My Perception of William Shakespeare’s Othello
Othello, by William Shakespeare, is perhaps not as exciting as a
ravishingly sexy poster of Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob. Yet, with its
intoxicating mix of love, sexual passion and the deadly power of jealousy,
Shakespeare has created an erotic thriller based on a human emotion that people
are all familiar with. It all depends on how those people receive it. There is
an extraordinary fusion of characters’ with different passions in this tragedy.
Every character is motivated by a different desire. Shakespeare mesmerizes the
reader by manipulating his characters abilities to perceive and discern what is
happening in reality. It is this misinterpretation of reality that leads to
the erroneous perceptions that each character holds.
After reading this tragedy, the depth of Shakespeare’s characters
continue to raise many questions in the minds of the reader. The way I
percieve the character of Othello and what concerns me, is that Othello is able
to make such a quick transition from love to hate of Desdemona. In Act 3, Scene
3, Othello states, “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! I’ll not
believe ‘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 change
from the “tyrannous hate” (line 464) he now harbors. Does Othello make the
transition just because he is so successfully manipulated by Iago? Or is there
something particular about his character which makes him make this quick
change? 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 fostered
partly by an inferiority complex. He appears to be insecure in his love for
Desdemona (as well as in his position in Venetian society). Othello’s race and
age (“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 of
conversation” possessed by well-bred Venetian noblemen, those to which (as a
senator’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 his
exploits and achievements rather than for his mind. Othello apparently feels a
constant responsibility to prove to Desdemona (through his heroic deeds) that
he is worthy of her love.It is my opinion that Othello is a man governed by a
subconscious need or impulse to believe ideas rather than reason. In believing
Iago’s lie, Othello apparently is controlled by his aforementioned inferiority
complex — his feeling that he just doesn’t measure up to (young, suave, and
of course, white) nobleman Michael Cassio in Desdemona’s mind. Othello is more
naturally predisposed to believe this “idea” rather than to engage in rational
discourse in an attempt to find the real logic of the situation.
It is also unclear weather or not the position of soldier and that of
husband can be percieved as two seperate role’s. Yet the two seem inextricably
intertwined. Military operations are Othello’s primary priority. Othello had
been a soldier since he was seven years old (” …since these arms of mine had
seven 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, Othello
encounters a battlefield the likes of which he has never seen when he marries
Desdemona and enters Venetian society — the rules are different, the enemy has
more cunning, and words are used for weapons. Military service and marriage are
not incompatible — Othello has the potential to make a perfectly suitable
husband (as well as lover) to Desdemona. Othello only self-destructs because he
and his inferiority complex fall victim to the duplicitous and vengeful Iago on
Perhaps Othello’s precipitous change from ordered general to chaotic
killer occurs because he is black. Africans were starting to appear in London
at the time of Shakespeare and were viewed with suspicion, to say the least. It
is not inconceivable that Shakespeare exploited this popular fear of the nature
of these black Africans and portrayed Othello as a vengeful savage. Is Othello
a 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 truely
either. He is an outsider who has tried to believe he has been fully
integrated in a society he really knows only tolerates him. He could hardly
believe that Desdemona would love him from the beginning, and it actually makes
more sense to him that she would love Casio than that she loves him. Iago plays
on 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 wife
in this way can be corrupted. In Act 2, Scene 3, Iago speaks of Othello’s
relationship with Desdemona and joyously proclaims that Othello’s “soul is so
enfetter’d to her love/ That she my make, unmake, do what she list,/ Even as
her appetite shall play the god/ With his weak function”(351-54). Iago is
absolutely determined to pervert this man who has declared that he will deny
his wife nothing. Iago is certain that Othello can be corrupted simply because
of his idealistic love for Desdemona.
Othello’s inclination to trust Iago is easily perceived, as I have
already noted (” The Moor already changes with my poison” (3.3.325). Iago
almost assumes here the role of a Frankenstein-kind of doctor, creating and
delighting in the making of a monster. Readers hearts respond greatly to the
final breakdown of Othello’s once ordered existance as he desperately clings to
the one thing that seems certain to him: Iago’s sincere friendship: “O brave
Iago, honest and just,/ Thou hast such noble sense..”(5.1.31-32). In this
tragedy, Othello is torn by a terrible dilemma, whether he can trust his new
bride or whether he can trust his ensign. Why does he choose to trust the
latter? 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 dealing
with men on the battlefield, men whom he must trust and, moreover, Iago has a
well known reputation for honesty.
In order to disguise his deep disappointment and conceal his plans for
revenge, 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 says
that ” 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 an
outright lie, but he has just come onstage with Othello, and he is saying this
for 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 to
have yerk’d him here under the ribs”(4-5). Clearly to me, Iago is lying about
what he would actullly have done, yet he wants to show that he is a loyal man of
action, but one who would not kill impulsively. This, he is sure, will appeal
to Othello, a professional military man. It is precisely this sort of behavior
which secures Iago’s preputaion for cool, controlled honesty.
Othello needs to trust people; it is his nature; that is why he suffers
such terrible agony when he must try to choose between the alleged honesty of
Iago and the honesty of Desdemona. Desperately, Othello needs to trust his
wife; in Act 3, Scene 3, he cries, “If she be false, O then heaven mocks
itself!/ I’ll not believe ‘t”(278-79). This is overwhelming evidence that he
does need to believe her, just as in many of his other speeches, there are
similar, parallel expressions of his need to believe Iago. Basically, one of
the first qualities that comes to mind when assesssing a man as complex as
Othello is his openness, his trustfullness. Speaking of Iago, Othello says
that Iago is a man of honesty and trust; “to his conveyance I assign my
wife”(1.3.286). Othello has no reason to distrust Iago at this point; it is
evident that he also trusts his wife, since he assigns her to the care of
Later in the same act and scene, Barbantio suggests that Desdemona
deceived him and may just as easily decieve Othello, and Othello’s reply is
very significant: “My life upon her faith!” (295). His faith in Desdemona is
not only dramatically important for the later, tragic reversal, but signigicant
here because of its actuality. He deeply loves and trusts his young and
beautiful 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 he
is not. In fact, Othello’s “free and open nature” is the very reason that
Othello 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 charcter
that is so dominant an element of his personality is a perception which
deserves more consideration. Particularly I would note his “inocence” early in
the play, perhaps best evidenced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Othello, defending
himself against Barbantio’s ravings, says quitely and simply that he is “rude”
(meaning ” unpolished,” “simple,” or “unsophisticated”) in his speech, and that
he is not “bless’d with the soft phrase of peace”(82). Clearly, he does not
try to assume a pose that might seem overly impressive, it would be unnatural
for a man such as Othello.
In addition to this play’s being a tragedy of multiple dimensions, it is
also a love story. The tale of a man who loved excessively but “lov’d not
wisely” (5.2.346). Numerous instances of Othello’s love for Desdemona have
been noted. I feel that some these lines of poetic sensitivity are being used
by Shakespeare to convey to the reader Othello’s perception of love and faith in
Desdemona. In Act 2, Scene 1, Othello exaults, “O my soul’s joy!/If after every
tempest come such calms…”(186-87). Here, he evidences both the passion and
potential violence of his love. And, a few lines latter he says, “If it were
now to die,/ ‘Twere now to be most happy…”(191-92). This speech is beautiful
and heartfelt and is clear-cut proof for the audience of his deep, sincere love
for his young bride. In addition, the speech should be noted because of
Shakespeare’s embellishing it with the ironic overtones of death.
Finally, I must deal with Ohello’s true flaws and, of these, perhaps the
most major concern is the fact that he is able to deceive himself: Othello
believes he is a man who judges by the facts. In the past, this may have been
true, but after Iago has infected him with a jealousy that overpowers all
reason, Othello is doomed. Even when Iago made his initial overtures suggesting
Desdemona’s infidelity, Othello was firmly convinced that he was not a man to be
self-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 at
once with love or jealousy!” (190-92). Othello will find, tragically, that it
is 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 strong
minded, tough young woman who decides to marry a man who’s a lot older, and
black. And she loves him genuinely and passionately.On the other hand she
seems very weak and rather soft, why doesn’t she stand up to Othello ? She is
the ever-present representation of all that Othello has attained as a civilized
and Christian man; in attaining her, he attains the heights from which the
tragedy requires that he must fall. Othello’s love for Desdemona continues and
creates ever-new deceptions until the final climactic murder is accomplished.
And even as he kills Desdemona, after he has decided that she must die, he
deceives 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 the
end, he does not realize his true motivation for the murder of the women he
I should add that Iago’s plot to make Othello jealous (and thus
murderous, and thus destroy himself) is surprisingly easy, in part because Iago
is 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 is
filled 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 exploiting
Roderigo by pretending to help him, so he involves him in the plotting. The
excessive vulgarity of Iago’s can be found throughout the play, beginning as
early as Act 1, Scene 1, when he urges Roderigo to inflame Desdemona’s father
with hatred for Othello. “Make after him,” he says, meaning Barbantio, “poison
his delight, Proclaim him in the streets. Incense her kinsmen,/ And, though he
in 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 that
are highly effective: “Would you,….behold her topp’d?” (395-96). He asks
Othello to envision the handsome Cassio charming Othello’s young bride. In this
entire scene, Iago knows, instinctively, the kind of remark that eill inrcrease
Othello’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 is
true because great evil can somehow manipulate and captivate my attention.
This is certainly, a tribute to Shakespeares genius that despite everything
evil which Iago accomplishes, the playwright never lets the reader forget that
Iago is a human being, not an abstraction. Iago’s jealousy is similar to
jealousies the readers have had, except that he is wildly jealous; his passion
is ours, except that he is immoral, ruthless, and savage. Finally, Othello is
black and middle aged.Desdemona is white, young and beautiful. The state of
Venice needs Othello- but they don’t like him.Iago needs Othello and that is
why Iago hates him. So, with every character holding individual motivations
and desires. Shakespeare has created his own reality, which can simply be
percieved as extraordinary.
Alexander, Peter. Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.