Essay, Research Paper: Othello

Shakespeare: Othello

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Othello, written by William Shakespeare is the story of Othello, the protagonist
and tragic hero of the play. A Moor commanding the armies of Venice, he is a
celebrated general and heroic figure whose "free and open nature" will
enable Iago to twist his love for his wife Desdemona into a powerful jealousy.
Iago is Othello’s ensign, and Shakespeare's greatest villain. His public face
of bravery and honesty conceals a Satanic delight in manipulation and
destruction. Passed over for a promotion by his commander, he vows to destroy
the Moor. If Iago is an artist of evil, then this scene is the finest canvas he
paints. This is the crucial moment in the play, the scene where he, , deceives
Othello and induces him to fall. He does so by expanding on the tactics used in
prior scenes. Once the seed of doubt is planted in the Moor's mind with a quick
"Ha! I like not that" (III.iii.35) (when they come upon Desdemona and
Cassio) and a few probing questions about the ex-lieutenant's relationship to
Othello's wife, Iago retreats into the guise he has adopted. He becomes
"honest Iago," again, as in the brawl in Act II, scene ii--the
reluctant truth-teller who must have unpleasant news dragged from him by a
determined Othello. The honesty suggested by his reluctance to speak is
reinforced by the moralizing tone that he takes with his commander. Iago
actually lectures Othello, warning him against jealousy ("the green-eyed
monster") and insisting that he will not speak slander: "he that
filches from me my good name / Robs of that which not enriches him / And makes
me poor indeed" (III.iii.158-61). At the same time, he plays upon the
insecurities of the honest, noble African in sophisticated, decadent Venice by
lecturing Othello on how Venetian women are deceitful and treacherous by nature.
The overall effect is to pour verbal poison in his master's ear--not by lying,
but by flavoring truth with innuendo. Othello will later declare that he is
"not easily jealous," and that assessment of his character seems to be
shared by most of the figures around him in the play. The critical response is
mixed--some critics insist that his claims to be innocent of jealousy are merely
self-justifying, and certainly he slips easily into assuming his wife to be
unfaithful. Other critics make the distinction between an inner, self-created
jealousy, which he seems to lack, and a deep insecurity and "trusting
nature," as Iago puts it, which allow a clever manipulator to plant seeds
of doubt. Behind his insecurity lies a man uneasy with his place in Venetian
society: he may have married a white woman, a daughter of a Senator, but can he
keep her? The seizure of the handkerchief is a great coup for Iago in his quest
to destroy Othello, and he is aided by his wife, who apparently has no scruples
about betraying her mistress in small matters. Shakespeare will eventually
transform Emilia into a voice of moral outrage, and by the final scene the
audience will applaud her role in Iago's destruction, but for now it is worth
noticing that she is only Iago's accomplice. It will take a great shock to
inspire outrage against him--a shock which comes too late. The scene ends with
Iago triumphant, named as lieutenant (the rank to which he aspired from the
beginning) to a man bent on destruction, and ready to join in that destruction
himself--because in killing Cassio and Desdemona, Othello is killing himself.
And that, of course, has been Iago's goal from the beginning. Othello's wild,
violent behavior in front of Lodovico, in which he strikes his wife and abuses
her for no apparent reason, demonstrate the perversion of order that Iago has
brought about. There is no one to halt Othello's lawlessness, because he himself
is the law in Cyprus. Othello's accusations and refusal to accept Desdemona's
denials are brutal and unfair, but his language recovers some of the nobility
that it had lost in previous scenes. Iago-like curses are replaced by sorrowful
laments for what has been lost, and the audience is reminded the heroism and
dignity that Othello possessed at the beginning of the play. His cry "O,
thou weed, / Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet, / That the sense
aches at thee--would thou hadst ne'er / been born!" (IV.ii.69-72) is a
powerful expression of the love that he still holds for his wife, which has been
ruined for ever by Iago's poisons. Othello is wrong, terribly wrong, but
Shakespeare demands that we sympathize with his error. Othello's words as he
prepares to murder Desdemona reveal the extent to which he has allowed Iago's
logic to dominate his own thinking. His fury has abated, but he is left with a
sense of being an instrument of divine justice. Desdemona must die, he insists,
because otherwise she might betray other men. Othello's self-delusion is so
strong that he believes himself to be merciful--he will not scar her body, he
says, and he will allow her to pray, because "I would not kill thy
soul" (V.ii.34). Some sense of the enormity of his crime impinges on his
delusion when he realizes that "when I have plucked thy rose / I cannot
give it vital growth again," (V.ii.13-14)--but not enough to stay his hand.
The actual murder is one of the most painful scenes in all of Shakespeare,
because of Desdemona's manifest innocence, beauty, and purity, and because she
continues to love Othello to the grave and even beyond, returning to life only
to gasp out an exoneration for her husband. He rejects her last gift, but his
illumination arrives quickly thereafter, and the audience's anger at the Moor
dissipates as he is completely undone by the realization of his terrible error.
There is no need to punish him, really--his horrible self-awareness ("O
Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!") is punishment enough. There is much critical
disagreement over whether Othello's final speech "rehabilitates" him
to the nobility that marked him when the play began. Certainly, his speech is
not all that one might wish for- -his claim to be "one not easily
jealous" (V.ii.354) is open to question, and when he says that he
"loved not wisely, but too well," (V.ii.353) the audience can only
groan at his lack of understanding. But Othello passes judgment on himself with
the courage we would expect in a military hero and loyal general, and he kills
himself just as he once killed the enemies of Venice. Shakespeare allows him a
final word, too, after this speech, and Othello, dying, reaches for Desdemona,
reminding the audience of what a great love has been destroyed. As for the
destroyer, he too comes undone in this scene. His parting words--"what you
know, you know"--deny us the explanation that we crave, but the audience
can take some satisfaction in watching Emilia, roused from cynicism to righteous
vengeance, bring down her husband as surely as he brought down his victims.
Iago's fury at Emilia might just as well be a fury for himself, who spent the
entire play manipulating Brabantio, Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona,
and in the end is undone by the person he least expected--his wife. All this
talk of time should make us remember another aspect of this tragedy: prophecy.
If tragedy happens when past is brought into present, then it is prefigured when
future is brought into present. This has been the role of Tiresias in this play,
and his replacement here by the messenger, another old man who has come with
news from afar, has significance only in terms of this temporal theme that we
have already established. The prophet and the messenger would seem to be in the
same temporal region, for both arrive after the events and before the tragedy,
but they arrive with a crucial difference. The messenger comes after the
prophet, but from where he comes can see neither past nor future. He can only
naively render both into the moment, and his language is thus not marked with
the reluctance and iteration of Tiresias. Rather, he speaks freely, without the
prophet's fatal awareness of how the difficulties of language are at once
supplemental and central to the tragedies of time. The shepherd seems to sense
this, but his resolve is broken. Where earlier Oedipus threatened punishment,
here the guards come on-stage and begin to torture the shepherd. The way power
and force here shatter the complex network of language and time.
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