There are several characters that I consider to play a part in Othello’s downfall, one of which is Desdemona. If Othello’s fatal flat was jealousy, then it could be said that Desdemona’s was generosity. When Othello dismisses Cassio as his lieutenant, Desdemona, sensing the injustice assures Cassio she will do all that she can to help, ‘I will do all my abilities in thy behalf’.
This kind mistake is what allows Iago to plant the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind. Desdemona refuses to let Othello have any peace from her constant requests that Cassio be reinstated, ‘I’ll intermingle everything he does with Cassio’s suit’, which is not a very pleasant thing to do to her newly wed husband, and the first cracks in their union start to appear.If it was not for Desdemona’s kind nature, helping Cassio more than she would herself,’What I can do, I will; and more I will,Than for myself I dare’Then Iago would not have been able to manipulate Othello’s mind in the carefully constructed web of deceit he had planned.The culture and values of society at the time cannot be allowed to escape without blame.
The patriarchal society of the time, in which women’s lives were as highly regarded as women’s right to free speech cannot have helped Othello’s inner turmoil. Othello thought he was doing society a favour by murdering Desdemona in case she ‘betray(s) more men’. This kind of self-apotheosis was brought on by the society’s obsession with honour and reputation, which caused Othello to develop a desire to maintain his status so badly, that he killed his wife to do so.Also, the hypocrisy of the society took its toll upon Othello’s mind.
He ascended to the high social position of General by killing many on the battle field, yet using these skills he is valued most highly for whilst in mundane reality is murder. Othello does not seem to understand the dividing line between killing in battle, and murder. This is hardly surprising, as in the play we see his two incompatible roles of General and husband clash upon many occasions. An example of this contradiction would be when Desdemona is trying to set a date for dinner so that Othello and Cassio can overcome their differences and Othello replies, ‘I shall not dine at home.
I meet the captains at the citadel’. Although these requirements society has of Othello do not help matters, and are party responsible for the tragic run of events, there are still more factors to consider before the question can be answered.Iago is most certainly one of the aforementioned factors, as, like Prospero manipulates the entire case of ‘The Tempest’ using his supernatural abilities, so Iago uses his own magic, the powers of language as a medium of communication, to control the characters of ‘Othello’ like marionettes. This is where Othello deviates from the paradigm of Shakespeare’s other tragedies; this play is not simply about one man’s fatal flaw, but about Iago’s manipulation of Othello.
Iago’s trickery of all the other characters is made possible by the fact that they all perceive him to be ‘honest’ and ‘good Iago’. The number of times he is referred to with these adjectives before his name in the play is laughable, and would have generated a great deal of enjoyable dramatic irony to please the audience. This relates to the Shakespearean theme of deception, the idea that what you see, and what truly exists is completely different and often totally unrelated to each other.This again links with the society at the time’s obsession with reputation.
Nobody mistrusts Iago because of his impeccable appearance and social status, and nobody attempts to look any deeper beyond this. Samuel Coleridge said ‘Shakespeare presents a being close to the devil, with motiveless malignity’. This can be argued against, as Iago does give the audience some flimsy excuses for his plot, however I do not believe these are his true reasons for the destruction of Othello. Without Iago’s constant disguised manipulation, the General’s mind would not have started its journey down the path of jealousy.
One critic who disagrees with this view is FR Leavis. He argued that Othello is responsible for his own downfall, and that Iago is merely a subordinate character and not the main reason for the tragedy.This view is certainly worth considering as T.S.
Eliot also criticises Othello, accusing him of ‘self-dramatisation, a terrible exposure of human weakness’. So was it Othello’s weakness which ultimately led to his downfall? He certainly has several flaws in his character, he is gullible, and fails to suspect Iago’s treachery. This however, can be easily defended by the fact that none of the other characters realise either, a testimony to Iago’s skill in the manipulation of language to his own ends.If not stupidity, perhaps jealousy is his downfall? It is unbelievably easy to see that Othello loves his wife with all his heart, and then hates her with the same degree of passion when Iago’s jealous thoughts are allowed to poison his brain.
It can be argued, however, that Othello’s jealous nature is not his ultimate tragic flaw, but is his saving grace, as such extremes of emotion as Othello feels are surely to be commended as rarities, the emotional side conquering the rational, logical side of the personality. Admittedly the performance ends in catastrophe, yet it could be argued this is not due to the freedom and speed of changes in his emotional states. Othello’s character experiences these complete emotive states throughout the play, firstly with love for Desdemona,’But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,Chaos is come again’.Then later in the play with jealousy, ‘It is not words that shake me thus! Pish!’.
At the end of the play in act five scene two when he learns he has ‘killed the sweetest innocent that e’er did lift up eye’, he is overcome with yet more emotions, this time grief and self-loathing,’Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulphur!Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!’AC Bradley would defend these swings of emotion with vigour. He claims Othello is the ‘most romantic figure among Shakespeare’s heroes…
. He does not belong to this world’. In the literary sense of the word romantic Othello is incredibly apt. Romanticism is all about extremes of emotion, the emotional triumphing over the rational and can often be quite self-obsessed, as is Othello.
Bradley would argue that Iago is completely responsible for Othello’s downfall, as the General is too passionate and trusting for this world, which I interpreted to mean he could not function correctly in it.This view is partly reasonable, as without Iago’s calculating skill, Othello’s downfall may never have taken place. William Hazlett describes Iago as an ‘aesthete evil, a traditional Machiavellian’ and a personification of rationality. This description enables the reader to view the outcome of the play as rationality’s win over emotion, however as the idea of romanticism and rationality versus emotion did not develop in literary criticism until the eighteenth century, caution must be used when applying these values to a text written before them.In answering the question, Iago’s role in the tragedy cannot be underestimated, however, Othello’s mind being so open to direction from others poses the unanswerable question, would these events have unfolded anyways, without Iago’s presence? Iago was partly responsible, but the main fault lies in Othello’s mistrust of his wife and inability to dismiss idle scandal for what it really is.