‘Othello’: A Tragedy of Deception or a Tragedy of Self-deception?

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Depicting the downfall and eventual suicide of the honourable central protagonist of the play, Shakespeare unequivocally presents ‘Othello’ as a tragedy; however the nature of this tragedy is somewhat ambiguous, and thus has caused controversy amongst critics. In order for the audience to believe that the tragedy of ‘Othello’ is one of mere deception, they are predominantly to be convinced of Iago’s opportunistic, foul, manipulative, nature juxtaposed with Othello’s righteous nobility and honour. Alternatively, the audience may look beyond the obvious, recognising faults within Othello that consequently lead them to believe that he aids Iago in bringing about his own downfall.

They may therefore identify the nature of the play as a tragedy of self-deception on Othello’s part.Immediately, Shakespeare imposes Iago’s sadistic, ruthless nature on the audience in Act One of the play, as he exhibits the villain’s swear to gain revenge against Othello for promoting Cassio above him. Initially, the audience may feel that Iago’s bitterness is justified, as he appears to be giving understandable reasons to be irritated. For instance that Othello promoted a man who’s ‘never set a squadron in the field’ above Iago ‘of whom his eyes hath seen proof/ At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds,/ Christen’d and Heathen’.

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However, the introduction of derogatory racial slurs; ‘an old black ram’, and language that the audience come to recognise as Iago’s lexis as the play progresses, inclines the audience to dismiss first impressions that Iago is just in wanting revenge, and instead identify a cruel, callous trait in the villain, clearly illustrated by his choice of words in expressing his lust for vengeance, and the deceitful method by which he will attain it:’In following him, I follow but myself.Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,But seeming so for my peculiar end’.The manner in which Iago ruthlessly expresses his desire for revenge, without hesitation or lacking conviction, causes the audience to immediately sense that the play has an explicit theme of deception. However, having not yet encountered the central protagonist it could not be suggested at this point that the tragedy of ‘Othello’ is one of self-deception.

Perceiving Iago as a bitter, malicious character who irrationally deems himself unjustly scorned by Othello and is therefore hungering for revenge against him, upon seeing the central protagonist for the first time in Act One Scene Two, the audience ironically harbour a positive image of Othello before seeing him on stage, due to their inclination to dislike Iago, and therefore believe his opinion of Othello to be ill-founded. This positive image is supported and developed by Othello’s first instance of dialogue with Iago, as the General’s confidence in the state’s assurance in him allows the audience to view Othello as an honourable, well respected man;’My services, which I have done the SignioryShall out-tongue his complaints.’The fact that Othello is adamant that ‘my parts, my title, and my perfect soul/ Shall manifest me rightly’, despite the fact that he is ‘a Moor’ and living in a heavily racist Venetian society, adds weight to the audience’s belief that Othello must be a truly honourable, indispensable figure within society. Whilst this dialogue between Othello and his ‘Ancient’ develops the audience’s high opinion of Othello, it simultaneously encourages their negative view of Iago, as they witness Iago feign loyalty towards his superior, and exhibit hypocrisy in stating;’Nay, but he prated,And spoke such scurvy, and provoking termsAgainst your honour, that with the little godliness I haveI did full hard forbear him.

‘In developing the honourable nature of Othello whilst condemning Iago in the minds of the audience, here, Shakespeare gives weight to the proposal that the play is a tragedy of deception.As the play progresses, Shakespeare portrays Iago’s execution of his plan to manipulate Othello and achieve his sworn revenge. Act Three Scene Three illustrates a crucial part of this process, as Iago employs several persuasive techniques in order to convince Othello of his wife’s infidelity. A feigned reluctance to speak is a technique frequently utilised by Shakespeare in Iago’s behaviour throughout this scene.

For instance in his reply to Othello’s query about the reason behind Iago’s curiosity, he states ‘But for satisfaction of my thought. No further harm’. His repeated repetition of Othello’s words, for example ‘Think, my Lord?’, also proves to be extremely effective in evoking Othello’s suspicions.In withholding his thoughts Iago appears to Othello as being loyal to Cassio and this is the quality recognised by Othello; not Iago’s incrimination of the dependable Lieutenant.

Therefore, Othello does not suspect Iago of foul play. The evidence of the effectiveness of these techniques is conveyed through Othello’s words; ‘…

thou echo’st me;/As if there were some monster in thy thought…And when I told thee, he was of my counsel.

..thou criedst, Indeed?..

.as if thou then had shut up in thy brain/Some horrible conceit.’ This is the first indication that Iago’s attempts at manipulating Othello’s thoughts have been successful, and prove Shakespeare’s success at depicting Iago as a wily, calculating villain, which must be achieved if the play is to be a tragedy of deception.As well as communicating Iago’s poisonous nature in this scene, in seeking his sworn vengeance against Othello, Shakespeare displays immense intelligence and cunning in the villainous character, as he is opportunistic and exploits Othello’s insecurities and personality flaws.

For instance, when Iago is commanded by Othello to ‘give thy worst of thoughts/ The worst of words’ the villain recognises that jealousy has struck ‘the Moor’. Iago then exploits this, by calling on it further through his masterly manipulation of syntax: He addresses Othello’s jealous inclination indirectly, by speaking in the first person and speaking of his own ‘nature’ when he first mentions ‘jealousy’ directly. Othello’s insecurities about his wife are then betrayed to Iago completely, as he attempts to justify events to himself, and dismiss them by reminding himself of simple facts;’For she had eyes and chose me.’Illustrating Iago’s opportunistic nature at this point, Shakespeare display’s the villain’s more direct insinuations against Desdemona once he realises Othello’s insecurities, which results in the title character becoming further convinced of his wife’s infidelity, and consequently adopting aspects of Iago’s lexis, as opposed to the poetic, nautical language the audience are used to hearing from him: as his thoughts become further poisoned by Iago, so does his language, as word’s such as ‘monstrous’, ‘blood’, ‘death’ and ‘damnation’ appear in his speech.

This scene is a pivotal scene in the justification of expressing this play as a tragedy of self-deception, as it is in this scene that the audience witness Iago exploit and reveal Othello’s own genuine insecurities about his relationship with Desdemona, and the General’s ‘jealous’ tendencies. If an audience is to believe that this play is a tragedy of self-deception, in turn they are to deem that if Othello was not a man with insecurities to betray about his marriage, his downfall would not occur. Conversely, if an audience believes that this play is merely a tragedy of deception, namely Iago’s deception towards Othello, they may simply believe that Iago’s wiliness and opportunistic nature is enough to cause the downfall of a man who is completely secure within himself, as Othello may seem to some.The final scene of the play, Act Five Scene Two, is the only point when the poetry returns to Othello’s language.

This is possibly because he is now free of rage and views himself simply as an embodiment of justice who is doing a dutiful act in killing his wife;’Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men’.The form of Othello’s speech in this final speech displays the mind of a man who is not necessarily thinking clearly, as there are caesuras, which convey Othello’s disjointed thinking process, or perhaps at this point, his hesitation about what he is about the crime he is about to commit;’Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling Nature’The caesura here, and consequential stress on ‘But’, gives emphasis to the metaphor being used, and in turn the fact that once Othello kills Desdemona, she cannot return.There is evidence in the text to support both claims that ‘Othello’ is a tragedy of deception, or indeed a tragedy of self-deception.

In my opinion, the nature that one believes the tragedy of the play to be depends on whether they see the so-called flaws and insecurities in Othello’s nature to be thus, or to be the attributes of a purely noble and honourable general. In Othello’s final speech, having realised the error of his ways and the victim he has been to Iago’s masterly manipulation and thirst for revenge, the tragic hero states that he is ‘one, not easily jealous, but being wrought,/ perplexed in the extreme’.This is a claim that must be carefully considered when stating the nature of the tragedy of ‘Othello’. It is my belief that Othello would never have accused Desdemona of being unfaithful had the idea not been planted in his head, due to his genuinely honourable and trusting nature.

Hence, I believe that the play is a tragedy of deception of Iago against Othello, though only to a certain degree. I also believe that there is an element of self-deception on Othello’s part, as he seems easily convinced by Iago with little evidence, due to his existing insecurities about his marriage. I do not agree that ‘Othello’ is completely a tragedy of self-deception however; as I don’t think that Othello would have deceived himself to such a degree if he was not subjected to Iago’s ruthless manipulation, and intent to deceive.

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‘Othello’: A Tragedy of Deception or a Tragedy of Self-deception?. (2017, Oct 27). Retrieved from


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