The Shakespearian tragedy ‘Othello’ is a story of immensely contrasting opinions where jealously rules rife over the flawed, but heroic leading character. With racism even alive today, the fact that this character was of dark skin raised even more controversy around the Shakespearian era.
The audience that would have first viewed this play would have had preconceptions about the personality and the role that Othello would ensue. Due to the stereotypical and racist viewpoints that people held at this time, black was in any case a colour associated with evil or deformity, therefore the character of the black Othello was expected to be violent, jealous, treacherous and most likely associated with witchcraft.
Shockingly, especially for the people of the Shakespearian era, Othello does not relate to this stereotype and is in fact quite the opposite at the start of the play- the calm and strongly composed character. Some of these stereotypical ‘black’ traits however are indeed seen in the play, but controversially from another character, the white Iago, who incidentally plays the role of the evil manipulator.
Othello’s character is portrayed to the reader in his composed first words- ‘Tis better as it is’. The line being only a half-line proves his characters’ firm but comfortable personality, needing only to say the controlled necessary in each situation. As his personality seems to be so strong and wise, it is unusual that Iago deems Othello as an easy target to manipulate- ‘will tenderly be lead by the nose as asses are’.
Iago’s obvious hatred for Othello is overly emphasised throughout the play by his disregard and lack of respect towards the character. He constantly makes racist comments about Othello to others, but never to Othello himself, naming him- ‘Barbary horse’ to Desdemona’s father and stating that he does ‘hate the Moor’ to Roderigo. Even when referring to the obviously loving relationship that engulfs both Othello and Desdemona, Iago shows ignorant and disrespectful mannerisms, reducing their physical love to animal level- ‘old black ram is tupping your white ewe’ and showing that he obviously does not agree with this martial pairing.
Iago’s authentic character is hinted at early on in the tragedy, where in one of his longer speeches he finishes- ‘I am not what I am’. This points the reader towards Iago’s true colours, which are rarely put openly on show. His willingness to manipulate and take advantage of other characters (such as Roderigo) in order to force Othello into the deepest amount of torment proves just how much of a cunning and dangerous actor Iago can be. The ‘stage managing’ techniques he uses throughout the play portray just how determined Iago is to truly ruin Othello’s life and the lengths that he is prepared to reach in order to gain revenge upon Othello for not awarding him the idealised promotion.
It is therefore often difficult to decipher Iago’s true feelings and attitudes towards Othello as he constantly adjusts his viewpoint to suit that of his company, for example when in the company of characters such as Othello, Desdemona and Cassio, Iago speaks of Othello positively and even at one point presents a contrasting emotion- ‘My lord, you know I love you’. However, when characters such as Roderigo and Brabantio are in attendance, he again insults Othello naming his supposed arrogance- ‘loving his own pride and purposes’. Although it is apparent that he has strong hatred towards the character, the reasons behind this hatred are never completely discovered. The reader is left to decipher whether the feeling is down to irrepressible racism or dark jealousy, or even a mixture of both.
Even when Iago’s shrewd plan is foiled towards the conclusion of the play, his attitudes towards Othello still remain constant. He shows no feeling of remorse and depicts himself as a party holding little guilt- ‘I told him what I thought and told no more than what he found himself was apt and true’ Although this statement if looked at individually is actually truthful (Iago never once stated that Desdemona and Cassio were in fact indefinitely committing adultery), the fact that Iago orchestrated the imaginary relationship between Desdemona and Cassio and that he introduced doubt into Othello’s mind in the knowledge that ambiguity could potentially ruin him, shows that he still aims to manipulate even as the play draws to closure.
Iago’s racist views however, are also shared by other characters in the play, the main two named Roderigo and Brabantio. Although both these characters have more personal motives to justify their disapproval of Othello, Iago’s manipulative skills again come into force to emphasise their negative emotions.
Until the final moments before his death Roderigo is completely under the influence of Iago and tends to follow his views even if they do not completely match his own. He racially abuses Othello in the company of Iago, naming him- ‘the thick lips’ and ‘lascivious Moor’. These racial prejudices show that he also does not accept the way of which Desdemona and Othello have an indisputable bond, but his apparent hatred goes deeper than this disapproval. As Roderigo is intensely besotted with Desdemona he also seems to be jealous of her love for Othello and believes that the character is not good enough for her, stating that she -‘hath made a gross revolt’. For these reasons Roderigo falls prey to the manipulative Iago, becoming a pawn in his ever growing plot.
Unlike Roderigo, Brabantio holds strong racist views about Othello without the influential voice of Iago, showing a genuine condemnation of the relationship between his daughter and -‘the Moor’. This view would have been commonplace in Shakespearian time, as even today principles of racial equality and sexual freedom are unfortunately still far from being completely accepted. He shows legitimate discomfort when referring to the relationship, questioning how Othello could have possibly gained his daughters hand without using some sort of treachery- ‘Is there not charms by which the property of youth and maidhood may be abused?’
Brabantio also finds it understandably challenging to accept that Othello’s intentions of which involve his daughter are honourable -‘Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals’. These views would have again been shared by the Shakespearian audience, who associated people of dark skin with witchcraft and trickery. Brabantio may have respected Othello as a military general, as a close acquaintance, and perhaps even as a friend, but it is clear that he never considered Othello good enough to be a husband for his daughter.
Characters that form negative or racist views towards Othello do rarely mention these ideas directly to his face, maybe because of his strength as a character, or possibly because of his incessant reputation of being composed and carefully resilient with his language. Each character that states negative views towards the general however is proved at the end of the play to be completely incorrect, and in most cases foolish.
Not all characters view Othello in such bad light conversely, most respect him as a brave and honourable general, showing him great loyalty and love- the Duke being one of these. He obviously sees Othello as a brilliant general and valuable friend- ‘Valiant Othello we must straight employ you against the general enemy Ottoman’. Even when Brabantio, a close friend of the Duke, shows obvious racial disagreements towards Othello, the Duke stands up for the general’s cause, stating to Brabantio that his -‘son-in-law is far more fair than black’. This proves that the Duke does accept Othello’s ethnic background and believes that Othello does not hold the usual traits of the stereotypical “Moor”.
Desdemona is unsurprisingly the character that can distinguish Othello as doing no wrong. Even after malicious attacks and verbal abuse from the general, Desdemona does not speak out against her love.
Desdemona is infatuated with Othello and this becomes apparent from her very first speech of the play where she states that if she is forced to choose whether to be obedient to her father or to Othello, she must choose Othello- ‘So much I challenge that I may profess due to the Moor my lord.’ She continues with this loyalty throughout the play and clearly sees Othello as an accomplished husband- ‘to his honours and his valiant parts did I my soul and fortunes consecrate’.
Desdemona evidently notes that Othello takes his career very seriously and portrays her understanding of this when propositioned by Cassio in order to regain his position of lieutenant- ‘He shall in strangeness stand no farther off than in a politic distance.’ She respects this and endeavours to cause no harm to his reputation and ability.
Further on into the play -where jealousy has completely engulfed Othello- Desdemona defends him when questioned by Emilia about whether Othello is in fact covetous, stating that Othello is incapable of feeling such as jealously- she sees him as almost god-like – ‘I think the sun where he was born drew all such humours from him.’ In even the darkest times when Othello acts so awfully and deeply unjustifiably, Desdemona’s love for him still rules strongly over her heart- ‘My love doth so approve him that even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns-prithee unpin me- have grace and favour in them.’
On her death bed, moments before she is to depart from the world at the hands of her loved one, Desdemona is still unable to speak out against him. She sees through his vicious acts and it is clear to her that the man she married is no longer the corrupted man that stands before her. With her last words to Emilia she states that she doesn’t hold Othello responsible for her death, and even at this perilous moment, names her husband well- ‘Nobody; I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord.’ She always manages to see Othello positively.
Emilia herself, closely linked with Desdemona and often mistreated by her husband Iago, quickly alters her opinion of Othello as the play progresses. Her attitudes towards men are already bitter and derive mainly from the way that Iago has treated her throughout their marriage. She seems to be a feminist and is able to stick up for women- but only in the absence of a male presence. For Emilia the way in which Othello treats Desdemona only emphasises this feeling- ‘they eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us.’ Unfortunately it is evident that Emilia has not always thought of Othello in this negative manner.
She awards him the benefit of the doubt as she recognises that his behaviour is becoming erratic and almost stumbles upon Iago’s secret- ‘Remove your thought. It doth abuse your bosom. If any wretch have put this in your head, let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse!’ Othello’s final behaviour allows Emilia to justify her racist statements- ‘O, more the angel she, and you the blacker devil!’ Othello at his most degrading point in the play reverts to the stereotype that he originally seemed so far from, even though it is apparent to the reader that his reactions are in fact more like Iago’s. Emilia’s final realisation forces her to make yet another racist comment and name Othello as gullible- ‘Oh thou dull moor’.
Brabantio’s relative, Lodovico, is the character that shows an obvious change in attitudes towards Othello, in a strikingly short space of time. He undoubtedly thinks well of Othello before his visit to Venice as he greets the general respectfully- ‘God save you, worthy general!’ and clearly accepts his ethnicity. For this reason, Lodovico is clearly shocked when Othello raises his hand to Desdemona and strikes her across the face, and states this surprise and utter disbelief at what he has just witnessed from what was once a courageous general- ‘My lord, this would not be believed in Venice, though I should swear I saw’t.’
This statement gives us a glimpse of how Othello is viewed by others universally. He is seen as a noble character, lacking in the extreme emotions now observed by Lodovico. Brabantio’s relative begins to question Othello’s mental disposition- ‘Are his wits safe? Is he not light of brain?’ and his attitudes have clearly now reversed as he now holds reservations about the stability of Othello’s character, whereas before he was sure that the general was of such a great confidence- ‘Is this the noble Moor that whom our full senate call all-in-all sufficient?’
Lodovico departs from the scene with a controversial and, obvious to the reader, ironic line- ‘I am sorry that I am deceived in him.’ This line shows that Lodovico has lost faith in Othello’s character, and feels almost cheated by what he has seen. It seems unfortunate that he feels as he does towards Othello, when truly as he even speaks the line, Iago is the authentic deceptive culprit.
Cassio, the object of hatred in Othello’s eyes, does not really say much about his attitudes towards Othello, but what he does say and what is said about his attitudes by others show what he truly feels towards the general. He obviously shows much loyalty towards Othello, he is his lieutenant and until jealousy sets in, a trusted friend.
This is made apparent when Desdemona attempts to change her husband jealous views about the unfairly treated Cassio -‘and so many a time when I have spoke of you dispraisingly hath tane your part’ (Desdemona about Cassio). Even after he has been the subject of confusing and malicious actions by the changed Othello, he still speaks of him well- ‘For he was great of heart.’ This highlights one of Othello’s “tragic flaws”. He is unable to make a good judge of character, and seems to be enormously gullible, believing the sly Iago over the honest, but sometimes vain, Michael Cassio. Cassio obviously thinks well of the troubled Othello.
The views of the characters are extremely varied when involving Othello, and these views are changeable throughout the entirety of the play. However none are as interesting and somewhat confusing as how Othello in fact sees himself. His character goes through three notable stages which seem to show great contrast and diversity with each other.
At the beginning of the tragedy Othello is obviously a proud individual, and openly speaks about his noble background- ‘I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege’. He is of distant relation to royalty, and for this reason carries himself with a certain majestic and noble manner. He has a shockingly high opinion of himself and this can sometimes be perceived as an arrogant trait- ‘my parts, my title, and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly.’ He is dazzlingly confident in almost all aspects of his life and especially when it comes to his military service- ‘For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith… they have used their dearest action in the tented field’.
He proves to be a powerful presence in areas where others would crumble and is passionate about his love for Desdemona, so much so that he is resilient enough to offer everything in order to sustain their love- ‘let your sentence even fall upon my life.’ This shows great strength in character and Othello obviously sees himself as a force to be considered with. At this stage in the play, Othello views himself as never having been a happier due to his love for Desdemona- ‘If it were now to die, ’twere now to be most happy’ and makes a series of prophetically ironic statements, almost unknowingly hinting to the readers of what is to come- ‘But I do love thee; and when I love thee not, chaos is come again.’
The strength in character that we see from Othello throughout the beginning of the play is last seen in a conversation between him and Iago, concerning the infidelity of Desdemona. In his speech, we see Othello at his final point of rational sanity, which unfortunately due to Iago’s manipulative skills, he is unable to keep up throughout the entirety of the play:
‘No, Iago, I’ll see her before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this:
Away all at once with love or jealousy!’
After this point in the play, Othello’s view of himself slowly deteriorates. He begins to lose his self-confidence and control as doubt gradually overwhelms his mind. As the jealously sets into his mind, he begins to search for reasons as to why his wife could do such a thing and comes up with two points; his age and his colour- ‘Haply for I am black’, ‘I am declined into the vale of years’.
Whereas before he would have stood by Desdemona and perhaps asked for the proof from Iago against his wife’s infidelity, his troubled character now begs Iago to prove the exact opposite- ‘be sure thou prove my love a whore’. His mistrust in Desdemona proves that he is ultimately a poor judge of character, and instead holds his certainty in ‘Honest Iago’. This reliance on Iago to help him judge Desdemona’s true situation in fact becomes his down fall. His self-confidence has travelled from such a high to a low that he sees himself as no longer able to make conscious decisions alone.
Othello’s character almost completely morphs into that of Iago, both using extremely similar language and animal imagery at the time of Othello’s extreme jealousy- ‘Goats and monkeys!’, ‘Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in!’ This illustrates just how reliant on Iago Othello has become. He asks his opinion at almost every opportunity -‘How shall I murder him, Iago?’ This is a complete contrast from how the character was before his mind became jealous as he was before so sure of his each and every decision, so very self-assured. He now sees himself unfit to lead his life without constant supervision from his companion Iago.
After being instructed, word-by-word, on how to unjustly murder his beloved Desdemona, Othello commits the terrible deed. Through this scene it is clearly illustrated that Othello has completely lost him mind, and in the words of Iago -‘He is much changed.’ He constantly contradicts himself, showing that he is no longer sure of what he is doing and sees only one way to regain his controlled mind- ‘A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.’ After killing his wife, Othello shows no remorse as he feels that he, himself, has rid the world of an unfaithful being- ‘She’s like a liar gone to burning hell: ‘Twas I that killed her.’ In this way he seems almost proud of his act, but yet still in pieces from losing not only his mind, but in addition, his love.
The final stage in Othello’s personality transformation sees him return almost to his former self- a controlled man, but this time with a huge sense of guilt and despair laid upon his heart. He now sees himself as a monster, and begs for punishment’ ‘Whip me… Roast me in sulphur!’ In a desperate effort to regain control in the situation, we see Othello commit an act that would fit with his former character, he stabs himself.
This shows that Othello now thinks so badly of himself that he claims happiness will be found in death- ‘For in my sense ’tis happiness to die.’ We see Othello in his final speech attempt to reclaim any respect and decency from his characters, and asks them to remember him as one that ‘loved not wisely, but too well’ and a man that was -‘not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme’. This shows that Othello has regained control over the final moments of his life and hopes to be remembered not for the tragic deeds he has committed but for his decencies and military service. He views himself as an unfairly mislead man, that inevitably forged his own fate.
In conclusion, Othello as a character is not only a controversial, but also travels on such a journey through personalities that he is able to change the opinions of those who once looked up to him. The troubled, aggressive and broken Othello we see at the end of play is a shadow of his former self and proves just how each and every person has strengths and weaknesses that can be carefully manipulated. The real Othello that we see at the beginning of the play is one that can never be regained once jealousy has set in, and this is clearly shown by the tragic ending to the play. Othello tragically saw himself as a strong character, but was eventually shown to be a gullible fool at the hands of the evil manipulative Iago.