The story Othello tells about himself (to himself and to the audience) is crucial because only that which is verbalized becomes real.
Othello and Self-Reflection
Why does the eponymous hero of Othello, having achieved such great heights personally and politically, fall so dramatically from grace? How is a regal, poised man like Othello undone by Iago, an envious creature scheming from the sidelines of the action? How can a steadfast, thoughtful, commanding man, a decorated soldier and a celebrated leader, be led into depravity by a scoundrel like Iago? To answer these questions, a reader must consider the structure of Othello and the internal logic that guides the characters. It is possible to understand Othello as a fantastical play, a work divorced in some ways from reality, whose chronology collapses weeks into days. Though some elements of the plot strain credulity, the play is ultimately heartbreaking because the cruel, desperate actions of its central figures are essentially reasonable. Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, and Cassio are governed by legitimate emotions, stirred needlessly by a malicious villain. Individuals’ reactions to betrayal, fear, and pain are consistently rational; they become violent when Iago exacerbates conflicts with his meddling.
Reading at an emotional distance, the success of Iago’s plotting seems improbable. Upon closer analysis, it becomes clear that Iago’s villainy works because he has carefully analyzed the weaknesses of his peers and methodically capitalized on them. The true tragedy of Othello lies in this exploitation. To be known is to be defenseless in this play; friendship, celebrity, and love create opportunities for abuse. Othello’s fatal flaw is his faith in his close friend, who is a shrewd strategist with pernicious ulterior motives. Othello begins with Iago using his keen sense of observation to turn preexisting relationships and naturally unfolding events into sites of chaos. His extreme perceptiveness allows him to recognize when and where to plant seeds of doubt in characters’ minds, and in states of malevolence, he encourages paranoid trains of thought in others. Iago understands that, when prodded, human beings will jump to conclusions, accept nightmarish conspiracies, and act out of fear. Othello is a trusting, honest person who expects that his own good character, if embodied clearly and earnestly, will save him from others’ prejudice. He demonstrates this belief in the first act; presenting himself so nakedly in the name of justice and common sense will be his great misstep. This early effort to protect his reputation leads him to openly represent his vulnerabilities. Iago uses this intelligent self-analysis, delivered in an open forum, to identify exactly how Othello may be destroyed.
Interestingly for the reader, Othello gives two major speeches in which he is self-reflective. One, mentioned above, occurs early in the play, before the Senate, when Othello defends his honor after eloping with Desdemona. It becomes a road map of sorts for evil Iago. The second happens after Othello murders his wife, when he pleads for compassion before a symbolic jury of her relatives (Lodovico and Gratiano). That testimony is Othello’s appraisal of the violence he has perpetrated and an assessment of whether his heinous crime accurately represents his nature. These acts of rhetorical self-defense bookend the play neatly, providing the first and last insights the audience has into Othello’s being. The audience becomes a character witness, having observed Iago and Othello’s public interactions, as well as their individual, private moments of contemplation. We are empowered to judge Othello. Is he the same man in act 1 as in act 5? Is he to blame for his behavior, or does Iago deserve the credit for instigating Desdemona’s murder? The power of suggestion is strong in Othello, but is it criminal? Does fault lie with Othello for exposing himself, for trusting too blindly? Should he have ever let himself, a foreigner, become comfortable in Venice?
In both scenes, Othello presents a narrative to a listening public, explaining his nature and temperament in terms of formative events in his life. In each oratory performance, he must justify his behavior (initially, just his scandalous marriage, later his violent crime); he does so by identifying personal, internal causes, rather than external forces (like Iago’s evil machinations). This is in itself indicative of Othello’s essential morality; in a twisted way he takes responsibility for his wicked choices.
In Shakespeare’s works, plot unfolds through and is propelled forward by speech. Stage direction is minimal; events are recounted and developing action narrated. In Othello, on one level, the language expressed on stage is aimed outward, establishing expository and contextual detail for the audience. In another sense, the interpersonal dialogue works to shape reality differently for individuals within the interior world of the play. This dual dynamic function of communication has the effect of creating a broad, fixed structure for the play to sit in, while also allowing for internal inconsistencies in characters’ perception of reality. Desdemona comes to know and fall in love with her future husband through the daring tales of his past; Iago concocts false narratives that influence real feelings and phenomena; and fears and fantasies dictate decision-making. The story Othello tells about himself (to himself and to the audience) is crucial because only that which is verbalized becomes real, a fact Iago deploys to make chaos. When, in act 1, scene 2, Othello is called on to explain his union with Desdemona, he justifies their elopement by describing their courtship. First, he warns that his story will not be persuasive because he is trained as a soldier, not a courtier: “And little of this great world can I speak / More than pertains to feats of broil and battle; / And therefore little shall I grace my cause / In speaking for myself.”1 Nevertheless, he convincingly recounts their mutual attraction:
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake;
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used.2
He is explaining (and foretelling, in a sense) that, as a man of extremes, he is not skilled in the more tender ways of being, like love and affection. He is rough and bold. Othello professes that his glorious past and valiant demeanor are what drew Desdemona to him, and it is the admiration she expresses, in turn, that attracts him to her. Desdemona, in her appetite for his life stories and her admiration of his honor, offers Othello direct affirmation of the heroic identity he cherishes. Her love validates the man he imagines himself to be, and it is crucial to their bond. Therefore, the shame and betrayal of infidelity directly threaten the identity Othello has constructed publicly and personally.
As Othello reveals all of this in the Senate room, Iago is paying attention. He will soon use three aspects of Othello’s person, elucidated here, to undermine Othello: his status as a foreign man and hired soldier, his unfamiliarity with the refinements of highest Venetian society, and his inexperience in love. He will also turn Othello’s account of his engagement into fodder for his dastardly plot. In the second act, Iago convinces Roderigo (against his better judgment) that Desdemona actually loves Cassio and will undoubtedly become tired of Othello. Using Othello’s own testimony about his romance with Desdemona as evidence of their weak ties, he promises:
Mark me with what violence she first loved the Moor
but for bragging and telling her fantastical lies.
And will she love him still for prating? Let not
thy discreet heart think it. Her eye must be fed.
And what delight shall she have to look on the
In this manner, Iago turns Othello’s autobiography against him: On this basis, Roderigo will embroil Cassio in a drunken altercation, sending him out of favor with Othello, and Desdemona will be conned into pleading Cassio’s case before her husband. Othello will become suspicious of her motivations and one thing (orchestrated by Iago) will lead to another until he has been made paranoid and afraid of his wife, anxious that his inadequacies as a husband have led her to stray. In the Senate, waiting for Desdemona to arrive and corroborate his version of events, Othello swears: “I do confess the vices of my blood / So justly to your grave ears I’ll present / How I did thrive in this fair lady’s love, / And she in mine.”4 It is the mutuality of their affection which keeps the relationship stable. As soon as Iago begins to subvert this foundation of their union, the marriage falls apart. When Othello believes that Desdemona no longer holds him in high esteem (making a fool of him through cuckoldry), he becomes enraged and obsessed with destroying her.
The play proceeds, Iago trailing Othello, feeding him stories, planting ideas, and pointing out instances open just wide enough to interpretation that they become fertile ground for paranoia. Iago positions Othello up to see the right thing at the right time, coordinating the actions of others so that their missteps look like deliberate deviance to Othello. The coincidences accumulate until Othello would have to be crazy, or at least irrational, not to follow the logic of event A between actors B and C as signifying conspiracy D. Othello’s experience as a strategist and tactician is both his great weakness and his strength. Presented with facts (the “missing” handkerchief “found,” intimacy between Desdemona and Cassio observed), he reaches simple conclusions: betrayal, dishonor, and shame. In an aside in act 2, scene 3, Iago owns up to his patterns of deceit and misdirection but insists that he is only playing with people’s existing dispositions. He believes that the characters surrounding him entrap themselves, through personal defects and bad habits; he is merely a conduit or an expediter for chaos sure to come. Somewhat disingenuously and self-deprecatingly (and with considerable misogyny), about Othello he laments: “His soul is so enfettered to her love, / That she make, unmake, do what she list, / Even as her appetite shall play the god / With his weak function. How am I then a villain.”5
In his final speech, Othello will confirm, to a certain degree, this notion of Iago’s. Before he kills himself, in a last-ditch effort to defend his honor and make his bad behavior intelligible to his adopted countrymen, Othello implores Desdemona’s relatives not to assassinate his character after his death. As in his first autobiography, he cites his military service, describes his tendency to act boldly, and decries his poor judgment:
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 deeds relate
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate
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,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away.6
Othello explains that he became consumed by his own passion. Overwhelmed with unfamiliar jealousy and so deeply possessive of and obsessed with Desdemona, the smallest suggestion of infidelity was guaranteed to set him off in an atypical rage. In the domain of love, his characteristic reason and poise abandoned him. He describes his transformation and descent into madness, admitting that he was unable to see the purity and goodness of Desdemona because he was blinded by emotion. Significantly, Othello delivers this last speech, an explanation of his life gone awry, by describing his own failings, not the cruelty of Iago’s plot. He does not deflect blame, but locates it in his alienated, even deranged, self. Iago took a piece of Othello, his smallest, most bitter part, and coaxed it into monstrous proportion. Othello, split into two halves, a better self and a base one, betrays his best interests through Iago’s manipulation. His final refrain suggests the sense of disconnect he feels between the man he imagined himself to be and the darker character that he inadvertently revealed. By act 5, Othello has become hardly recognizable to himself, yet he still clings to the coherent identity he fought so hard to establish. In the end, his final plea before taking his own life is for his memory to be preserved and his name to retain the quality of mythic virtue he cultivated for it.