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“Othello” by William Shakespeare: Summary and Analysis Essay

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Updated: Sep 8th, 2021

Many critiques of Shakespeare’s play Othello tend to suggest and thus agree that Othello as a character is intelligent, proud, and strong but also naïve. They summarily agree that the play is all about honesty and trust and the cunning and witting nature of Iago who manipulates the trust and honesty of various characters in the play. Othello is such one character who falls into Iago’s web.

Othello is an integral part of the Venetian civic society. His skills as a soldier and leader are necessary and valuable to the state of Venice. His background history shows that he has been a soldier since he was seven years old. However, he is a cultural and racial outsider in Venice. As such, the Venetian natives refer to him not by his name, but by various symbolic names like “the moor”, “the thick lips” and “an old black ram,” amongst others. These nicknames are set to introduce to us the native origin of Othello and the way the native Venetians view him as a person (Jack D, 1992, p. 119).

Moreover, Othello is an honest young man, and his skills are highly sought by the senate as projected by Cassio’s comments that “the senate has sent about three several quests, to search you out.” This shows that the Duke and the government of Venice trust Othello enough to entrust him with full martial and political command of Cyprus. Othello on his part admits that for nearly the whole of his life, he has been doing war with his hands, faithfully serving the state and this is what his life is made of as seen in the lines, “For since these arms of mine had seven years. Pith, till now, some nine moors wasted, they have used their dearest action in the tented field- and little of this great world. Can I speak, more than pertains to fears of broils, and battle?” (William J. M. 1984, p. 142).

Othello sometimes also allows himself to feel his status as an outsider thus he is self-conscious and defensive about his difference from other Venetians. He thus sometimes protests about his conduct as shown especially when he apologizes about his speech even after being eloquent in Act 1. scene iii. He says: “Rude am I in my speech, and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace.” Perhaps it can be argued that this feeling of foreignness makes Othello more dependent on the natives, even as he tries to be on good terms with them, hence allowing Iago to spin him into his deceitful web (William J. M. 1984, p. 151).

In addition, Othello being an honest man believes that everyone is honest. He in this way believes that Iago is an honest man and trusts him to an extent that, he leaves him with his wife and entrusts him to take care of his wife through the voyage to Cyprus. Othello says “So please your grace, my ancient, a man he is of honesty and trust, to his conveyance I assign my wife…” This marks the beginning of Othello’s misplaced trust in his hand man – Iago.

Iago on the other hand, being his master’s hand man, has come to know his master’s characters, passion to serve the venation state, and his love for Desdemona. Iago being shrewd sets out to use Othello’s weaknesses to the best of his manipulative abilities. He has planned revenge on Othello because Othello promoted Cassio to the position of lieutenant instead of him. He employs deceit and the needs of various other characters like Cassio (Need to have his Lieutenant job back) and Roderigo (Need to achieve Desdemona’s love) to achieve and administer his revenge on Othello. In addition, Iago knows that he has gained the full confidence of Othello as his friend (Jack D, 1992, p. 118).

To Iago, His friendship and trust from Othello are confirmed by Othello himself in his utterances like “O, that’s an honest fellow”, and “I know thou is full of love and honesty” and utterances from other characters like Cassio “You advise me well.” This serves but to encourage Iago of Othello’s and other characters’ naivety and he takes full advantage of this naivety to build Othello’s jealousy and mistrust of his wife Desdemona. On his part, Othello fails to see that Iago is an evil conning and wicked person until the bitter end after he has tragically killed his faithfully and most adoring wife.

Perhaps we can also argue that Brobantio’s accusations on Othello about his color and origin and his ability to genuinely make Desdemona love him without using charms punctured Othello’s belief that Desdemona truly loved him. Othello’s uncertainty of Desdemona’s love is heightened when Iago constantly pumps into his head infidelity thoughts until Othello’s trust in Desdemona is worn out. After “honest Iago” had said and shown that Desdemona is unfaithful to Othello, his killing Desdemona is justifiable and true.

Iago, knowing the nature of Othello’s work (General in the Venetian Army) and the call of Othello by the duke to attend to the impeding from the Ottoman Turks, knows well that Othello will not have enough time to stay with his newly wedded wife and get to know her better, leave alone the chance to consummate his marriage. Iago, therefore, sets out to exploit this situation to his full advantage. Iago accompanies Othello to Cyprus and backs Home. He takes this chance to explain to Othello that while he was away and busy attending to the matters of the state, Cassio and Desdemona might have been busy having an affair behind Othello’s back. Indeed, this appears to be the truth when Othello comes home and Cassio who had been talking to Desdemona hastily retreats. When Othello seeks to know from Iago whether it is Cassio that he has seen retreating on their approach, Iago answers that “Cassio my lord? No, sure I can not think it, that he would steal away so guilty – like seeing you coming.” With these words, Iago plants the seed of mistrust in Othello and at the same time, makes himself, the chief adviser of Othello (Virginia M. V, & Kent C, 1992, p. 129).

Moreover, it can be argued that the role Othello plays when wooing Desdemona is to him not substantial. He is uncomfortable with the role Desdemona played in their relationship and eventual marriage. After his mind has been poisoned by Iago, Othello doubts his wife’s love and instead starts to think that Desdemona might have married him to spite her father Brabantio. The fact that Desdemona fell in love with the battling war stories, Othello told, and thus falling in love with Othello “a moor” as even he believes, makes him doubt Desdemona’s love.

Desdemona on the other hand is a gentle, humble, and outgoing woman. When Cassio approaches him and requests him to talk to her husband, Desdemona agrees because she simply wants to help a friend. When Othello comes home, after being deceived that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair, he immediately believes Iago when Desdemona pleads with him to restore Cassio beck to his lieutenant position. The hurting and pain Othello feels after this conversation is symbolically shown when he claims that he has a headache and wishes to be left alone. This misplaced trust in Iago, and the belief that Iago is honestly helping him, kill all the trust Othello had in Desdemona and its place, increase the anger and hate towards his wife (Virginia M. V, & Kent C, 1992, p. 127).

Othello instead of questioning Iago’s allegation on Desdemona and his true intentions falls prey to Iago’s trick and allows himself to be overtaken by jealousy. As the play advances, Othello’s passion and love are transformed into a deep hatred for Desdemona. This jealousy is what leads to Othello killing his adoring and faithful wife l and later after realizing that, he has been deceived, to his suicide. Though this jealous plays the central role in Othello’s undoing, it can be argued that his racial background and his doubt about the genuineness “a white ewe” can give to “an old black ram” leads to his doubting the genuineness of Desdemona’s love. These thoughts make Othello easy prey to Iago’s, wits and hence also leads to his eventual downfall (Jack D, 1992, p. 121).

On the other hand, Iago is possessed with the thoughts of revenge. His true motivation, though not vividly explained, ranges from revenging because he suspects Othello slept with his wife Emilia to his being denied the position of lieutenant, a position he believes should have been his and not Cassio’s. He claims that he is the person suitable for the position of lieutenant basing on the recommendations of three senators and sees Cassio as unqualified and too simple. Iago claims that he has been robbed reputation, a thing which does not make any one rich if he steals it. Iago is thus determined to have his revenge no matter what the cost or who falls into his trap (William J. M. 1984, p. 157).

Iago also outwits Othello Cassio, Roderigo, Desdemona, and even his wife. His supreme deceit and cunning powers give him a measured advantage in his plot to revenge. Like any other character in the play, Othello falls head on to Iago’s cunning powers. Othello fails to see that Iago is a wolf in a sheep skin. Iago himself says (though to the audience) that “when devils will the blackest sins puts on, they do suggest first with heavenly shows, as I do now.” Othello completely fails to see this till the end when he can not change and undo what loss has been done. Othello’s naivety and misplace trust in Iago, makes Iago’s trap an easy job and leads to Othello’s eventual undoing (Virginia M. V & Kent C, 1992, p. 127).

Moreover, Iago uses Cassio to play the integral role as the source of jealousy eminent through out the play. Cassio is personified as a loyal man who is dutiful and attentive to his boss Othello as well as loyal and trusting to Iago to the extent that, he refers to Iago as “honest Iago.” This reference is important to Iago as he toys with cassio and uses him to make Othello believe That his wife Desdemona is capable of loving another (Jason C. 2005, p. 172 ).

In conclusion, it can be argued that Othello’s jealous is caused majorly because, he his blind to his wife’s love ways to him as compared to others in general and his mind being poisoned by Iago. His doubting his true role in wooing his wife and his being uncomfortable about Desdemona’s role in their marriage weakens his trust in his wife. Lastly, Iago is simply too outwitting and cunning to Othello for him to realize that he is being ensnared. All the above factors lead to Othello’s eventual dramatic downfall.

References

  1. Jason Cangialosi (2005). Envy and Honour in shakespeare’s Othello. South Atlantic Review. south Atlantic modern language association press. Pages 172:174.
  2. Jack D. Amico ( 1992). The Moor in English Renaissance Drama. South Atlantic Review. south Atlantic modern language association. Pages 118:121
  3. Virginia Mason Vaughan, Kent Catwright (1992). Othello new perspective. Fairleigh University press. pp.127 -143.
  4. William Jerry Maclean (1984). Othello Scorned. The Racial Thought Of John Quing Adams. Journal Of The Early Republic. University Of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 143 – 160.
  5. Barbara Everet (1961). Reflection on the sentuimentalists. Othello Critical Quaterly. 1467 87055. doi.10.1111/j. pages 127- 139.
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IvyPanda. 2021. ""Othello" by William Shakespeare: Summary and Analysis." September 8, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/othello-by-william-shakespeare-summary-and-analysis/.

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