To What Extent Is Othello’s Downfall, the Result of His Own Character?
We are first introduced to Othello in Act One, Scene Two. This is a very intimate scene between lago and Othello. lago has now joined Othello and has told him about Rodrigo’s betrayal of the news of his marriage to Brabantio’s daughter. lago continues his deliberate misrepresentation, swearing to Othello that he could have killed Roderigo for what he did: ‘Though in the trade of war I slain men’ lago is a very skilful actor and is able to successfully present a contrary appearance. It is not just Othello who is deceived by lago nearly all the characters in the play underestimate lago’s powers of deception. Ironically, lago alludes to Janus, the two faced god in this conversation with Othello. Since lago himself is two faced, in a duplicitous way, Janus seems to be a fitting figure for lago to invoke: ‘By Janus, I think no’.
lago’s duplicity is again exhibited in this scene as his tone swings from friendly to backbiting as soon as Othello steps away and quickly returns to original friendliness when Othello returns. The theme appearance versus reality is especially relevant to the issue of lago’s character; for although he is called ‘honest’ by almost everyone in the play, he is treacherous, deceitful, and manipulative. lago plays a major part in Othello’s eventual downfall through his careful manipulation of Othello’s jealous character. Othello is defensively proud of himself and his achievements, and especially proud of the honourable appearance he presents. The allegations of Desdemona’s affair hurt his pride even more than they inflame his vanity and jealousy. Othello wants to appear powerful, accomplished, and moral at every possible instance, and when this is almost denied to him, his wounded pride becomes especially powerful.
Pride is an overarching theme of Othello’s story and first becomes apparent in this scene. Othello is exceptionally proud of his achievements and his public stature. He is also proud of Desdemona’s affection for him, which leads him to overstate the bond between them; he would not give her up for the seas’ worth,’ he says, certainly a noble sentiment. Othello is very confident in his worth, and in the respect he commands; if the leaders of the city decide to deny a worthy man like him his marriage to Desdemona, then he believes ‘bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.’ This statement of paradox betrays Othello’s faith in the state and in the Duke’s regard for him; hopefully, neither will fail him.
The issue of race comes to the fore, as Brabantio confronts Othello about his marriage to Desdemona. Desdemona never would have ‘run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of a thing such as thou,’ Brabantio says. Brabantio assumes that Desdemona must have been ‘enchanted’ to marry Othello merely because Othello is black. In Scene Three Brabantio again accuses Othello of ‘Bewitching’ his daughter and he airs racist views towards Othello.
Othello’s appointment to Cyprus marks the true beginning of his tragedy. When Othello is away from Venice, which is a place of familiarity, order, and law, he becomes much more vulnerable to lago’s vicious attacks on his love and jealousy. This battle between order and chaos is a theme running throughout the play, and as Othello sinks deeper into distrust of Desdemona and is more consumed by his jealousy, chaos increases and threatens to devour him.
The Duke’s words of advice, in scene three, to the couple also mark the beginning of their tragic story. The Duke’s words foretell trouble between the couple if they do not let grievances go, which ends up being one of the main reason for Othello’s fall. Also, the change of the verse into couplets signals the importance of the advice being offered. The words of the Duke, and Brabantio’s words that follow, are set off from the rest of the text and emphasized by this technique.
Although Othello pretends to be poorly spoken, the only magic that he possesses is in his power of language. His language shows his pride in his achievements, and also allows him to make himself into a kind of hero. Othello portrays himself as a tested, honourable warrior, and indeed is such. However, this view of himself will prove troublesome when he is hard pressed to recognize his jealousy and his lust; his inability to reconcile himself with these two aspects of his personality means that his comeuppance is almost certain. Othello’s lack of self-knowledge means that he will be unable to stop himself once lago begins to ignite his jealousy, and set into motion the less palatable aspects of Othello’s personality, which he himself cannot recognize.
‘Honest’ emerges as a key word in Act Two Scene Three. The term is laden with irony, and a constant reminder of the dramatic irony inherent in lago’s dealings. None of the characters in the play have any idea of lago’s plans and evil intentions. Othello is especially innocent of this knowledge and this is another failing in his character which helps lead to his downfall. However, the audience knows exactly what lago is up to and we are able to see lago for what he really is. The word “honest” draws attention to how lago’s machinations are hidden from the characters onstage, and shows how he promotes an incorrect impression of himself in order to gain power over people, especially Othello.
When Othello addresses his wife before a crowd of other people in this scene, his words are all of a financial nature. The words ‘purchase’ and ‘profit’ make it seem like Othello is trying to make his diction suitable for the crowd listening to him, and his tone is also less personal and more declarative. Othello’s self-consciousness is apparent in these words to Desdemona, and self-consciousness is a theme that has much to do with how Othello regards himself, and his marriage. It seems in situations like this one that Othello is more interested in keeping up appearances than in showing love for his wife. Othello does indeed love his wife but he seems unable to allow his love to inhabit a private, personal sphere, apart from his public life and image.
lago knows that Othello ignores flaws in people like Cassio, which is part of his motivation in getting Cassio drunk, and involved in an argument. Othello’s ignorance to notice and appreciate people’s flaws is another bad attribute which leads to his downfall. lago wants Othello to know that Cassio is not the perfect soldier Othello believes him to be, while still convincing Othello that lago himself is “honest” and worthy of trust. Othello is trusting and unaware – almost naive, whereas lago is superperceptive. This is yet another clear contrast between the two characters.
When Othello breaks up the quarrel, he asks, ‘are we turned Turk?’ The allusion to the Turks conveys a sense of disorder and that an enemy is present. Othello does not appreciate that lago is the enemy. Othello thinks that enemies are forthcoming, and declare themselves openly, like the Turks. He expects everyone to have the same honour in declaring sides and engaging in battle. However Othello is not involved in a war and things are not as clear cut in personal battles and politics, as evident in lago deceit. This error in judgement is key to his downfall. Othello considers all the men who are there in Cyprus to be friends, since they are allied on the same side in battle. This is another example of Othello’s confusion between the worldly and the personal spheres.
lago is again able to successfully misrepresent himself; this time, he pretends that he is there merely to settle the quarrel. lago is again able to manufacture an appearance that trumps reality. Though his account of the quarrel and how he came to it is doctored and deceptive, yet he is able to get away with it. Again, no one thinks to question the very man who is responsible for what has gone wrong among the Venetians, which is a heavy irony indeed.
After Cassio’s flaws have been shown to Othello, Cassio mourns the demise of his “reputation” above all else. lago also knows the importance of reputation, which is why he makes sure that people see him as “honest” before anything. ‘Reputation is a most idle and false imposition,’ lago says; but this statement is meant as false consolation to Cassio, and is filled with great irony. Cassio is so grieved that his reputation has been hurt that he sees fit to find a villain in all that has happened; ‘invisible spirit of wine let us call thee devil,’ he swears. Ironically Cassio misses the identity of the real devil in this situation, lago.
In Act Three Scene Three Desdemona shows her determination to set things right between Cassio and her husband. Ironically, it is this determination to intervene in Othello and Cassio’s personal affairs which fuels Othello’s jealousy and results in her death. Had Desdemona not felt such a sense of justice or been good enough to advocate for a case in which she was not involved, she might have survived. Desdemona is undone by her own goodness, and her need to step into affairs on a public level, which Othello is uncomfortable with.
In this scene, lago begins his machinations to make it seem like Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. However, lago refrains from saying very much; ‘I cannot think it that he would steal away so guilty-like’ is the most incriminating thing he says about Cassio. He makes Othello start to think uneasy thoughts by saying ‘I like not that’ about Cassio’s exit. Othello immediately seizes the bait, his jealousy playing off of lago’s calculated insinuations.
lago begins to echo Othello, which makes Othello even more uneasy. He asks questions that are fundamentally related to the issues at hand, such as whether Desdemona and Cassio have known each other for a while. In Othello’s state, he believes lago’s statements of nothing to be a real attempt to hide the truth about what is going on. He does not realize that lago’s statements are all feigned to make Othello jealous:
‘Thou echoest me, as if there was some monster in thy thought, too hideous to be shown’.
Othello creates this simile based merely on lago’s echoing and unrelated questions. This shows how easily Othello begins to feed off the insinuations of lago’s words. Jealousy, a major theme, especially with regards to Othello, is soon addressed specifically by lago. ‘It is the green-eyed monster,’ lago tells Othello. ‘The green-eyed monster’ becomes a symbol representing Othello’s dark feelings, a spectre lurking in his mind and beginning to steer his behaviour. lago’s speech is also deeply ironic, since it points out Othello’s flaws, and the root of his tragedy. Othello has no idea of the significance of these statements, and so neglects to take them to heart. Othello then begins to say that he believes his wife is virtuous, which means that lago finally addresses her directly, and further misleads Othello.
Othello is deeply insecure about his personal qualities and his marriage, as insecurity becomes a theme that weakens his resolve not to doubt Desdemona. Othello uses his black skin as a symbol for how poorly spoken and unattractive he thinks he is. His words are actually more complex and beautiful than those spoken by any other character in the play. Othello doubts that Desdemona could love him, because of his misconception of himself as being uncouth, poorly spoken, and old. It is because he begins to believe that Desdemona cannot love him that he starts to believe her guilty of infidelity. The leap is great, but it is all a product of Othello’s own insecurities and his incorrect conception of himself. How Othello sees himself directly influences how he views Desdemona’s love, though there should be a disconnection between these two things.
The handkerchief, the most crucial symbol and object in the play, first appears in this scene. The handkerchief, to Desdemona, symbolizes Othello’s love, since it was his first gift to her. Othello thinks that the handkerchief. quite literally, is Desdemona’s love. When she loses it that must clearly mean that she does not love him any more. The handkerchief also becomes a symbol of Desdemona’s alleged betrayal. Othello takes it as the ‘ocular proof of her dishonesty, which is a grave mistake. ‘Proof’ is a key word in this scene. Othello demands that lago prove Desdemona unfaithful by actually seeing evidence of her guilt. But lago, ever clever and persuasive, manages to work around this completely. Iago pays off of Othello’s jealousy by telling him stories that damn Cassio and mention the handkerchief. This makes Othello angry and distracts him from the fact that he has seen no proofs at all. Othello trusts lago’s words to convey proof, and is thwarted by lago’s dishonesty. Othello only realizes later that he has been tricked and has seen no proof, when it is too late for him to take his actions back.
This act represents the beginning of Othello’s ‘giving up’ language. Until this point in the play, Othello has spoken with beautiful images, convincing rhetoric, and used his language to express the eloquence and beauty in his soul. From this point forward Othello’s use of imagery and story become less and less frequent. Othello begins to rely upon lago for speech and explanation. Othello is reduced by lago and his own jealousy to single lines of speech, monosyllabic uttering of ‘O!’ and the like. And just as language is the power with which Othello was able to woo Desdemona, his loss of it is a resignation of this power which attracted her to him. Othello suspects his wife’s language, and Cassio’s as well; he is distracted from suspicion of lago, even though it is lago’s language which has taken away Othello’s ability to speak because of overwhelming grief and jealousy. Othello begins to lose his power over himself, and over others. This resignation marks a huge shift in the balance of power between Othello and lago. lago becomes more dominant in the relationship, and begins to steer Othello.
Othello’s words in Act Three Scene Four often have a double meaning. His words appear normal but are really accusations of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. When he is describing Desdemona’s hand, he says it is ‘moist’ and ‘hot’, this is a sign of Desdemona’s lustful nature. He says she is of a ‘liberal heart’; this could mean a generous heart, but could also be indicating Desdemona’s supposed licentiousness. ‘Here’s a young and sweating devil here, who constantly rebels,’ Othello says. The metaphor speaks badly of Desdemona, and betrays his distrust of her. Yet, in the next breath, he says, ’tis a good hand’; the juxtaposition of the two statements shows that Othello is trying hard not to betray his disappointment in Desdemona. He is deeply disturbed, and seems to be questioning and examining her to prove that she really is the harlot he believes her to be. He is so bent upon proving her guilty, that he does not consider that these tests mean nothing, or perhaps even exonerate her.
In Act Four Scene One lago continues his insinuations when speaking to Othello. He provides further ‘proofs’ that are anything but ocular. In the last act Othello was trying to act as Desdemona’s defender and lago was the accuser. Ironically their roles have been reversed in this scene. lago seems to be defending Desdemona whilst producing more ‘evidence’ to condemn her.
Othello is prime to suggestion. Iago’s mere mention of the word ‘lie’ results in Othello believing the word to mean ‘lie with her’. It is a paradox that lago is supposed to be the persuader, though Othello seems, in instances such as this one, to be persuading himself, of things lago has not even said. Othello’s trance also marks his descent into the savage. Ironically, he becomes the passion-stirred, wicked pagan that others had accused him of being, especially apparent in Act One Scene One. lago notes that Othello ‘breaks out into savage madness’. lago continues to become the master of Othello’s perception. lago tells Othello to observe Cassio closely and mark the fleers, the gibes, the notable scorns’ that Cassio shows toward Othello. Othello, observing with this in mind, sees everything Cassio says as an affront to him and Desdemona. Othello’s imaginative powers now turn against him, whereas, before he used his imagination to conjure up potent stories and vivid language, here he uses it to imagine Desdemona’s infidelity. But, unfortunately for Othello, Bianca coming by and giving Desdemona’s handkerchief back to Cassio seems to confirm all of his suspicions. Though things are not as they seem in this instance, still, Othello’s mistaken beliefs are only supported by this confrontation.
‘O, the world hath not a sweeter creature,’ Othello declares of Desdemona; yet, against his reason and better nature, he decides that she shall not live. There is great irony in this scene, as Othello declares that Desdemona is of a soft and kind nature, yet condemns her for being lustful and immoral. Othello’s reticent tone, even when he is condemning Desdemona to death, still there is a part of him that knows Desdemona is good, and does not want to condemn her.
When Othello strikes Desdemona, he shows the severity of his change. Just her mention of Cassio sends him into an unreasonable rage. Every little thing he regards with suspicion, even if he has no cause. Although one of his greatest fears regarding Desdemona’s alleged infidelity was that it would blacken his name and reputation, the irony is that Othello is doing that himself. By striking Desdemona, Othello is being unreasonably cruel and he is besmirching his own good name. Savagery is taking over his civility, as he continues to become the cruel, jealous, passion-spurred ‘savage’ that Brabantio accused him of being. He is beginning to become a stereotype by his own doing, as he falls farther and farther from himself.
Act Five Scene Two Othello prepares to kill his ‘unfaithful’ wife. Othello’s farewell to Desdemona is a return to his former eloquence and language. Though he believes Desdemona’s soul to be black, he can only focus on her whiteness. He pledges not to mar ‘that whiter skin of hers than snow,’ although he is determined to take her life. The metaphor highlights Desdemona’s innocence, as does comparing her to a “light” to be put out. There is great irony in Othello’s references to Desdemona here. He describes her with words that suggest her brightness and innocence, yet he is determined to condemn and kill her. Othello seems intent upon dwelling in beautiful images and poetic metaphors to hide the ugliness and wrongness of his deed.
Othello’s reaction after smothering Desdemona shows an even greater rift between his resolve and his emotion. He does not want to admit that Desdemona is dead. He speaks to her, ponders her stillness and seems very hysterical. He is grieved by this action; ‘methinks it should be now a huge eclipse of sun and moon,’ he says. This helps to communicate how unhinged and unsettled he feels.
Desdemona’s last words are especially cryptic; when asked who killed her, she remarks, ‘nobody, I myself commend me to my kind lord.’ She might be trying to absolve her husband of blame with her last breath, or trying to express her love for the one who has killed her. If this is so, it certainly does not sit well with her line, ‘falsely, falsely murdered,’ which seems to refer both to Desdemona’s death, as to Emilia’s mention of the death of Roderigo and wounding of Cassio.
Othello’s reaction upon Desdemona’s death is a mixture of shock, hysterics, and anger. The greatest irony of the play is that it is only after killing Desdemona that Othello learns the truth about her. He finds out that she was blameless, and that lago was manipulating him into believing otherwise. Still, even after the murder is exposed, Othello cannot let go of the idea that Desdemona really did cheat on him. His fixation on the handkerchief is ended when Emilia reveals how the token was used to make him believe in the affair.
Emilia’s fate is parallel to Desdemona’s, although she was more realistic than Desdemona; she too was betrayed by her husband. Emilia had a good sense of perception, but yet died through other’s wrongs. Desdemona might be a more central figure in the play, but Emilia is the conscience. It is Emilia who makes Othello finally feel remorse for his act and she undoes some of the damage lago’s allegations wreaked. Emilia knows, almost as well as her husband, how human nature works and she knows of husbands’ jealousies – this is noted by lago’s belief that Emilia had an affair with Othello. She is the sole voice of reason in the play, the only besides Desdemona who is uncorrupted by lago’s manipulations.
At last, Othello’s grief comes to its fruition, as his reason and speech are finally fully restored. ‘Roast me in sulphur! Wash me in steep-down gulfs of molten fire!’ Othello laments, the images of pain and torment reflecting the feelings which are coming over him. He juxtaposes heaven and hell to explain his despair, and the virtue he knows again that Desdemona did possess. But though Othello has some sense again, he still wounds lago. This act seems to be done as a distraction of his pain, and makes Othello’s character seem even more deeply flawed.
Othello insists that he is an ‘honourable murderer’ but lago was surely killed out of anger and Desdemona out of jealousy and offended pride. Othello is driven to kill out of his own shortcomings; and although his beautiful language and his remorse at the end of this scene make him seem noble again, yet Othello still denies the flaws in himself that have led him to this end, lago was definitely the catalyst for Desdemona’s death and Othello’s jealous rages; but the seeds of jealousy and suspicion were already inherent in Othello, though not yet grown. Othello tries to restore his nobility; but, since he still denies the deep wrong he has committed and his own part in this dirty act, he cannot be fully redeemed or forgiven.
Othello has always been concerned with his reputation and public image and this was one of his main reasons for killing Desdemona. His last speech reveals that he is still fixated on this cause; ‘speak of me as I am,’ he tells them. Yet, there is great irony in this statement, since he goes on to misrepresent himself and his motives. He says that he is ‘not easily jealous,’ although it is apparent from lago’s first insinuations that he is very jealous and possessive of his wife. He also says he is one who ‘drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medcinable gum’; however, Othello found it difficult to be sorry for killing his wife, until he found out that his motives were wrong.
This last speech is filled with heroic language; he reduces his foul, treacherous murder to throwing ‘a pearl away richer than all his tribe,’ which is a beautiful metaphor, but hardly does justice to the brutality and cruelty of Othello’s behaviour. Othello tries to die with honour and some reputation intact but his speech shows that his preoccupation with his image is still keeping him from the admitting the truth. Still, Othello is uniquely human, his flaws and follies make him a compelling tragic figure, and his more noble aspects also make him sympathetic. Although lago steals most of the spotlight during the play, in the end, the tragedy is Othello’s. It is his pain, folly, and misfortune which reverberate and make this drama so compelling and so telling of human nature.