Othello: Fool & Hero Term Paper

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[. . .] His overcoming is powerful indeed. Though Othello enters the play looking every bit the Fool in costume, and proceeded by such lines as would prepare the audience for the coming of the Fool (as when Iago speaks of him as a black ram or as a horse, and others call him lascivious or savage), he manages by virtue of his speech to momentarily defeat these expectations. "Given their expectations of folly and Othello's own claims to be 'Rude... In [his] speech' (Othello, 1.3), I hardly need mention that the audience was no doubt struck by his eloquence." (Hornback, 26) Othello uses fair words and storytelling to win the love of a woman, the respect of the city elders, and even the acquiescence of her father. Othello's power is in fair words (as Iago's is in foul words), and it is not until he gives up his commitment to fair speech that he falls into the trap of becoming the Fool which he fears to be.

Many critics point to the overwhelming power of the spoken word in Othello. It seems to be most common to associate the power of word with Iago -- after all, he is the one who with his mastery of language pulls the hidden puppet strings of the entire play. However, it is also important to see the way that Othello uses the power of language. It is vital to his character and nature to see him as something of a rude poet -- he is a warrior certainly, and somewhat rough around the edges, but he also has a grace to his speech which is great enough to win him friends. Othello is, in short, a storyteller. He refuses to allow himself to be defined by his archetypal role as a fool, and throughout the play continually redefines himself with stories. He speaks of great sorrows, of great heroism, and his magical past (regarding his handkerchief), and of his loyalties to the state. He always emphasizes qualities he wishes to be truly seen as his own, and his dialogue helps maintain them. However, as he gives up on defining himself as not jealous and as fair spoken and gentle, and turns increasingly to defining himself as a honorable warrior, he begins to fall into a trap.

The most significant character change in Othello over the course of the play may involve his language. At the beginning, he uses no profanity and no crudities. His speech is refined and beautiful, and quite the opposite of Iago's. Iago consistently uses profanity and speaks of sex in disgusting and animalistic ways, likening it to flies and maggots and goats and such. Critics such as Kermode point out that under Iago's influence Othello slowly changes his vocabulary, and is infected with the same sort of vocal disgust that Iago has. "For the tactician Iago has correctly guessed Othello's reaction even to the possibility of his wife's unfaithfulness, and at first with all the hesitations proper to an honest man (and an inferior) communicating such a suspicion, he infects Othello with his own disgust." (Kermode, 176) Othello moves from speaking well to using terrible profanities and crudities, and if one reads but a small portion of his speech in the latter parts of the play this change is so obvious that it cannot be escaped.

Not only does Othello's choice of vocabulary change over the course of the play, but even his syntax begins to unwind. In the beginning he speaks beautifully. His rhyme and off-rhyme is beautiful and subtle and his sentence structure is both comprehensible and complex. As Iago begins to infect his mind, however, Othello becomes increasingly incoherent. "The noble Othello has been transformed from an eloquent warrior who could explain what he meant to someone [to one] whose anger prevents him from speaking in a straightforward way. The ambiguity of Iago's speech has changed Othello's language." (Hadfield, 140) Eventually he drops into prose like a madman:

Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! that's fulsome. --Handkerchief--confessions--handkerchief! -- To confess, and be hanged for his labour; -- first, to be hanged, and then to confess. -- I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. -- Is't possible?--Confess--handkerchief! -- O devil! -- " (Othello, 4.1)

It is important to watch this unraveling of his vocabulary and syntax because it give great insight into the changes in his character. Othello is, one may understand, a Fool by nature -- meant to be simple and occasionally vicious, spat upon by life, driven from place to place with his tricks and his ill luck. This is something he is able to overcome by means of sheer will and creative power. He should be seen as depending upon his voice as much as Iago does, and as guarding his reputation and his ability to survive as a non-Fool with as much jealousy and passion as Iago guards his station. They are, in fact, very much alike. It is precisely because of this passion for upholding his place and guarding against falling into the role of the Fool that Iago is able to take advantage of him.

Othello's greatest fear is being made a Fool. He fears the mockery of others and the idea that he has been duped by Desdemona more than he even fears losing her. This is evidenced by the fact that he responds to his suspicions with a wish that he had not married at all. (Othello, 3.3) It is the role of Fool, and not the loss of his wife, that he fears. Yet because language is his power, when he vocalizes his fear it materializes for him. So he does indeed fall into that role by his own powers, and at the play's end, he not only calls himself a fool thrice over, but he is also is looked down on by all for his foolishness and devilry. (Othello, 5.2) Nonetheless, in his final moments one sees that he makes some peace with the role of the Fool.

At last he tells his audience not to judge him as a devil or on racial terms as a Turk, but instead instructs them that all this has come about because he is after all the Fool: "One that loved not wisely...perplex'd in the extreme..." (Othello, 5.2) In this final speech he acknowledges that he might have been seen as a villain or a devil, and that he might have been understood as a savage black man (a Turk or a Moor). The language of his fellow characters have treated these options equally with the third, which is that he is indeed a Fool. Throughout the play he has struggled against all three stereotypes, but here he addresses them and embraces the last one: that he is indeed the mythical and natural fool. Hornback speaks of this, yet he is not alone in seeing the way in which Othello at the end accepts and comes to terms with certain elements of the accusations labeled against him. For example, Grady also says that "Othello seems to take into himself the alien Other... In a final attempt to completely exorcise it.... we see the production of knowledge categories in the larger society reproduced by Iago and then 'taken in' by Othello to reformulate his identify in a process of subjection -- from which he never escapes. [Yet it]....finally resurfaces as the internalized consciousness of the transformed Othello." (Grady, 537)

This exploration of the Fool nature of Othello, and the way in which he seeks to overcome it through language, is vital to understanding his true nature. An actor might do almost anything with his personality -- and yet if one does not understand the degree to which he is struggling not just with Iago but with his own ordained fate and archetypal role, then Othello may simply come across as cruel or stupid. Seeing that his nature is that of an archetype, and that he is struggling as an individual against the recognized danger of falling into that mythological pattern, one can find a whole new depth to the play.


Grady, Hugh. "Iago and the dialectic of enlightenment: reason, will and desire in Othello." Criticism 37.4. (Fall, 1995): 537-559.

Hadfield, Andrew. A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on William Shakespeare's Othello. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Hornback, Robert. "Emblems of folly in the first Othello: renaissance blackface, moor's coat, and 'muckender'. (Shakespeare's play)." Comparative Drama 53.69. (Spring 2001): 69-100.

Moore, Andrew. "Studying Bertolt Brecht" 2001. http://www.shunsley.eril.net/armoore/drama/brecht.htm

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Project Gutenburg, 1998. http://www.gutenberg.net/etext98/2ws3210.txt

Vickers, Brian. Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels. New… [END OF PREVIEW]

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