Othello is one of Shakespeare’s five best-known and widely studied tragedies, along with Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. But as is so often with a well-known text, we don’t know this one nearly as well as we think we do: Othello has more in it than jealousy, the ‘green-eyed monster’, and (implied) racial hatred. These themes are central to the play’s power, but one of the triumphs of Othello, as the analysis below attempts to demonstrate, is how well Shakespeare weaves different themes and elements together at once. Before we analyse some of these themes, it might be worth recapping the plot of this great tragedy which has inspired everything from opera (Verdi’s Otello) to a rock musical (Catch My Soul, from the 1960s).
Othello: plot summary
The main action of the play takes place in Venice, as the play’s subtitle, The Moor of Venice, makes clear. Iago is ensign or flag-bearer to the great military general, Othello, who is a Moor (i.e. a north African Muslim). Iago expects to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant, but instead Othello passes him over in favour of Cassio. For this reason (at least he claims), Iago declares that he hates Othello and will wreak vengeance on both Othello and Cassio.
His first plot is to try to prevent Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of Brabantio, by telling Brabantio that Othello and Desdemona have already slept together even though they are not married. Brabantio summons Othello before the court, but Othello convinces him that he and Desdemona have not yet lain together, and the two of them are married.
Next, in Cyprus on a military campaign, Iago gets Cassio drunk and arranges a brawl, which he makes sure Othello witnesses; Othello has to strip the recently promoted Cassio of his commission. Iago then sets about convincing Othello that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona; he tells Cassio to ask Desdemona to put in a good word for him with Othello so he might get his commission back (but with the result that Othello questions why his wife would want to plead for Cassio). Iago, having got hold of a handkerchief of Desdemona’s, which she’d lost (a gift from Othello), hatches a plan to make Othello think his wife has been sleeping with Cassio. He hides the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedchamber and then tells Othello that Cassio has it. When Othello asks Desdemona where her handkerchief is, she confesses that she has lost it; meanwhile, Cassio gives it to Bianca, his mistress, little realising that the handkerchief is part of Iago’s grand plan to implicate him in an imaginary affair.
Iago’s plan works, and Othello is convinced that there is something going on between Cassio and Desdemona. He tells Iago to kill Cassio, and he publicly strikes Desdemona, accusing her in front of everyone. Iago then tells Roderigo to kill Cassio, but Roderigo fails, so Iago kills him so nobody will find out about the plan. Othello, consumed with jealousy, smothers Desdemona to death with a pillow, Emilia (Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid) tells Othello that she was the one who found the handkerchief and gave it to her husband; Iago kills her for revealing this, and Othello wounds Iago. Realising he has thrown away the life of an innocent woman he loved dearly, Othello kills himself publicly, Cassio is made governor of Cyprus, and Iago is taken off for punishment.
Othello is a play about sexual jealousy, and how one man can convince another man, who loves his wife dearly, that she has been unfaithful to him when she hasn’t. But Shakespeare does several very interesting, and artistically quite bold, things with this basic plot, and the characters he uses to tell the story.
First, he makes his hero noble, but unusually flawed. All heroes have a tragic flaw, of course: Macbeth’s is his ‘vaulting ambition’, Hamlet’s is his habit of delaying or over-analysing (although the extent to which he actually delays can be questioned), and so on. But Othello’s tragic flaw, his pride, is not simply noble or military pride concerned with doing the right thing (as a great military man might be expected to have), but a rather self-serving and self-regarding kind – indeed, self-regarding to the point of being self-destructive. He is willing to believe his innocent wife has been unfaithful to him even though he is, to all intents and purposes, devoted to her. This makes him a more interesting tragic hero, in some ways, because he isn’t a spotless hero with one major blind spot: his blind spot is, in a sense, everyone else but himself.
Second, Shakespeare doesn’t make Iago, the villain, someone whose motives we can understand. Indeed, he goes out of his way to make Iago as inscrutable as possible. If the first rule of creative writing class is ‘show don’t tell’, the second or third rule may well be ‘make your characters’ motivations clear’. Yet Shakespeare puts into Iago’s mouth several plausible ‘motives’ for wreaking the confusion and chaos that causes Othello’s downfall and Desdemona’s death, and in providing multiple motives, Iago emerges as ‘motiveless’, to use Coleridge’s famous description (Coleridge described Iago as being possessed of ‘motiveless malignity’). We cannot be sure why he is doing what he is doing.
But this does not mean that he is not being driven by anything. In Shakespeare’s source material for the play, a novella by the Italian author Cinthio, Iago is straightforwardly evil and devilish, intent on destroying Othello’s life, and with a clear motive. But Shakespeare’s Iago is more dangerous still: a human, with clearly human attributes and intellect, who nevertheless derives great pleasure from causing harm to others purely because … well, because it gives him pleasure. Part of the genius of Shakespeare’s characterisation of Iago is that he makes him a convincing ensign to Othello, a loyal servant to the Moorish warrior, even while he is plotting Othello’s downfall. He is a villain, but a charming two-faced one. In Harold Goddard’s fine phrase, he is ‘a moral pyromaniac setting fire to all of reality’ (this phrase is quoted enthusiastically by Harold Bloom in his Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human).
Othello is also unlike many of Shakespeare’s other great tragedies, with the possible exception of Romeo and Juliet, in that its plot could easily have been co-opted for a comedy rather than a tragedy, where the confusion created by Iago’s plotting is resolved, the villain is punished, and the hero and heroine are reconciled to live happily ever after. Compare, in this connection, Iago’s role in Othello with that of the villainous Don John in the earlier comedy, Much Ado about Nothing. Like Iago, Don John wants to wreck the (upcoming) marriage between Claudio and Hero, and sets about convincing Claudio that his bride-to-be cannot be trusted. But in Much Ado, Hero’s fidelity is proved and Don John’s villainy is exposed, and we have a comedy. Much of Othello proceeds like a comedy that takes a very dark turn at the end, when it becomes apparent that Othello will not be reconciled with Desdemona, and that the sexual jealousy and suspicion he has been made to feel are too deep-rooted to be wiped out.
The whole thing is really, of course, Iago’s play, as many critics have observed: if Othello is the tragic lead in the drama, Iago is the stage-manager, director, and dramatist all wrapped up in one. Writers from Dickens to George R. R. Martin have often sorrowfully or gleefully talked of ‘killing off’ their own characters for the amusement of others; Iago wishes to ruin Othello’s marriage for his own amusement or, in Hazlitt’s phrase, ‘stabs men in the dark to prevent ennui’.
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