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Shakespeare's Characters: Othello

A preliminary assumption may be that, because Othello kills his beloved wife after the devious machinations of Iago, then perhaps Othello is as much a victim of Iago's evil as Desdemona is of Othello's wrath. Some may argue that the sin of Iago - to plot the downfall of the Moor - is worse because it blossoms in a diabolical, calculating mind, as opposed to the sin of Othello which is committed because he has become a mere pawn in Iago's hands, blinded by hurt, ruined by his own naivete. However, it can be shown that Othello allows himself to be manipulated. Iago's suggestion of the infidelity of Desdemona provides just the excuse Othello needs to justify the destruction of the wife he believes cannot truly love him. The argument can be made that Desdemona's murder is a result of Othello's pride and rush to judgment and, as a result, he must be held accountable.

Othello, unlike Iago, is capable of forming strong, loving relationships; his genuine friendship with Iago confirms this fact. Othello allows himself to be influenced by Iago, and allows Iago to bring out his most evil characteristics. Although Iago may be the more innately evil of the two, Othello does little to prevent his base instincts from becoming dominant. To see why Othello commits his crime and why he has to be held accountable for it, we must examine his motive. It can be claimed that what actually causes Othello to commit murder is not his being mentally weakened and manipulated by Iago, but rather his own pride and lack of confidence which he allows to gain control. Othello is a strong leader, self-assured in his ability to handle military matters, but he is insecure with his personal qualities. He is in a new city with different customs. He has a new bride - a young and beautiful girl - whom he loves but does not know well. He is unsure why Desdemona would choose him for her husband, and can only fathom one explanation, "She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd." (1.3.167)

The Moor surely is aware of the widespread prejudice in Venice and certainly must question why Desdemona would defy her culture and fellow white Venetians by marrying a black man. Othello has his doubts about Desdemona before Iago begins his scheming. Even though his wife shows nothing but love for him, Othello cannot believe in her love wholeheartedly. His answer to his doubts is, initially, to put Desdemona on a pedestal, making her an "emblem of purity and trustworthiness" (Kenneth Muir, Aspects of Othello, 17).

'Tis not to make me jealous
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well.
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous.
Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt,
For she had eyes, and chose me.(3.3.208-14)
Othello is going reach the precarious conclusion that Desdemona's compassion and virtue alone enable her to love the unlovable. When Iago does shatter the Moor's idealistic image of Desdemona, he is simply reinforcing what Othello believes deep down to be totally possible: that Desdemona could love another man. Iago cleverly argues that Desdemona is quite capable of betrayal because she has already betrayed her own race and breeding to marry a Moor:
Ay, there's the point! as (to be bold with you)
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends ...
Her will, recoiling to her better judgement,
May fall to match you with her country forms,
And happily repent. (3.3.228-34)
With Iago's validation of his suspicions, the Moor's barbaric nature can surface. His warrior instincts can take over, which is exactly what Othello wanted all along. He is comfortable only in the role of the aggressor. Why does Othello not make a better effort to combat Iago's accusations? It is true that he asks for some material proof of his wife's treachery, but he does not at all question the evidence when it is laid before him. As far as Othello is concerned a trusted friend and soldier has confirmed what he himself suspected all along and that is proof enough -- reason enough to condemn her to death.

The most damaging evidence that Othello is fully reasonable, and rendering this twisted justice out of pride and bitterness, comes In Act 4. Othello has had an epileptic seizure and is clearly shaken, yet it is obvious that he is still in full possession of his mental faculties. His low self-esteem led him to believe in Desdemona's betrayal, but his fierce warrior conceit will force him to make sure she pays dearly for her transgression. Like Iago, plotting his course of destructive action, Othello too plots the death of Desdemona with calculating reason:

Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be calm to-night; for
she shall not live. No, my heart is turn'd to stone. (4.1.178-9)
Othello is now concerned only with rendering justice:
Iago: Do it not with poison. Strangle her in bed, even the
bed she hath contaminated. (4.1.202)
Othello: Good, good! The justice of it pleases. Very
good! (4.1.204)
Othello claims that he is not seeking revenge. However, by refusing Desdemona the chance to defend herself, it is not clear how his form of justice differs from pure vengeance. The Moor is going to make sure the adulteress pays for her crime and her deception. After all, she made him look like a fool: "Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men" (5.2.6). Othello is going to save others from falling into her diabolical trap; he is acting as judge and executioner without permitting Desdemona an attempt to prove her innocence.

One must ask if these are the actions of a mentally weak man, a mere puppet in the hands of lago? Othello cannot trust his wife on earth because he is incapable of understanding why she loves him and, therefore, cannot believe her love is genuine. After she is dead, he will be free to love his idealistic image of Desdemona without worry:

Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after ... (5.2.18-9)
Othello kills Desdemona under the guise of righteous indignation and will not admit his true motive. When Othello finds out Desdemona truly is the pure and innocent emblem he created in his mind, he is obligated to commit suicide. The Moor must again render justice, this time upon himself. Othello's remorse and subsequent suicide is the only reason why we should not place him on the same villainous level as Iago. But, at the same time, his feelings of guilt after-the-fact cannot be allowed to exonerate him. Othello has an obligation to allow Desdemona to contend the charge of adultery. He chooses to disregard that obligation in favour of satisfying his own fixations. It would be easier for us to defend Othello and cast all the blame on Iago. Iago is an aberration, but Othello is 'Everyman', fighting an internal battle between good and evil. It would feel better to see Othello as a mental weakling, driven insane by his pain and confusion. We could then say with certainty that he did not choose evil over good. But we cannot exonerate him. Othello's sin against Desdemona is as heinous as Iago's sin against Othello. Othello proves it with his own words:
Desdemona: Kill me to-morrow; let me live to-night!
Othello: Nay, an you strive-
Desdeemona: But half an hour!
Othello: Being done, there is no pause.
Desdemona: But while I say one prayer!
Othello: It is too late. (5.2.80-5)
Please note that this is only one interpretation of the character of Othello. Many believe Othello to be wholly innocent and heroic in the face of Iago's evil. For a more forgiving view of the Moor, please see A. C. Bradley's Lecture on Othello.

Back to Othello Resources

How to cite this article:

Mabillard, Amanda. Othello Character Introduction Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

Adamson, Jane. Othello as Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.
Bloom, Harold. William Shakespeare's Othello. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Rolfe, William J. A Life of William Shakespeare. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1948.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Tucker Brooke. New Haven: Yale UP, 1947.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. George Kittredge. Toronto: Blaisdell Publishing, 1966.
Turnbull, William. Othello: A Critical Study. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1892.
Zimbardo, Philip. Psychology and Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.


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 Lectures on Othello: Play Construction and the Suffering and Murder of Desdemona
 Lectures on Othello: Othello's Jealousy
 Stage History of Othello
 Othello: Plot Summary
 Othello: Q & A
 Quotes from Othello

 How to Pronounce the Names in Othello
 Cassio Character Introduction
 Iago Character Introduction
 Desdemona Character Introduction

 Othello: Essay Topics
 Shakespeare's Sources for Othello
 The Problem of Time in Othello