Friday, October 18, 2013

Shakespeare's "Othello": From Victim to Villain


Source: http://nzr.mvnu.edu/faculty/trearick/english/rearick/readings/works/drama/othello_3_md.gif

William Shakespeare’s Othello is a play concerned with hatred, betrayal and jealousy.  Its main character is presumed hero is a Moorish soldier, Othello, who over the course of the plot demonstrates each of these emotional states.  This is ironic since it is the villain who should have possesses these negative traits, and yet in Othello both the hero and the villain are consumed with jealousy and hatred.  Othello is radically altered from a protagonist to an antagonist in his own story, and his rapid descent into barbaric behavior makes him the culprit of his own downfall.

            In his first appearance Othello shows his integrity as Iago vainly attempts to make him angry by telling him of Roderigo’s hatred for Othello.  Othello doesn’t become even slightly upset at hearing the insults Roderigo has supposedly given him, saying “’Tis better as it is” (I.ii.190), and telling Iago to settle down and “Let him do his spite” (I.ii.17).  Othello has just eloped with his love, Desdemona, and he believes nothing can change his present happiness (I.ii.25).  The next exhibition of Othello’s noble character is at a Venetian Senate meeting to which he has been summoned.  Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, confronts Othello just before he reaches the Senate, repeatedly accusing Othello of putting her under some enchantment (I.ii.63-68; I.iii.103-105).  Despite Brabantio’s hysterical and offensive language, Othello remains reasonable throughout the entire scene, defending himself with quiet assurance.

            Using the Senate as an impartial witness, Othello relates how he fell in love with Desdemona and courted her with tales of his adventures as a soldier (I.iii.121-170).  This articulate account is enough to convince the Senate of Othello’s rightful marriage to Desdemona.  At this point it is clear that Othello passionately loves his wife, and when Desdemona asks permission to join her husband when he is assigned to go to war with the Turks, Othello is happy to bring her along (I.iii.259-273).   This indicates that Othello doesn’t feel threatened by his wife’s strength and independence, possibly because his occupation as a soldier is stable and therefore his identity as a strong, driven individual is safe.

            The plays’ location moves to Cyprus, where all the main characters relocate the fight against the Turks.  Here, away from the civilization of Venice, Othello gives release to his stoically suppressed emotions by gushing passionately when reunited with Desdemona after the voyage, discarding his accustomed calmness (II.i.173-193).  This outburst of sentimentality portends his eventual and complete lack of emotional control.

            Othello is a man of action, a soldier who thrives on adversity and danger.  When there are no trials to be dealt with, and when he is unneeded by society, he has no purpose.  It is only when the war with the Turks is prematurely ended that Othello begins to fall into Iago’s plot.  When his services as a commander are no longer needed, he begins to question his identity.  In order to retain his sense of usefulness, he manufactures troubles by almost willingly allowing Iago to misguide him.

            Iago incriminates Othello’s lieutenant Cassio by getting him into a fight, injuring the governor of Cyprus in the process (II.iii.123-139).  Othello is summoned to the scene of the brawl in the middle of the night, and when he is unable to get anyone to tell him what has happened, he admits: “My blood begins my safer guides to rule” (II.iii.180).  Othello thinks that he must act quickly and decisively on the matter, so instead of patiently discerning the facts, he hastily passes judgment on Cassio, dismissing him from his lieutenancy (II.iii.225).  This fear of losing his calm decisiveness is telling of Othello’s character: truly calm and decisive people don’t talk about their need to be decisive, they act on it.

            The downfall of Othello’s noble characteristics becomes intensified after Iago discredits Cassio.  A hint of Desdemona’s infidelity is enough to entangle Othello in the mire of Iago’s deceptions without even asking Desdemona about the situation.  Othello talks of getting “ocular proof” (III.ii.360) of Desdemona and Cassio’s affair, but he never physically sees Desdemona being unfaithful, nor does he see Cassio with the handkerchief which supposedly would dispel any doubt on the matter.  All the “proofs” Othello beliees are hearsay and rumors spread by Iago, not tangible evidence.

            After Iago begins his manipulation, there are no more indications that Othello trusts Desdemona or respects her individuality; now he begins to see her in a suspicious and even malicious light.  His behavior becomes erratic: his efforts to govern his increasingly violent emotions are in vain.  Finally all attempts to retain common sense are abandoned; Othello is reduced to an animalistic madman.  He no longer has any control over his impulses, and it is clear that although Iago continues his guise of subservience, he is now in control of his master’s actions.

            Although it’s true that Iago planned Othello’s downfall from the beginning, Othello himself is at least partially to blame for his fate.  At any point in time he could have changed the course of events, from the moment Iago was trying to aggravate his anger to just before he suffocated Desdemona.  Even before Iago put his plan into action, Othello could have been wiser by asking Brabantio for permission instead of beginning their life together in a clandestine act of defiance against him.

            The final triumph of Iago, the moment when Othello kills his wife (V.ii.1-88, 121) is also the point at which the disintegration of Othello’s character is complete.  His sophisticated style of speech has been perverted into bestial references to goats, monkeys, wolves (III.iii.403-4) and aspics (III.iii.449).  His dignified monologues become lunatic tirades, using grotesque and unimaginative language like “O! blood! blood! blood!” (III.iii.450).  His composed behavior is degraded so much that he becomes prone to fits and convulsions (IV.i.37-43).  Othello’s love for Desdemona is turned into hatred, his confidence in her intelligence into suspicion of her cunning and deceit, and the only sympathy he holds for his is because of the mere memory of what he once felt for her.

            By the play’s end, Othello has become a different person, more like Iago, and hardly a vestige of his former nobility remains in him.  He possesses no respect for human life; not Cassio’s or Desdemona’s or even his own.  Othello is a victim of Iago’s manipulations, but he is also the villain of his own story.  He facilitates rather than thwarts Iago’s attempts at controlling him, he refuses to bring the entire situation to justice by confronting Desdemona or Cassio about his suspicions, and in the end he destroys his true love and his own life.  It is important to understand this drastic transformation of Othello’s character because everything that happens in the play results from his descent from noble Moor to savage murderer.

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