Q: In a tragedy, conflict and suffering draw out the true nature of the chief characters inch by inch (John Russell Brown) –What do we learn in this way about the ‘true nature’ of Othello? Illustrate your points with evidence from the play. Humans are like wet sponges- it takes a squeeze to reveal what is truly inside us. The opening of ‘Othello’, paints the Moor as a dignified and controlled man, full of deeply rooted morals and religious beliefs.
But through Iago’s lies and deceit, his squeeze of the sponge, Othello is led to believe there is a great conflict in his life, that of Desdemona being unfaithful to him. This knowledge, which Othello is rather too quick to believe, breaks down his self control and pulls out of him a wildly jealous man, ruled only by his emotions, too impassioned to hear Desdemona’s confusion and the truth of her love, or see through Iago’s deception.
However, after he slaughters his wife in tepid blood ( I say tepid blood, for he is not blinded by bloodlust or rage when he commits his crime, but it is a crime of passion, performed for the sake of righteousness, not cold cruelty), and realises the truth of what he has done, his reactions show him still to be a man ruled by emotion, but now the emotions of regret, disbelief and horror are what drive him, and we see a return of his morals and religion when he sacrifices himself, in atonement and punishment, fully believing that he will be sent to Hell for his crime, ‘O cursed, cursed slave!
Whip me ye devils, from the possession of this heavenly sight! Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulphur! Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! O Desdemon! ’ The tragedy of ‘Othello’ (the play), gradually reveals Othello’s true nature as the story unwinds and he is faced with great conflict and suffering. His true nature is that of one who trusts too easily, is ruled entirely by emotion and righteousness, not reason and control.
However, this is not to say his true nature is “bad”, as many may argue that a man who trusts his own instinct and emotion is preferable to one who judges only by the facts, and his nature is also shown to be noble and brave in the face of his suffering upon realisation that he has murdered his loving and innocent wife. Anyone may act well and kindly when life is swimming along smoothly and beautifully. But when the going gets tough, humans begin to lose their humanity, and become not noble savages, but true savages, animal- like and quite mad – ‘and certainly in strange unquietness’.
One may argue that if indeed they are ‘quite mad’, then they are out of their wits, and are not themselves -‘my lord is not my lord’, and so this madness is not a revelation of the true nature. One may also argue that perhaps all humans have a touch of madness within them, and madness is the true nature of all humans, and as true nature is revealed by conflict and suffering, when things are not swimming along, we are all quite insane. Othello does show a touch of madness in act five, scene two, upon the realisation that Desdemona died for no crime but loving him.
The very fact that he speaks of himself in third person ‘Where should Othello go? ’ argues that he is not himself. And thus, Othello’s true nature is not one of madness, his display of madness is justified, and if it does in any way reflect his true nature, it is only in the broader way of revealing that all people have a touch of psychosis buried within them. Othello is a respected man. Dignified, confident and in full control of himself, he enjoys the rank of General to the Venetian army and the love of, and for, ‘the gentle Desdemona’.
He is urged to hide from her rampaging father, and instead he stands tall, comfortable in his own righteousness, ‘My parts, my title, and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly’. Righteousness is a quality that he displays consistently throughout the play whenever he is being ‘squeezed’, whether it be the light pressure of Brabantio’s displeasure, or the crushing knowledge that his wife is adulterous. In the first instance he righteously believes he is deserving of Desdemona’s hand, and in the second that he is right in taking her life.
Othello is much like Hamlet in that he truly believes he is justified in his actions, and that he is delivering a death stroke that will settle the score. However, Othello has been deceived. If Desdemona were, in fact, adulterous, Othello would indeed be justified, – ‘yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men’- and thus we reach the tragedy, the suffering of Othello. When Othello strikes Desdemona in act four, scene one, we are forced to question his respect for Desdemona. To strike a woman, especially n company, shows such a lack of basic respect that the woman is reduced almost to the status of animal, and reducing her so forces us to also question his love for her.
When Iago first hints at Desdemona’s infidelity, Othello almost immediately believes him, over his own wife who has never given him any reason to doubt her love or honesty, in fact quite the opposite, for she married against her father’s wishes and journeyed to Cyprus so as not to be separated from him, whom she loves so dearly.
And so this conflict proves Othello to be quickly and easily deceived, and far too trusting- of Iago, not Desdemona. So it seems he is not simply ‘too trusting’, but too quick to believe bad news, revealing that he is not trusting enough of the human race, and only trusting in their abilities to cheat and lie. He does not suspect Iago of this, for what would Iago’s motive be for such a thing, and Othello believes him to be honest Iago- ‘And for I know thou’rt full of love and honesty’.
Othello is undoubtedly one of the greatest literary lovers of all time, and his tragedy is what makes him so. His suffering draws out the nobility within his true self. Until the revelation of Desdemona’s true nature, (being her all-triumphing love of Othello, that would never allow her to cheat or lie to him), the picture we see of Othello’s truest nature is not a pretty one. We see that he is easily deceived, and that he acts upon the emotions drawn out of him by deception, becoming consumed by anger and jealousy so that reason will not be listened to any more than honest Desdemona.
Yet when his mistake is realised, he tries to explain, ‘For naught I did in hate, but all in honour’, and then is consumed by his grief, his remorse, wishing death upon himself to relieve his pain ‘For in my sense ‘tis happiness to die. ’, and perhaps flay away his guilt, for he wishes to go to Hell, where he deserves to be, and to be punished- ‘hurl my soul from heaven and fiends will snatch at it’.
This noble acceptance of his own evil, whether intentional or not, and brave destruction of himself to atone and because he cannot bear his own pain, shows that suffering has revealed Othello’s true nobility. Perhaps the knowledge we can gain from Othello’s story is that people may be played like instruments by one who knows how to use their ‘true nature’, for even a true nature of kindness could be abused by the Iago’s of the world, in the way Othello’s passion is played upon like a drum.
Or perhaps the lesson is that conflict can reveal both the best and worst in a person, even simultaneously. Othello’s true nature is not inherently bad; he is simply placed within situations that show that nature in its most horrific light, the worst case scenario of what could befall one who is too ready to believe a lie, and to act upon his raw emotions. But then, is that not the ‘human wet sponge’ again? Too eager to blame the squeeze, not the water already within the sponge? For if the sponge were dry, the squeeze would not change the nature of the sponge.