My Perception of William Shakespeare’s OthelloOthello, by William Shakespeare, is perhaps not as exciting as aravishingly sexy poster of Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob. Yet, with itsintoxicating mix of love, sexual passion and the deadly power of jealousy,Shakespeare has created an erotic thriller based on a human emotion that peopleare all familiar with. It all depends on how those people receive it. There isan extraordinary fusion of characters’ with different passions in this tragedy.
Every character is motivated by a different desire. Shakespeare mesmerizes thereader by manipulating his characters abilities to perceive and discern what ishappening in reality. It is this misinterpretation of reality that leads tothe erroneous perceptions that each character holds.
After reading this tragedy, the depth of Shakespeare’s characterscontinue to raise many questions in the minds of the reader. The way Ipercieve the character of Othello and what concerns me, is that Othello is ableto make such a quick transition from love to hate of Desdemona. In Act 3, Scene3, Othello states, “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! I’ll notbelieve ‘t.” (lines 294-295) Yet only a couple hundred lines later he says,”I’ll tear her to pieces” (line 447) and says that his mind will never changefrom the “tyrannous hate” (line 464) he now harbors. Does Othello make thetransition just because he is so successfully manipulated by Iago? Or is theresomething particular about his character which makes him make this quickchange? I believe that “jealousy” is too simple of a term to describe Othello.
I think that Othello’s rapid change from love to hate for Desdemona is fosteredpartly by an inferiority complex. He appears to be insecure in his love forDesdemona (as well as in his position in Venetian society). Othello’s race andage (“Haply, for I am black . . . for I am declined into the vale of years,” 3.3.
279-282) and his position as a soldier contribute to his feelings of inadequacy.
Othello admits to Desdemona that he doesn’t have “those soft parts ofconversation” possessed by well-bred Venetian noblemen, those to which (as asenator’s daughter) she has become acclimated (3.3.280-281). Othello’s speech(1.3.130-172) also conveys his feeling that Desdemona loves him for hisexploits and achievements rather than for his mind. Othello apparently feels aconstant responsibility to prove to Desdemona (through his heroic deeds) thathe is worthy of her love.It is my opinion that Othello is a man governed by asubconscious need or impulse to believe ideas rather than reason. In believingIago’s lie, Othello apparently is controlled by his aforementioned inferioritycomplex — his feeling that he just doesn’t measure up to (young, suave, andof course, white) nobleman Michael Cassio in Desdemona’s mind. Othello is morenaturally predisposed to believe this “idea” rather than to engage in rationaldiscourse in an attempt to find the real logic of the situation.
It is also unclear weather or not the position of soldier and that ofhusband can be percieved as two seperate role’s. Yet the two seem inextricablyintertwined. Military operations are Othello’s primary priority. Othello hadbeen a soldier since he was seven years old (” …since these arms of mine hadseven years’ pith…..they have us’d/ Their dearest action in the tented field”1.3.83-85). So Othello was not a newcomer to the battlefield. Yet, Othelloencounters a battlefield the likes of which he has never seen when he marriesDesdemona and enters Venetian society — the rules are different, the enemy hasmore cunning, and words are used for weapons. Military service and marriage arenot incompatible — Othello has the potential to make a perfectly suitablehusband (as well as lover) to Desdemona. Othello only self-destructs because heand his inferiority complex fall victim to the duplicitous and vengeful Iago onsociety’s battlefield.
Perhaps Othello’s precipitous change from ordered general to chaotickiller occurs because he is black. Africans were starting to appear in Londonat the time of Shakespeare and were viewed with suspicion, to say the least. Itis not inconceivable that Shakespeare exploited this popular fear of the natureof these black Africans and portrayed Othello as a vengeful savage. Is Othelloa noble minority with jealousy as his single fatal flaw, or is he an over-reacher whose pride causes his ultimate downfall? I don’t believe he is truelyeither. He is an outsider who has tried to believe he has been fullyintegrated in a society he really knows only tolerates him. He could hardlybelieve that Desdemona would love him from the beginning, and it actually makesmore sense to him that she would love Casio than that she loves him. Iago playson this insecurity by presenting his lies as more believable than reality.
Othello’s flaw is that he loves Desdemona blindly and unrealistically.
For that reason, Iago knows that such a naive man as Othello who loves his wifein this way can be corrupted. In Act 2, Scene 3, Iago speaks of Othello’srelationship with Desdemona and joyously proclaims that Othello’s “soul is soenfetter’d to her love/ That she my make, unmake, do what she list,/ Even asher appetite shall play the god/ With his weak function”(351-54). Iago isabsolutely determined to pervert this man who has declared that he will denyhis wife nothing. Iago is certain that Othello can be corrupted simply becauseof his idealistic love for Desdemona.
Othello’s inclination to trust Iago is easily perceived, as I havealready noted (” The Moor already changes with my poison” (3.3.325). Iagoalmost assumes here the role of a Frankenstein-kind of doctor, creating anddelighting in the making of a monster. Readers hearts respond greatly to thefinal breakdown of Othello’s once ordered existance as he desperately clings tothe one thing that seems certain to him: Iago’s sincere friendship: “O braveIago, honest and just,/ Thou hast such noble sense..”(5.1.31-32). In thistragedy, Othello is torn by a terrible dilemma, whether he can trust his newbride or whether he can trust his ensign. Why does he choose to trust thelatter? Time after time, Othello fails to see through the machinations of Iago.
Othello trusts too easily. Iago is a military man; Othello is used to dealingwith men on the battlefield, men whom he must trust and, moreover, Iago has awell known reputation for honesty.
In order to disguise his deep disappointment and conceal his plans forrevenge, Iago begins early in the play to reinforce his image as an honest,loyal soldier. In Act 1, Scene 2, for example, in a bit of boasting, Iago saysthat ” in the trade of war I have slain men,/Yet do I hold it very stuff o’ th’conscience/ To do no contrived murder. I lack iniquity…”(1-3). This is anoutright lie, but he has just come onstage with Othello, and he is saying thisfor his generals benefit, posing as the rough and ready, good hearted soldier.
In the same speech, he alludes to having had the opportunity to kill Roderigo,a man who has said evil things about Othello: “Nine or ten times/I’d thought tohave yerk’d him here under the ribs”(4-5). Clearly to me, Iago is lying aboutwhat he would actullly have done, yet he wants to show that he is a loyal man ofaction, but one who would not kill impulsively. This, he is sure, will appealto Othello, a professional military man. It is precisely this sort of behaviorwhich secures Iago’s preputaion for cool, controlled honesty.
Othello needs to trust people; it is his nature; that is why he sufferssuch terrible agony when he must try to choose between the alleged honesty ofIago and the honesty of Desdemona. Desperately, Othello needs to trust hiswife; in Act 3, Scene 3, he cries, “If she be false, O then heaven mocksitself!/ I’ll not believe ‘t”(278-79). This is overwhelming evidence that hedoes need to believe her, just as in many of his other speeches, there aresimilar, parallel expressions of his need to believe Iago. Basically, one ofthe first qualities that comes to mind when assesssing a man as complex asOthello is his openness, his trustfullness. Speaking of Iago, Othello saysthat Iago is a man of honesty and trust; “to his conveyance I assign mywife”(1.3.286). Othello has no reason to distrust Iago at this point; it isevident that he also trusts his wife, since he assigns her to the care ofanother man.
Later in the same act and scene, Barbantio suggests that Desdemonadeceived him and may just as easily decieve Othello, and Othello’s reply isvery significant: “My life upon her faith!” (295). His faith in Desdemona isnot only dramatically important for the later, tragic reversal, but signigicanthere because of its actuality. He deeply loves and trusts his young andbeautiful wife, despite the fact that he is an aging man and might be expected,normally, to be a little suspicious of , if not his wife, of other men, and heis not. In fact, Othello’s “free and open nature” is the very reason thatOthello is such an easy prey for Iago. Iago knows that Othello is, by nature,neither overly introspective nor overly interested in the motivations of others.
This “innocence” of Othello, that is, this simple directness of charcterthat is so dominant an element of his personality is a perception whichdeserves more consideration. Particularly I would note his “inocence” early inthe play, perhaps best evidenced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Othello, defendinghimself against Barbantio’s ravings, says quitely and simply that he is “rude”(meaning ” unpolished,” “simple,” or “unsophisticated”) in his speech, and thathe is not “bless’d with the soft phrase of peace”(82). Clearly, he does nottry to assume a pose that might seem overly impressive, it would be unnaturalfor a man such as Othello.
In addition to this play’s being a tragedy of multiple dimensions, it isalso a love story. The tale of a man who loved excessively but “lov’d notwisely” (5.2.346). Numerous instances of Othello’s love for Desdemona havebeen noted. I feel that some these lines of poetic sensitivity are being usedby Shakespeare to convey to the reader Othello’s perception of love and faith inDesdemona. In Act 2, Scene 1, Othello exaults, “O my soul’s joy!/If after everytempest come such calms…”(186-87). Here, he evidences both the passion andpotential violence of his love. And, a few lines latter he says, “If it werenow to die,/ ‘Twere now to be most happy…”(191-92). This speech is beautifuland heartfelt and is clear-cut proof for the audience of his deep, sincere lovefor his young bride. In addition, the speech should be noted because ofShakespeare’s embellishing it with the ironic overtones of death.
Finally, I must deal with Ohello’s true flaws and, of these, perhaps themost major concern is the fact that he is able to deceive himself: Othellobelieves he is a man who judges by the facts. In the past, this may have beentrue, but after Iago has infected him with a jealousy that overpowers allreason, Othello is doomed. Even when Iago made his initial overtures suggestingDesdemona’s infidelity, Othello was firmly convinced that he was not a man to beself-deceived. Im Act 3, Scene 3, Othello says, “I’ll see before I’ll doubt;when I doubt, prove;/ And on the proof, there is no more but this,/ Away atonce with love or jealousy!” (190-92). Othello will find, tragically, that itis not as easy as he thinks to make a choice between love and jealousy.
Desdemona is a complicated character On the one hand she is a strongminded, tough young woman who decides to marry a man who’s a lot older, andblack. And she loves him genuinely and passionately.On the other hand sheseems very weak and rather soft, why doesn’t she stand up to Othello ? She isthe ever-present representation of all that Othello has attained as a civilizedand Christian man; in attaining her, he attains the heights from which thetragedy requires that he must fall. Othello’s love for Desdemona continues andcreates ever-new deceptions until the final climactic murder is accomplished.
And even as he kills Desdemona, after he has decided that she must die, hedeceives himself that he is killing her as a duty, as it were, not as revenge.
In his words, he kills her “else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6). Evem at theend, he does not realize his true motivation for the murder of the women heloves.
I should add that Iago’s plot to make Othello jealous (and thusmurderous, and thus destroy himself) is surprisingly easy, in part because Iagois a master manipulater, and in part because Othello finds him easy to believe(He was so thrilled she loved him he could hardly believe it). The plot isfilled out by the fact that Iago also wants to destroy his rival for promotion,Cassio, so he makes him part of the lie; and that Iago has been exploitingRoderigo by pretending to help him, so he involves him in the plotting. Theexcessive vulgarity of Iago’s can be found throughout the play, beginning asearly as Act 1, Scene 1, when he urges Roderigo to inflame Desdemona’s fatherwith hatred for Othello. “Make after him,” he says, meaning Barbantio, “poisonhis delight, Proclaim him in the streets. Incense her kinsmen,/ And, though hein a fertile climate dwell,/ Plaque him with flies” (68-71).
This is harsh language, indicating a openness to only evil emotions.
Yet, to his general, to Othello, Iago’s venomous language is even worse.
Exciting Othello’s imagination, he says in the “temptation scene” words thatare highly effective: “Would you,….behold her topp’d?” (395-96). He asksOthello to envision the handsome Cassio charming Othello’s young bride. In thisentire scene, Iago knows, instinctively, the kind of remark that eill inrcreaseOthello’s suspicion without giving the impression that he wishes to do so.
Yet, when all is said and done, Iago fascinates me. And perhaps this istrue because great evil can somehow manipulate and captivate my attention.
This is certainly, a tribute to Shakespeares genius that despite everythingevil which Iago accomplishes, the playwright never lets the reader forget thatIago is a human being, not an abstraction. Iago’s jealousy is similar tojealousies the readers have had, except that he is wildly jealous; his passionis ours, except that he is immoral, ruthless, and savage. Finally, Othello isblack and middle aged.Desdemona is white, young and beautiful. The state ofVenice needs Othello- but they don’t like him.Iago needs Othello and that iswhy Iago hates him. So, with every character holding individual motivationsand desires. Shakespeare has created his own reality, which can simply bepercieved as extraordinary.
Work CitedAlexander, Peter. Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.