Essay: Shakespeare's Play Othello

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Othello

The Tragedy of Othello

"James Joyce, in a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… defines the material of tragedy as 'whatever is grave and constant in human sufferings'," (Campbell, 1991, p. 50). It is the humanity of tragedy which luridly draws the eye -- a grotesque attraction of intermingled pity, terror, and relief. The early tragedies of literature centered on the fall of power figures -- the reduction of the gods and god-like to the level of common humanity and below -- precisely because the fall of the great magnified the grotesque attraction; made the reader imagine that, if the great could fall, he, the reader, was as susceptible. But essential to true human tragedy is a self-fulfilling aspect, that the fall is unavoidable because of the nature, psychology, and character of the fallen; it is this aspect which reminds the reader of the fallen's essential humanity. Such is the case of Othello who, ruled by an un-reasoned passion, creates both the circumstances which ignite Iago's hatred as well as the fertile psychological conditions which press Iago's deception to an inevitable end. Iago's work is target-specific, tailored to inflame the emotions of a man he knows too well will be ruled by those emotions, and without that particular man the same particular deception would be ineffective. So it is logical that Othello plays a role in the deception, which is a sort of conversation between two particular humors, both intrinsically necessary to the execution of the whole.

Of course, to understand Othello's role in his own deception it is necessary to understand the character of Othello as a whole. From the play's outset Othello is defined as only semi-civilized: a wild beast tamed for the notables of the Venetian court to employ in their amusements and wars.

In the very title, Othello, the Moor of Venice, we have the dramatist's comment that the play is to be the story of a certain Moor, Othello, who had abandoned his native land and had taken up his residence and life in the Italian city of Venice. In doing this Othello had left his native Africa, or Spain, and undertook to live his life in Venice. The Moors of both Africa and Spain were looked upon by Englishmen and other Europeans as barbaric or semi-barbaric, while the Venetians were looked upon as the most civilized and cultured people of Europe, (Crawford, 1916).

Othello is not a true Venetian though clearly he has endeavored to become one; he has taken the religion, culture, and wars of the Venetians for his own and marries a Venetian noblewoman. Yet all these outward, cultural aspects of Othello's re-patriation might be taken as merely thin veneers for an essentially barbaric nature; certainly by the play's end it is seen that the niceties of society have melted off of Othello's frame and, becoming himself judge, jury, and executioner, he follows his own passion across the desert of his disgrace towards an oasis of revenge and honor.

The two offences with which lago charges Othello are both matters of honor, and mark phases of Othello's inability to sustain the new and exalted life of his adopted country. He was quite equal to the task of maintaining his military, or semi-barbaric, relations to the state, and rose to the highest command in Venice. But in matters of personal honor he is not above reproach, and in his obtuseness offends lago in two ways, (Crawford, 1916).

Passion, it seems, is both the power and the weakness of the barbarian, a quality which no matter how many whitewashings, Othello is unable to leave behind. He is not a Venetian, he is a barbarian with Venetian clothing and for all his assimilation it is but the work of Iago's wit to unveil that barbarism for which society -- especially society as refined as that of the Venetians -- has no place.

It is submitted also then that, at least in part, Othello is beset by the anxiety of his otherness, that his cuckolding is not just a blow to his honor, but to his faith in himself as specifically incarnated by his ability to assimilate and join the Venetian society despite being other than it. "If she be false, O then Heaven mocks itself," cries the Moor, indicating that the loss he experiences is not merely of honor, or of a wife, but in fact spiritual, related directly to the heaven of the Venetians and his own personal faith in it. He has not only failed in marriage, but failed to become a part of the Venetian civilization.

An important facet of Othello's character is that, though a barbarian, he is at heart and nature essentially a soldier. First, his loyalties are grave and enduring as a man who has tested those loyalties in the crucible of war, who has stood alongside Iago as the arrows and the swords fell around them. It never occurs to Othello to question Iago's motivation or his truthfulness because Iago has stood beside him in war and been trusted with his general's life. Othello's worldview is essentially black-and-white; if he trusts a man he does so unreservedly, and if he does not trust a man he does so violently. Second, he has a soldier's passion for action, though he lacks the specific cunning of political motivation. Othello's modus opperandi is to approach any problem by the force of his command and to understand it in the light of a soldier's honor. He wrestles not with the reasons for a war -- reason is a secondary faculty to the soldier given his orders -- but only executes that war according to his strengths as a solider, as he has learned to do in his long life of adventuring. Third, and perhaps only tangential, Othello has a soldier's sense of poetry and, according to Bradley, may be considered "by far the most romantic figure among Shakespeare's heroes," (Bradley, 1919). Certainly Othello's "chaste stars" and his "sword of Spain, the ice-brook's temper" are the romantic indulgences of a man who has seen a full life of war and death. Most famously, he quells the argument between Brabantio's men and his own at the story's outset by the sheer force of his poetry: "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them." So Othello, like a soldier, is simple, direct, and of unwavering loyalty, if given to romanticism and passion. Bradley writes,

His [Othello's] tragedy lies in this -- that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to deception, and, if once wrought to passion, likely to act with little reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable, (Bradley, 1919).

Crawford points out that to understand the tragedy of Othello it is important to begin with Iago's motivation, for his hatred seems both unreasonable and sudden.

…this is a conflict between two men who had up to this time been the nearest and warmest friends, one a great general and the other his most trusted officer. There is plenty of evidence throughout the play that up to this time there had been the fullest confidence between the two, and both alike were looked upon as men of excellent ability and sterling character, (Bradley, 1919).

Iago himself presents two particular concerns in which he feels Othello has slighted him. First, in preferring Cassio to himself, Iago, for promotion and, second, Iago makes a largely unsubstantiated claim that Othello has taken his, Iago's, wife to bed and cuckolded Iago. This latter claim is almost ridiculous considering how little attention is ever paid to it in the play. It may be taken, perhaps, as a manifestation of Iago's embittered psyche which throws whatever importunities it can onto the object of its hatred in an effort to legitimize that hatred. Yet the first claim must be taken more seriously, for it is indeed true that Cassio is promoted above Iago despite that Iago is an experienced soldier, long stood by Othello's side, and Cassio is

A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife;

That never set a squadron in the field,

Nor the division of a battle knows

More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,

Wherein the togged consuls can propose

As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practice,

Is all his soldiership

And it is just as the play sets out that Iago has learned perhaps why Cassio was preferred to him, for Cassio was instrumental in Othello's wooing of Desdemona whom he has newly wived.

…at this point [Othello] fails. For once, and for the first time, he allows purely personal considerations to sway him from following the established order of preferment in the army, and does a great injustice to lago. With no reason that he dare give, he appoints a wholly inexperienced man in preference to a tried and proven soldier who had fought under his own eyes, (Crawford, 1916).

So, by allowing "personal… [END OF PREVIEW]

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