Distrust, deceit, and death define the tragedy of William Shakespeare’s Othello. The love between Othello and Desdemona is destroyed by the betrayal and hatred of Iago for the Moorish soldier’s fortune and position. Throughout Iago’s deceptive maneuverings emerges a motivation that is based in a skewed and obsessive perception of his own place in the world. This perception is based in large part on his views of racial and moral superiority to to Othello, despite being the black soldier’s servant. This racist hatred, like all forms of hate, acts as a poison that affects and destroys each person it touches.
Othello and Desdemona suffer the most directly, being both the targets and the objects of Iago’s deviance, but theirs are not the only lives destroyed. Perhaps most important in showing the tragic consequences of Iago’s actions is the reality of the brief happiness of the ill-fated couple that is quickly and easily destroyed under the deceitful watch of Iago. Hate is a connecting thread to each developing tragedy; Iago’s hatred of Othello and feelings of superiority begin a cycle of destruction that should have in all rights been a joyous beginning.
Before the marriage between Desdemona and Othello is realized, Iago is already attempting to destroy the black soldier’s reputation and future. Iago adamantly declares his abject hatred of Othello at several points throughout the first act. “I hate the Moor” (I. iii. ll. 387) he tells Roderigo, repeating the same words not twenty lines further into the scene. It is his basis for reasoning from the beginning, when attempting to set Desdemona’s father against a marriage between the young lover’s he paints the first, tentative black marks upon both Desdemona and Othello’s relationship.
I think that in including Desdemona in the carnage, in fact later targeting her directly, Shakespeare is showing the complete destructive nature of hate and how it affects the ethics of the individual. Though it is not on the vocabulary list, the word “whore” is frequently used throughout the play as a way to cast a shadow over Desdemona in the eyes of her father and husband. However, Iago’s early attempts fail in bringing about a real change but nevertheless does plant a seed for Othello’s late jealousy.
Despite targeting Desdemona and Cassio as well, Iago’s main target remains Othello. His hatred of the Othello runs deep; he is resentful of the master/slave relationship he perceives himself to be a part of, though Othello appears to view him more as a confidant than slave and is also, more importantly, resentful of what he views as a racial injustice. Iago sees himself as Othello’s racial better and therefore sees the Moor’s triumphs as an affront to both Iago’s pride and his manhood.
In the downfall of Othello, Iago sees his own advancement and a recognition of his depraved views of justice that are based, as noted above, in hatred rather than any moral or ethical superiority. In Othello he creates a “villain” and is able to effectively hide his own sins from view for much of the play. In the first couple acts, it is Othello who is described as the villain, as Iago seeks to plant the seeds of distrust in the Moor’s character. Though the first use of the word is in Brabantio addressing Iago (I.
i. ll. 131), there is not the same connotation of evil as later associated with Othello. By the end of the play, Othello has come to fit the mold created by Iago’s subtle inferences and direct actions against the Moor’s social and moral standing among friends and his wife. He has become a vengeful “devil” (V. ii. ll. 160, 259, 350) and turned against the very people for whom he’d once felt love and loyalty. The roots of the destruction wrought by Iago are able to flourish due to Othello’s difference.
The awareness of Othello’s racial difference from Iago, Desdemona and his contemporaries is never far from the center of the play, making the predominance of it in Iago’s hatred more palpable. Also not noted on the vocabulary log is the word Moor, which is repeated too often throughout the play to be listed. Othello is defined by even his most heartfelt and devoted followers because of his race and difference. For some, it is neither here nor there and is viewed as a benefit. For others, such as Iago and, after the death of Desdemona, the Duke and Emilia, his race becomes representative of a baser nature.
“Blood” is recurrent throughout the play not only as connected with the physical destruction of the characters but also as a concept of breeding. Desdemona is the daughter of a senator and is native born to her country, Othello is a foreigner, a soldier, and racially different from her. While this causes little consternation to Desdemona, it is no small matter in the overall idea of social status and helps to further Iago’s jealousy of Othello. He cannot comprehend what Othello should be allowed to marry Desdemona, when he Iago who is though a servant, more closely linked to her culturally.
As Othello is a soldier, it makes sense that war should be a recurrent theme throughout the play. Direct mention of it is consigned mainly to the first three acts of the play, however, as a concept it presents much more than the actual physical actions of war but can also be seen as a tone for the play. Each of the main characters fights their own personal war; Iago in league with his hatred against Othello, Desdemona against the designs of Iago and the reality of her husband’s jealousy, and Othello fights a battle within himself against the evils of Iago and his own inner turmoil.
Othello’s jealousy, like Iago’s hatred, is infectious and ultimately the destroyer of both himself and his young wife. The seasoned and celebrated soldier can overcome armies of Turkish soldiers but he cannot overcome the subtle weapons of Iago. In his jealousy, Othello becomes confused and loses the focus that had allowed him to advance in the mechanics of military war. He sees an enemy in his wife and faithful friend Cassio but fails to see the dangers of Iago, who keeps himself close to his enemy in an act of subterfuge.
Part of this war that Othello wages against his own happiness and sanity is the slow realization of the possibility of murder. Here is where even Othello comes to see the difference between the enemy armies and the enemy who he believes lies beside him each night. The thought of Desdemona’s betrayal of him drives Othello to the brink of madness and in killing Desdemona, he appears to be handing Iago the victory he had sought against his master. It’s interesting that Othello does not at first call his intention to harm Desdemona murder.
Led to believe in her immorality and deception, Othello sees his revenge as a matter of justice. Using colorful language to describe the violence that peppers his thoughts, such as telling Iago that he would “chop her into pieces” (IV. i. ll. 215), Othello does not at first realize his own immorality not simply in waging war against the innocent Desdemona but in killing itself. For him, as a soldier, killing is merely part of the world as he knows it. When he cuts down an enemy on the battlefield, he is not murdering that other soldier but instead going through the motions of war.
He is fighting for a “just” cause and in his belief that it is just he is able to remain morally unscathed. However, in the fifth act, as first Desdemona is killed and then Iago’s deception and evil is revealed by Emilia, the deaths that have already begun to occur, move from being the collateral damages of war to murder. Emilia is particularly instrumental in this, calling Othello loudly a “murderer” for having so cruelly and unjustly disposed of her mistress. There is no justice in Desdemona’s death except to Iago’s own perverse conception of reality.
Even this victory is short-lived, as Emilia reveals at her own peril the truth of his hatred and betrayal of Othello. He is revealed to be the true devil of the play, masterminding the fall of his fellow men and women. There is no happy ending to the story of Othello. The murder of his wife, destruction of his reputation and character, and the carnage of Iago’s positioning of players in the drama of his brief marriage, leave despair and distrust in its wake. In this way, Iago’s feelings come full circle.
His racism and feelings of inferiority are a lethal mixture that creates not only the murder of Desdemona, the suicide of Othello, but also general feelings of distrust. He’s created a new conception of not merely the Moor himself but of society by showing the cracks inherent to even the strongest. Tapping into the weakness of Othello’s love for Desdemona, Iago lets loose a domino effect that is single-minded in its destruction. Not only is he able to destroy Othello’s once noble character but he is able to undermine the very basics of man’s relationship to himself and to the world around him.