Is Othello a Tragedy of Male Egotism and Female Passivity?

Categories: Tragedy

'Othello' is a personal tragedy, which is explored by Shakespeare's character Othello. Tragedy is an event in life or literature that evokes feelings or sorrow or grief, in a play often involving a heroic struggle and the downfall of a main character. The traditional view of men is, the breadwinner and head of the family, responsible for discipline, and who has strength and courage. The traditional view of women is of them being, passive, emotional, sensitive and inferior to men. Egotistic describes someone who is self centred, self-centred, insensitive and inconsiderate.

I believe that the arrogance of men contributed to the tragedy but passiveness of women I agree only to a certain extent. I would agree with the title that the male characters egotistic attitudes do play a large part in the tragic result of the play, I will explain this further by looking at the actions of the male characters throughout the play. Othello, is the tragic hero of the play.

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He has two contradictory roles, he is a military man and a lover/husband. Before he is on stage is described as "bombastic", proud and someone speaks excessively.

Act 1 Scene 2, immediately tells us this was wrong, Othello appears as an impressive figure who displays good qualities, openness, natural authority, cool-headedness and truthfulness. Othello at the beginning of the play is self-confident but modest, fair and generous, calm, controlled "Put them into circumscription and confine for all the seas worth", a hero and deeply in love with Desdemona "My life on her faith! ".

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Othello's character changes greatly through the play, as jealously takes hold of him, he becomes less honest, this is also a great deal to do with Iago's influence over him.

Although, his traits as having a "free and open nature" make him easily vulnerable to Iago, his trust and honesty are exploited to Iago's advantage and do contribute to his downfall, but I do think he was a man of action, a solider who was comfortable with that life, conflict and demands of action, he was inexperienced in love and relationships with people. Othello is very proud of his profession, his reputation is an essential part of his character and his concept of himself. It could be argued that his profession plays a part in him seeking revenge to recover his reputation.

His pride will not let him become the husband of an unfaithful wife "I had rather be a toad and live on the vapour of dungeon than keep a corner the thing I love" . In Act 3 scene 3 Othello is overwhelmed with his love for Desdemona, and is not in control of these romantic feeling's that take over him when he is with her, "I will deny thee nothing". This is another points that lead's the play to its tragic end. The transformation of Othello from beginning to end is extensive, but why did Othello trust Iago over his wife, who he was madly in love with?

I think this is because he had no reason not too, several different people refer to Iago as "honest" several times. Iago is very clever, and Othello has no past experience to doubt his deceiving him, he is able to make his accusations plausible by the way all the other characters perceive him as honest, making him very convincing. This also applies to Cassio. It is possible his need for revenge on Cassio and Desdemona is because he has tried, but failed, in combining both roles of solider and lover.

He treated Desdemona as a prize he earned for his victory's in the military, some people believe she replaced his career as his source of pride, so no wonder he feels her loss so intensely. He is consumed by jealously and loses himself too it. At the end of the play he does regain some self-respect. In his final speech he shows a clear understanding of what he has done and gives his life up as a sacrifice for his actions, and by doing this he shows he has regained some self-recognition again, "one that loved not wisely, but too well".

These points show both sides of Othello, he does have an egoistical side to him but also a vulnerable side easily used and manipulated. Egotism did become a part of his character that lead to the tragic result. Iago, is a very important and complex character in Othello. Iago's motives are seen very clearly and early on in the play. The reader's first impression of him is not a good one. From his first speech we can see deep hatred and anger, particularly in reference to Othello and Cassio. He is intensely jealous of Cassio "preferment goes by letter and affection".

In the first scene we also see Iago's questionable morals "I profess myself", he is focused on furthering his career. He dismisses honest people "Whip me such honest knaves" and accuses them of being "obsequious". He applauds dishonest ways believing "These fellows have some soul" and calls himself one, and again his egotistical attitude is exposed. Iago is working for his own interests, while pretending to be loyal to Othello. Revenge is also a motive for Iago against Othello, he believes he had slept with his wife Emillia.

He says, "I am not what I am", revealing to us he is selfish and self-centred and most importantly not trustworthy. Iago is quick witted, resourceful and intelligent, he had many motives and created a plan of revenge, He is also definite and main example of an egotistic male in the play. His exchanges with Roderigo show this, and reveal the villain in him. Because he is able to play a number of roles convincingly and sees a person's weakness he becomes a type of puppet master, able to control all the people around him, selfishly getting the results to benefit him.

Both Cassio and Othello become victims of his cynical and misogynist views. Iago is powered by intense jealously of the people around him; this combined with his egocentric character play a large part in the end result of the play. Michael Cassio does show the egotistical side of himself, but not entirely like Iago. He comes across as innocent to begin with he has, 'smooth charm' and 'courtly manner' which are shown when he speaks with Desdemona and he seems to be the perfect gentleman, he describes her as "exquisite" and "perfection". Cassio is described as a "proper man", and comes across as a good character when compared with Iago.

In Act 2 Scene 3 Cassio says he is not a drinker and cannot hold his drink "I have a poor and unhappy brains for drinking", this he is open, honest and again perhaps innocent. Later in the play we are introduced to Bianca (act 3 scene 4), she is a courtesan, Cassio's mistress. She highlights the sexual tension in the play from a woman's point of view but more importantly show the double standards Cassio has of women and gives us an alterative view of Cassio. Women for him are either to be put on a pedestal (Desdemona "ladyship") or treated with no respect, as a low character (Bianca "see me womaned").

Like Desdemona Bianca is used and abused by the male characters. In Act 3 scene 3, it gives an example of Cassio's other, not so charming side, he is speaking to Bianca and bluntly tells her to leave before Othello returns, 'nor my wish to have him see me womaned. This continues in Act 4, when Cassio mocks Bianca and the idea that he would or could ever marry her "I marry her? What! A customer! ". His treatment of Bianca is cruel and more what we expect of Iago not Cassio. Emilia, wife of Iago and maid of Desdemona. Unlike Desdemona Emilia does not act in the way women of the time were expected or perceived to.

She spoke her mind and had formed her own opinions on subjects, "It is a great price for a small vice". She is sometimes perceived as cynical, but I would disagree with this, she just tells it how it is. Emilia's role is crucial in convincing Desdemona to help Cassio, her perception in sensing Othello jealously in act 3, scene 4 was also important, "Is that man not jealous". Her one crucial part of the play is when everything lies in her hands, and the outcome of her next move could change the whole course of the play. She has Desdemona's handkerchief, what she does with it is vital.

She is unaware that she is in complete control, she could completely destroy Iago's clever plan or ultimately help him to kill her. Her intentions are ambiguous, she knows the sentimental value it has for Desdemona but chose to give it to her husband who has 'hath a hundred times' asked her to steal it. She ultimately wants to please Iago and wants to gain his favour. Some people argue this show's Emilia has a subservient fear of Iago, I would disagree with this because as the quote says he had asked her several times before to steal the handkerchief, she choose to take it this time to please her husband.

Emilia's actions in Act 4, scene 2 when she show fierce loyalty to Desdemona "Would it not make on weep? " and the way she stands up for Othello in Act 5, scene 2 " I will not charm my tongue I am bound to speak", showing that she is not a passive character in this play she is very much part of it and is able to greatly influence the final tragic outcome, and is ultimately the one who uncovers her husbands villainous plotting.

Emilia is not as innocent or naive as Desdemona, this comes across in the conversation between Desdemona and her in Act 4 scene 3, she understands men will not always be faithful and maybe women should 'play them at there own game', she believes women the same as men want an are no less intelligent or less able to get it. Desdemona cannot contemplate being unfaithful to her husband and asks Emilia "that there would be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind", she goes on to ask Emilia "Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world", Emilia jokes "Not by this heavenly light.

I might do't as well I'th'dark". From this scene we can see how the contrast of the characters of Desdemona and Emilia. The former refuses to accept Emilia's argument and says she would suffer for love rather than show poor behaviour; unfortunately she did suffer and died for the cause, defending her marriage with her dying breath. Emilia speaks and makes a plea for equality 'the ills we do, they instruct us so', we have the same emotions and will act on them just as men do. Desdemona has an idealist view of marriage, this leads us to thinking she is passive, because she acts as expected for women of this time. Read Iago's Motives essay

But I cannot totally agree with this. At the start of the play she defied her father and marries Othello in secret, she makes a public declaration of love to Othello (Act 1 scene 3) "And to his honour and his valiant parts did my soul and fortunes consecrate", and her intelligence and wit is shown through her conversation with Iago (Act 2 scene 1) she does not back down to his comments, instead of reacting to them in an aggressive way she uses clever comments, attempting to defend women "These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh I'thalehouse".

She does not get angry or aggressive allowing her to continue the conversation and she is able to get her point across. Her complete love and devotion shown throughout the play to Othello "my noble lord" and the way she maintains her innocence throughout the play "No but my life and soul! ", show she is not passive but does maintain her ideas and won't be completely submissive to men she is in fact a credible character.

In conclusion, I have shown the contribution each character brought to the play, the male character's egotistic attitudes of their time. These attitudes towards women contributed to the tragedy. The women in the play however were not totally confined by the attitudes of their time. The expected role of passivity was fought against by each of them in a different way with different outcomes. Therefore, I believe, the arrogance of the male characters did contribute to the tragedy but passiveness of women I agree only to a certain extent.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Is Othello a Tragedy of Male Egotism and Female Passivity?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Is Othello a Tragedy of Male Egotism and Female Passivity? essay
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