arrives on the stage near a distraught Cassio who has just recently been dismissed from his position as lieutenant under Othello. Seeking to find his way back into the good graces of “the Moor,” the Clown is asked to notify Cassio when Emilia stirs in the morning so that he may request a private audience with her lady, Desdemona.

The Clown is akin to a servant-jester in the house of Othello. As a result, he appears confident, perhaps in a nasty or sneering fashion. He chides the troupe of street musicians for sounding disharmonious (and also of perhaps suffering from venereal disease). He seems to have been sent by Othello “the general” to dismiss the cacophonous musicians and end their noisy performance. However, the Clown is quickly offered a gold piece in exchange for notifying the “stirring” Emilia that Cassio wishes to speak with him. He accepts the coin from Cassio –in some ways it is a parallel act which mirrors Iago taking money from the gullible Roderigo.

The tragic momentum of the play is interrupted again by the Clown in Act III, scene iv wherein this time he speaks with Desdemona about Cassio (notably, he never speaks with Iago). In the same way that Cassio once reportedly payed an intermediary role between Othello and Desdemona, the Clown serves as the intermediary between Cassio and Desdemona. The Clown has a brief and humorous, albeit frustrating exchange with Desdemona who beckons that he speak with Cassio. Once again, the Clown is the link between Cassio and Desdemona.    

The Clown speaks in winking double entendres, he enters just when Cassio needs him most, and he exits just as Iago enters. Either wittingly or unwittingly, the Clown fits into Iago’s dark plot. This has led to speculation that perhaps the Clown is best played by the same actor who plays Iago. And, indeed, perhaps the Clown is Iago –he embodies Iago’s snide attitude with a darkly playful outlook, whereas Iago is purely sinister and nihilistic. In this respect, the Clown is akin to the Porter in Macbeth –a ribald disrupter who still serves as an important figure in the play, even if he has occasionally been omitted from performances of the play, and his presence serves to hail an important moment in the play. Shakespeare uses comedic characters in his tragedies to strike a light-hearted tone at critical junctures –comedy briefly disrupts tragedy.

For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd Edition of Shakespeare’s Othello.

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