Is Othello’s tragic conclusion solely the result of Iago’s machinations? Essay
Iago plays a major part in the downfall of Othello and the tragic conclusion of the play by twisting the truth and lying to Othello to convince him of Desdemona’s infidelity. He works with the actions of the other characters to bring about Othello’s demise whilst letting Othello jump to conclusions himself, thus making it seem to Othello that Iago is still his friend. However, Othello also contributes to his own demise, which is also affected by other characters in the play.
Iago conspires against Othello in different stages, but some of these rely on the actions of the other characters to convince Othello of their apparent truth; he picks up on Desdemona and Cassio’s flirtatiousness and Emilia’s willingness to please him. This trait of hers provides Iago with the handkerchief which is vital to the “ocular proof” he gives to Othello. Therefore, there is no character solely responsible for the tragic conclusion of Othello; it is the collection of the actions of all the characters which brings about Othello’s downfall, although Iago, being the initiator of the tribulation, is eventually morally to blame.
Iago plots against Othello in many stages: firstly, he twists the truth and makes Othello doubt his own perceptions. Iago holds back on some information, appealing to Othello’s inquisitiveness, which increases Othello’s interest in the case whilst also allowing him to make presumptions about what Iago may be telling or not telling him. An example of this is immediately after the initial “ha, I like not that” (34), when Iago is asked “what dost thou say? ” (35) by Othello, showing some interest before any conspiracy has been mentioned, only a curious remark having been made.
In Iago’s reply to this question, he intrigues Othello by holding back some information, thus giving Othello a greater desire to know what he is talking about: “Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what” (36). When Iago says “or if”, he is implying that he is reluctant to tell Othello anything more than he already has. This suggests that it may have some significance, but this is then suppressed when he confesses “I know not what”. Although Iago dismisses his thought, Othello is still interested in what Iago may have said and therefore continues to question Iago on the matter.
At this stage the audience know that Desdemona is innocent and are watching Iago’s plot unfold successfully, bringing about a sense of tension as to whether Othello will follow Iago’s malevolence. Indeed, Iago greatly uses the belief and trust that Othello gives him to his own advantage: Othello describes Iago as “a man… of honesty and trust” (I. i. 285); this trust plays a major part in Iago’s machinations as Othello believes that Iago would not lie to him, and therefore trusts what Iago says.
As a result, Iago chooses his words very carefully when speaking to other characters so that he is perceived by all as he is by Othello. This is common of Shakespeare’s clever characters who use words to their own avail, such as Hamlet. Iago uses this trust to his advantage as it allows him to twist the truth, and sometimes just lie to Othello, and Othello believes what he is being told as can be seen in Othello’s soliloquy in which he claims that Iago is “of exceeding honesty/And knows all qualities, with a learned/Spirit of human dealings” (III. iii. 262-4).
Honesty is a very important quality in Othello which Iago comments on a lot. The question of Cassio’s honesty is first mentioned by Othello who asks about Cassio “is he not honest? ” (103). This is used by Iago to form the base upon which Iago builds up his primary argument. The word ‘honest’ is used many times in very few lines after and including this question: it is mentioned four times in three lines, and this calls into question Othello’s meaning of “honest”. As it is repeated, much like the word ‘honourable’ in the betrayal of Brutus in Julius Caesar, “honest” changes its meaning.
In the first instance it is part of a simple question posed by Othello. Iago’s reply, “honest, my lord? ” (104) questions Othello’s meaning of ‘honest’. This is another instance where Iago twists the truth and brings into question what Othello is really seeing or saying. This reply confuses Othello and he replies “honest? Ay, honest” (105), ignorant to what Iago means. Iago’s next reply is vital to Othello’s intrigue: “My lord, for aught I know” (106) is a very powerful sentence. My lord” foregrounds Othello’s superiority over Iago, which is ironic as Iago has complete control over the conversation and, eventually, Othello’s beliefs. “For aught I know” suggests that there may be some things of which Iago is ignorant. Although it is subtly different from the answer ‘yes’, Iago chooses to say “for aught I know” so that Othello can make assumptions about dishonest deeds which Cassio may be committing beyond the scope of Iago’s knowledge. This also demonstrates Iago’s control over the conversation and how Iago manipulates Othello’s mind to aid it in coming to the conclusion most beneficial to Iago.
The second stage of Iago’s plotting supplies Othello with verbal proof which applies directly to his accusation. This interests Othello but he remains unconvinced as he wants to be provided with “ocular proof”, which is Iago’s third stage of plotting. The two stages of providing proof work together to totally convince Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity with Iago telling Othello twisted truths or plain lies and tricking Cassio into saying things which are misinterpreted by Othello. Iago also seems to tell people what they are seeing so that he can twist the truth for his own advantage.
This is a recurring trait of Iago’s as, not only does Iago claim that he “cannot think it/That [Cassio] would steal away so guilty-like” (38-9), but he also attempts to convince people that Bianca is a conspirator by asking them to “perceive the gastness of her eye” (V. i. 106), when Bianca has no gastness, nor is guilty of any conspiracy. When Iago cannot twist truth to have any greater an affect on Othello, he begins simply to lie to Othello. This lets him tell Othello whatever he wants and lets him manipulate Othello’s mind in more ways than he was able to when he was restricted to merely distorting the truth.
The main “ocular proof” is the handkerchief which Othello witnesses Cassio wiping his beard with which has been planted by Iago for this exact effect, once again proving Iago’s intelligence and cunning and heightening the dramatic irony as the audience know the truth behind this ‘proof’. Desdemona also plays a key part in the tragedy of Othello, although she does so unknowingly. She is, through no fault of her own, a very beautiful young white girl who can, at some times, be rather flirtatious. Although this trait may be brought out more depending on the performance of the role, there is grounding for it built into the character.
This flirtatiousness increases Othello’s belief that she is “a strumpet” (IV. ii. 83) and a “cunning whore” (91) as she is flirtatious with Cassio, who is equally flattering and flirtatious. This infuriates Othello and adds to his hatred of both Desdemona and Cassio. When Desdemona is accused of this, she is so naturally submissive that she insists to Emilia that she must have done something wrong. Desdemona asks herself “how [she has] behaved that [Othello] might stick/The smallest opinion on [her] greatest misuse” (110-1).
This absolute goodness makes the play’s conclusion even more tragic than were she to argue with Othello and end up not still loving him. However, a contemporary audience would have seen Desdemona’s love of Othello as sinful and therefore Shakespeare may have been making Desdemona particularly pleasant to compensate so that the contemporary audience would see her as a good person, and not a woman with “maimed and most imperfect” (I. iii. 100) judgement who loves Moors with their excessive sex-drive (as was thought at the time).
This contemporary society could also be to blame for making Desdemona so subservient to Othello’s desires, hence bringing about her own downfall. Cassio contributes to Othello’s conclusion as well by being very complimentary of Desdemona and reciprocating her natural flirtatiousness. He also gets Desdemona to attempt to talk to Othello about him so that they might be able to sort out the problems between them, however in doing so, Desdemona is condemning herself even more by drawing attention to the friendship between herself and the man she has been accused of having an affair with in Othello’s presence.
As a result, Cassio and Desdemona are unknowing pawns in Iago’s game. A major part is played by Emilia who unknowingly supplies Iago with his main evidence that Desdemona is in fact being “a strumpet”: “that handkerchief/Which [Othello] so loved and gave [Desdemona]” (V. ii. 47-8). When Emilia gives Iago the handkerchief, she is abused by Iago, which is another example of Iago caring only for himself, but she persists. This is because the contemporary society was patriarchal and therefore it would shock neither the audience nor Emilia.
When she does actually produce the handkerchief, because it is beneficial to Iago, he suddenly changes and calls her a “good wench” (III. iii. 317), before snatching it from her. When Emilia shows some interest and asks Iago “what will you do with’t, that you have been so earnest/To have me filch it? ” (318-9), she is not answered directly, which once again shows the audience Iago’s ability to twist things. Then, when Emilia asks for it back to give to Desdemona, she is only told to “be not acknown on’t” (322) and to “leave [Iago]” (323). Emilia then does not ask any more questions because of her love and trust in Iago.
As the contemporary society is a male-dominated one, wives are expected to respect the choices of their husbands and not go against them. Emilia does this fully, not even mentioning that it was she who delivered the handkerchief to Iago when Desdemona is in great need of this information. This all shows her true loyalty to Iago, which makes the ending even more tragic as the main proof for Iago’s lie is supplied by the accused’s loyal friend who is putting the husband who she loves and trusts before her friend, even when the audience know that Iago deserves neither love nor trust.
However, Emilia does not do all of this because she obtains pleasure from it, she does it because it was a contemporary expectation for a wife to obey her husband. Therefore the patriarchal society can be blamed for Emilia providing the handkerchief, not Emilia herself. Making the conclusion of Othello all the more tragic is the fact that Othello has to look into himself as well as Iago when considering and trying to come to terms with the awfulness of his own actions after he has found out the truth.
The small epiphanies of Emilia and Roderigo, who find out the truth for themselves, albeit not to its full extent, come too late as Othello has already been persuaded and is on a road to destruction. Although Iago plays the principal role in the downfall of Othello, and is in the end morally to blame as it was he who initially suggested the affair, several other factors are contributory, the most prominent of which are the handkerchief and Othello’s willingness to jump to conclusions and conceivable natural jealousy. Consequently, the tragic conclusion of Othello is not solely the result of Iago’s machinations.