The tragedy of Othello
In a special guide for this year's Leaving Cert students, Pat Hunt looks at Shakespeare's uniquely human tragedy about the Moor of Venice
Published 21/11/2007 | 00:00
Othello is the tragedy of a noble hero brought down by a fatal flaw -- jealousy -- in his character. Shakespeare's other great tragedies -- Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth -- deal with issues that affect the well-being of entire nations, whereas Othello is a domestic tragedy with timeless themes such as love, hate, jealousy, intrigue, revenge, trust, suspicion, self-interest, racism, judgment and reason. Here we have humanity in all its dazzling diversity.
Tragedy affects us by revealing scenes that inspire pity and terror. Pity is aroused by the spectacle of a human being who is in some ways like us, whose fate might become ours also. The hero endures suffering that exposes the bare bones of his nature to our scrutiny. An awareness of a human being's strengths and nobility, as well as weaknesses, emerges from the experience of tragedy.
We should feel a sense of uplift at the end of a tragedy. The tragic hero dies, but his endeavour to resist his negative emotions over the course of the action and the insight he gains reaffirms our faith in human nature. Inevitable death comes as a relief; we do not wish the hero to suffer any more. But is that how you feel at the end of Othello? That, as Hamlet might say, is one big question.
The first act takes place in Venice, and the remainder is set in a seaport in Cyprus. Othello, a noble black Moor, has spent his life as a mercenary soldier and is now a general in the army, serving the republic of Venice.
He secretly marries Desdemona, a beautiful Venetian girl. Desdemona's father, a Venetian senator named Brabantio, complains to the Duke of Venice that Othello has stolen his daughter. But Othello successfully defends his actions, admirably supported by Desdemona.
Almost immediately, he is ordered to Cyprus to fight off a Turkish invasion. He takes Desdemona with him, as well as Cassio, a young Florentine who he has just promoted to lieutenant, and Iago, an older soldier who serves as Othello's ensign (aide).
Storms have scattered the Turkish fleet, and this gives the fiendish Iago time and space to destroy Othello by persuading him that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. The reasons why Iago hates Othello include resentment at being passed over for promotion and the ill-founded suspicion that Othello seduced his wife. However, Iago's precise motivation is vague, contradictory and ultimately a matter of personal opinion.
Using Cassio and another young man, Roderigo, as pawns in his game, Iago plants the idea in Othello's mind that Desdemona has been unfaithful, and incites Othello into a state of jealousy. He plays on Othello's insecurity about his ethnic origins, age and lack of sophistication.
Iago commands his wife, Emilia, Desdemona's maid, to steal an elaborately woven handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello. Iago ensures that the handkerchief comes into Cassio's possession and that Othello sees Cassio with it.
Stimulated by Iago's constant insinuations, Othello flies into a volcanic rage and murders Desdemona by smothering her in her bed.
Emilia reveals Desdemona's innocence, and Iago kills her. He has already killed Roderigo for failing to murder Cassio. But letters found on Roderigo's body prove Iago's guilt and he is arrested. Iago refuses to apologise or explain his actions, declaring, "From this time forth I will never speak word".
After Othello learns that he has been tricked, he takes his own life, saying, "I did the state some service ... " and describing himself as "one that loved not wisely, but too well".
Leaving Cert 1
Othello the ousider
In the late Middle Ages, the city state of Venice, known as the "queen of the seas", had reached the height of its power. The city engaged in a rich trade, operating as the main link between Europe and Asia.
The leading Venetian families prevented power struggles among themselves by electing a doge (duke) who held office for life. Neither the doge, nor any member of his family, was allowed to engage in trade. This system of government blocked a doge's family from acquiring or inheriting too much power, and prevented powerful patrician families from losing it.
Rich Venetian families didn't like the idea of a single family having control of the army or navy because this could lead to a grab of power. For this reason, they preferred to appoint hired outsiders (mercenaries) to key military positions.
In Shakespeare's play Othello, the Moor is general of the Venetian army. He has achieved this position on merit alone, and was not promoted through family connections or patronage. He is accepted in Venice because he excels at his job. Ottoman Turks were beginning to threaten Venetian control of the Mediterranean. Venice needed Othello, and Othello needed Venice.
Like immigrants everywhere, Othello feels insecure about his status. This is why he is touchy about his reputation, as he can only prosper in Venice by enhancing his good name. This is one aspect of his insecurity that Iago exploits.
The immigrant Othello is also is self-conscious about his outsider status. Despite his marriage to a white daughter of a Venetian senator, he is all too aware that he is a black man living in a society not renowned for its tolerance of racial difference.
He knows that many Venetians believe that Africans are little better than animals. Racist slurs pepper the language of both Iago and Brabantio.
Othello endeavours to become more Venetian than the Venetians themselves by adopting their manners of speech and way of life. But he never feels at ease, even in Cyprus, away from the sophisticated political world of Renaissance Venice.
He remains insecure about his outsider status, and this is the second aspect of his insecurity that Iago will manipulate.
Early in the play he admits that "Rude am I in speech ... ", i.e. a man of plain speech. He openly confesses that he isn't skilled in the language of diplomacy. He is out of his cultural depth. Iago is listening, watching and waiting to pounce. He sees that Othello is opening up too much in his effort to earn approval:
The Moor a free and open nature too
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are. (I.3)
Leaving Cert 2
How to take ownership of Othello
The key to exam success with plays, poems and novels is to develop and demonstrate a lively personal response to text. Then, factors such as a thorough knowledge of the texts, the techniques of constructing effective discussions, the quality of written expression and effective use of quotation and/or reference come into play.
You have read Othello at least twice and you are familiar with its themes and characters. Here's how you can take ownership of the play.
First, remember that a play only has life on a stage, not on a page. The words are, of course, vital, but facial and body language, movement, pauses, exits and entrances all contribute to an interpretation of the action and understanding of character.
Visualise key moments in the play. Bring the text to life in your mind's eye; better still, with a class or group of friends, assign roles and act out key moments that reveal character and progress the action.
Sometimes the end of a play is the best place to begin an approach to interpretation. From this vantage point, you can select the critical incidents that result in a particular outcome.
The extract below is taken from the end of the play. At this point Othello understands the horror and folly of his actions and that he was a puppet in Iago's hands. Read the final scene again with particular emphasis on Othello's final speech (below) and then answer the exploration questions that follow.
OTHELLO: Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky [unfortunate] deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate [tone down],
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought [worked upon]
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced [dishonoured] the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
1. A little earlier, Othello justifies himself as 'An honourable murderer, if you will;/ For nought I did in hate, but all in honour.' Try expressing that statement in different tones of voice: anguish, bafflement, bluster, exasperation, arrogance, bluff. What is Othello doing with his hands? What is his gait (body language)? Describe his eyes.
2. As the evidence to convict Iago unfolds, imagine the range of expressions on Othello's face. Disbelief? Rage? A dawning of truth and self-knowledge?
3. Now enact Othello's final speech. Try delivering it in different ways: (a) as the words of an egoist unwilling to take responsibility for his actions and bent on protecting his reputation; (b) an honest victim who has finally gained an understanding of himself; (c) a hero who has finally regained his composure and accepts responsibility for his actions. How you deliver 'one that loved not wisely, but too well' is critical here.
4. Why does Othello place so much emphasis on 'I' in his final speech? Why does he not mention Desdemona? The pearl image is important. Most editors believe that Othello refers to the base 'Indian' who threw the pearl away. Other editors claim that he talks about the base 'Judean' --a reference to Judas Iscariot. Does the choice influence your interpretation of the speech?
5. Compose an own obituary of Othello. Give your own interpretation of his character.
This kind of exercise helps you not only to get a personal interpretation of Othello and the themes associated with him, it also make learning the key quotations memorable and enjoyable.
Leaving Cert Text 3
'The green-eyed monster': How Iago stimulates the emotion of jealousy in Othello
In Act 3 Sc.3 Iago kindles the emotion of jealousy in Othello and over the rest of the play inflames it into a "jealousy so strong that judgment cannot cure" --i.e. into a murderous rage.
In this first extract from Act 3. Sc.3 Iago has orchestrated a situation where Othello chances upon a meeting between Desdemona and his lieutenant Cassio, who Othello sacked the night before for being drunk on duty. Still embarrassed, Cassio slinks away, thus allowing Iago to show his amazing talent for improvisation.
Enter OTHELLO and IAGO
IAGO: Ha! I like not that.
OTHELLO: What dost thou say?
IAGO: Nothing, my lord: or if -- I know not what.
OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO: Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.
1. With a friend or in pairs in class act out this extract. First, repeat Iago's words in a casual, matter-of-fact tone of voice. Then aim to get a tone of voice that insinuates (implies) there is more to the Desdemona/ Cassio meeting than meets the eye. Employ hesitant pauses, eye and facial language and body language that will unsettle Othello.
2. Othello's responses are questions. What does that tell you about Othello's state of mind at this point?
In this second extract from Act 3.3, Desdemona has just left the stage after childishly persisting with unreasonable (though well-meaning) pleas to her husband to restore Cassio to his post.
IAGO: My noble lord--
OTHELLO: What dost thou say, Iago?
IAGO: Did Michael Cassio, when you woo'd my lady,
Know of your love?
OTHELLO: He did, from first to last: why dost thou ask?
IAGO: But for a satisfaction of my thought;
No further harm.
OTHELLO: Why of thy thought, Iago?
IAGO: I did not think he had been acquainted with her.
OTHELLO: O, yes; and went between us very oft.
OTHELLO: Indeed! ay, indeed: discern'st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?
IAGO: Honest, my lord!
OTHELLO: Honest! ay, honest.
IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO: What dost thou think?
IAGO: Think, my lord!
OTHELLO: Think, my lord!
By heaven, he echoes me,
As if there were some monster in his thought
Too hideous to be shown ...
... if thou dost love me,
Show me thy thought.
IAGO: My lord, you know I love you.
OTHELLO: I think thou dost ...
1. Describe how Iago uses facts to further unsettle Othello's emotional balance. Iago's victim now, Othello begins to switch from questions to repetition of words Iago wants to plant in his mind. Describe and enact how Iago puts words in Othello's mouth, gets him to say what he wants him to say.
2. Act out Othello's words: show how irritation, impulse and emotion are gradually replacing the rational. Is Othello naive?
3. At the end of this extract Iago uses reassurance ("you know I love you"), which he will then blend with insinuation to worm his way into and control Othello's emotions. Explain how Iago is provoking rather than reassuring his victim.
Three explosive images
In the run-up to the following exchange in the same scene, Iago continues to destabilise Othello with blatantly insincere reassurances ("My Lord, you know I love you"), clever self-deprecation ("it's not my place as a subordinate to tell you") and outright provocation ("It were not for your quiet, nor your good ... to let you know my thoughts").
Now he drops in three images that trigger and shape the emotion of jealousy in Othello's mind. Iago establishes the state of jealousy in Othello's mind by suggesting that it already exists.
OTHELLO: What dost thou mean?
IAGO: Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
OTHELLO: By heaven, I'll know thy thoughts.
IAGO: You cannot, if my heart were in your hand;
Nor shall not, whilst 'tis in my custody.
IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!
OTHELLO: O misery!
1. Using tone of voice, facial and body language, how can an actor convey Iago's control over Othello at this point?
2. How does Othello react to the images "jewel", "cuckold" and "green-eyed monster"?
3. Place a sly emphasis on the three images and see if you can suggest a state of jealousy by suggesting that it already exists.
Othello, naturally, denies that he could be jealous. But the damage is done. Without intending to, Othello proceeds to parade his insecurity. His assertion that "she had eyes and chose me" and his demand for proof shows that he has accepted the possibility of jealousy. Despite his insistence that "I will see before I doubt", he is ensnared in Iago's web of deception. Iago implies that proof is there, if Othello looks for it: "Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio". Innuendo has had the desired effect.
Iago then exploits Othello's personal, social and cultural insecurities. He reassures Othello that Desdemona is not like (but implies that she is) other Venetian wives, who have a reputation for promiscuity. Iago backs up this innuendo by using a fact. He reminds Othello that she "did deceive her father, marrying you". Othello agrees: "And so she did". The blend of truths (facts) and lies works: Othello is hooked.
Iago continues with his overall technique of simultaneously reassuring and provoking his victim. Indulging in a kind of "I-hope-I-am-not-unsettling-you" tone, he expresses the hope that he is not straining his speech to "grosser (filthier) issues". This has the desired effect of corrupting Othello's mind to imagine Desdemona having sexual encounters with Cassio.
Othello's self-doubt becomes more acute. He accepts Iago's insinuation that Desdemona's decision to marry a black man is unnatural: "And yet how nature erring from itself". He accepts Iago's sly suggestions that Desdemona behaved strangely by not marrying a man from her "own clime, complexion and degree" (racial and social background) and that it is likely she will "repent" her decision. Othello reveals how much he has become corrupted by Iago's insinuations when he asks Iago to "Set on thy wife to observe". He wants Emilia to spy on Desdemona. No sign now of Othello's renowned dignity, nobility -- and composure.
Othello is emotionally shattered. Iago theatrically times exits and entrances to startle and disturb him even more. Iago leaves Othello alone to let his "pestilence" do its work. Othello thinks out loud.
Suspense is heightened as we hope that reason will prevail in his soliloquy. No chance. Iago's open, trusting nature is under Iago's control. He trusts Iago's superior knowledge of what makes people tick, trusts the man "who knows all qualities, with a learned spirit of human dealings".
His self-image is now in splinters as he whines about the colour of his skin, lack of social skills and age ("I am declined into the vale of years"). He says he would rather be a "toad" living in a dark dungeon than share her love with others. Dramatic suspense is maintained: Othello might yet allow his head to rule his heart. He asserts that Desdemona could not be false: "O then heaven mocks itself, I'll not believe it". He will seek proof of her infidelity.
Leaving Cert Text 4
Iago: 'a motiveless malignity'?
Iago will provide spurious proofs.
There are two ways you can approach Iago: (a) see him as evil personified, "a motiveless malignity", a Satanic figure; or (b) try to humanise him: try to explain why he is what he is, why he does what he does.
Consider "human" aspects to this man that offer some explanation for his evil:
(i) He finds perverted ways to satisfy his lust for power. Having failed to gain constructive power (promotion), he sets about exercising negative and malicious power. What begins as revenge becomes for him a perverted kind of compensation. He takes artistic delight in his own subtle manipulative skills.
(ii) He may be unable to cope with his own inadequacy; he can't find goodness in himself so he will destroy goodness in others; maybe that's what makes him so cynical about love and life. It may be that he's the real jealous -- sexual and professional -- figure in the play.
Iago is enigmatic. This complex villain displays some understandable human motives for his actions; at other times his motives are irrational and inhuman. Very early in the play he declares, "I am not what I am". At the end, he defiantly refuses to explain himself: "Demand me nothing, what you know, you know". Coleridge wrote of Iago's "motiveless malignity" but the problem is not that Iago has no motivation, rather that he seems to have so many motives that he forgets some as he goes along. Study the evidence and decide for yourself.
10 techniques Iago uses to manipulate Othello
Be prepared for an exam question on the techniques employed by Iago to stimulate, nurture and inflame the emotion of jealousy in Othello. The best approach is to group a selection of the points below into sections dealing with improvisation (his acting skills), outsider status, language (especially key images) and the part played by chance.
1. He identifies the weaknesses -- inexperience, insecurity about outsider status -- he will exploit in his victim.
2. Begins with a fact to gain Othello's attention and confidence. Proceeds to confuse Othello by alternating truths (facts) with lies. Repeats key words and questions (e.g. "honest"). Puts words in Othello's mouth. Plays on his own reputation as an honest man, a loyal friend.
3. Employs innuendo (insinuation) -- uses hints, suggestions as a way of implying something. He uses pregnant pauses to unsettle Othello and follows periods of calm with rapid bursts of insinuation. He makes Othello self-destruct. First he gets Othello to feel and then verbalise jealousy.
4. Uses tone of voice, body language, movements, entrances and exits to great effect.
5. Improvises, makes up the plot as he goes along. Chance and luck come to his aid. In Act 3 Sc.3 he could not have foreseen Cassio's "guilty-like" withdrawal, and that Desdemona would importune (solicit) so much on Cassio's behalf. Then the handkerchief features in different ways.
6. Iago simultaneously provokes and reassures his victim, and ingeniously uses self-deprecation, appearing to be modest and critical of himself.
7. Peppers his language with emotive language. Employs images to corrupt Othello's mind; eventually, gets him to use his own register of corrupt language.
8. Whips up self-pity in Othello, a man very much concerned with his own image (reputation).
9. In Acts 4 and 5 Iago proceeds to inflame Othello into a "jealousy so strong that judgment cannot cure" -- i.e. into a murderous rage. He wants Othello to feel the emotion of jealousy so powerfully that he will accept that Desdemona is a "whore", and demand "some swift means of death for the fair devil". The phrase "fair devil" is the key: Othello's mind must become so unbalanced that, though he loves her, he must see her as the devil. Devils must be destroyed. That is the weird logic Othello adopts.
10. As Othello's emotions become increasingly frenzied, Iago subtly guides his mind towards the ideas of revenge and "justice". Othello begins by seeking proof of her innocence but Iago shifts the focus from a demand for proof her INNOCENCE to proof of her GUILT. Iago effects this switch by manipulating Othello's emotions, corrupting his imagination.
Iago's evil mind is one of the most disturbing dramatic effects of the tragedy. We know evil exists; we also know that Fate, chance happenings can destroy us. This, more than anything else, involves us in the drama.
Leaving Cert Text 5
The many sides of Desdemona
Shakespeare's leading characters are three-dimensional, which is to say they have strengths, weaknesses and like the rest us, they are bagfuls of contradictions.
There is something else we must remember about characters in a drama or narrative: they are also there to drive the plot and act as foils to other characters. They are human beings but they have dramatic significance too.
Take Hamlet for example. Near the end of Act 1, Hamlet swears to take instant revenge for his father's "foul and most unnatural murder". Moments later, he decides he needs more proof. He delays. For four centuries critics have been debating why Hamlet fails to act until the end of the play. In terms of plot, there is one simple explanation: No delay, no play.
Likewise, Desdemona's alleged unfaithfulness to her husband is a potent part of the engine that drives the plot of Othello.
Just as all-action-man Fortinbras is a foil to the reflective Hamlet, Desdemona's innocence and goodness is a foil to the web of evil woven by Iago. Later in the play her concept of pure love is contrasted with that of the earthy and worldly-wise Emilia.
Keep dramatic significance and characterisation in mind as you determine your response to Desdemona. Look at her from different points of view. Weigh up evidence revealed in the play, and form a conclusion that you can back up with appropriate reference to, and quotation from, the play. Be prepared to defend your conclusion against counter arguments. An examiner will be delighted to read your personal response.
Desdemona is at the heart of the theme of love in the play. But, remember that Shakespeare throws other kinds of love into the mix: self love, love of power, infatuation (Roderigo), courtly love (Cassio), for example. And given Shakespeare's fondness for opposites, hate is another powerful theme in the play.
A Leaving Cert question in 1986 asked students to discuss the following statement: "Desdemona and Iago are at opposite poles in the play, Othello, the one representing pure love, the other hate incarnate".
The very rose of purest passion?
Desdemona worshippers view her as, "the very rose of purest passion. She is made to worship and be worshiped". She is, indeed, innocent; the quality and intensity of her love is touching. The motif of celestial images associated with her underscores this view.
She is the yardstick by which we can measure the extent of Othello's transformation. From a language they both share in the early part of the play, Othello sinks to a position where she can no longer understand him: "I understand a fury in your words/ But not the words."
Even Iago acknowledges her goodness: "She is so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, that she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested".
Is Desdemona a New Woman?
A presentation of Desdemona as a martyr (consider all the saintly language that surrounds her) produces an idealised, even plastic version of Desdemona. Shakespeare presents her in a rounded human way, not as an unsullied rose of innocence.
We first meet Desdemona when Othello summons her as a witness to answer her father's charges that he stole his daughter.
Our first impression is that of a woman who is independent, self-assured, mature and courageous. In ten lines she gives a rational and sensible justification of her actions. At this point she is a modern woman who makes choices in her life, opts to make her own way in the world. Is this evidence of a liberated woman defying the male dominated conventions of her time?
Her conversation with Iago in Act 2.1 shows her to be an urbane and sophisticated young woman. In the course of an anxious wait for Othello's safe arrival in Cyprus, Desdemona engages in witty banter with the profane and cynical Iago.
But the New Woman thesis doesn't convince either. Admirable as love is, we detect innocence, idealism and inexperience of the ways of the world that could (and do) leave her vulnerable. Othello's account of the courtship reveals the suspicion that her love was based too much adulation for his heroic exploits. He said, "She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd, /And I lov'd her that she did pity them". Her love is touchingly innocent but inherently naive.
Is there something of the Essex girl about her? Iago identifies her naivety: "She is so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition...", and then ruthlessly exploits it. Her unwise and persistent intervention on Cassio's behalf is guileless. Though this is done out of natural innocence and generosity, nevertheless, it does reveal inexperience of the ways of the world. She should have known that Cassio deserved his punishment.