Othello: The Tragedy of Human Nature
Instructor Steven Hale
In the tragedy Othello, Shakespeare creates a mood that challenges the way a person sees his or her self and the world. Subjects like racism, sexism, love, hate, jealously, pride, and trickery are thoroughly developed in the play of Othello to enable the audience to view the characters and also themselves. The Shakespearean tragedy of Othello was written in a time of great racial tensions in England. According to Eldred Jones, in 1600 just three years before Othello was written, Queen Elizabeth proclaimed an Edict for the Transportation of all "negars and blackmoores" out of the country ("Othello- An Interpretation" Critical Essays 39). It is in this atmosphere that Shakespeare began the masterpiece of Othello, a drama about a noble black Arab general, Othello, who falls in love with and marries, Desdemona, a young white daughter of a senator. From the above knowledge one may conclude that Shakespeare wrote Othello to express that all people, of all ethnicity, are basically the same in human nature. Shakespeare borrowed the idea of Othello from an Italian love story by Giraldi Cinthio. However, Shakespeare focuses more on the differences in color and age between Othello and Desdemona than Cinthio. Shakespeare does this to escalate Othello’s isolation from the rest of Venetian society and to display Othello’s vulnerability due to his color. In the tragedy not only is Othello susceptible to weaknesses but so is every major character . The tragedy reminds humans that even one’s good nature can be taken advantage of for the worse. The drama Othello expresses, through relationships and emotional attitudes, a theme that all humans are vulnerable to destruction even if they are in positions of power and glory.
All the relationships in the play are used to demonstrate the vulnerability of people when involved personally with other people. Each of the relationships in Othello portrays insecurities in each person, except Iago. In fact, all of the relationships with one character, Iago, are focused around him and his devilish plot for the demise of Othello. However, most of the relationships in Othello bring about unintentional frustrations and vulnerabilities. The marriages in Othello are the most important relationships in conferring vulnerability because they bring out the best hopes and attitudes, and the worst fears and emotions in each character.
Shakespeare, in designing Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, shows that although one can truly love a person, the need for human control can destroy any relationship causing heartbreak and turmoil. From the very beginning, Othello faces a dilemma of vulnerability because of his marriage. In his essay, Eldred Jones has concurred with this by stating that Othello made himself available to public criticism and assaults on his character by marrying a young white girl ("Othello- An Interpretation" Critical essays l42). Furthermore, the couple’s constant struggle over power and control makes them susceptible to destruction of their happiness. Othello seeks complete control over his wife, Desdemona. Othello claims this in act 3.3 line 267-270.
O curse of marriage.
That we can call these creatures ours,
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon.
Then keep a corner in the thing I love
Othello is clearly showing that he sees Desdemona’s love, faithfulness and submissions as criteria for his manhood. His feelings demonstrate how vulnerable people can become in putting their self-value in another person. Desdemona also plays the power game. She swears to Cassio
I give thee my warrant, assure thee, I do vow friendship
to the last article my lord shall never rest;…
I shall watch him tame and talk him out of patience.
(3.3 line 19-28)
These words of Desdemona clearly present Desdemona’s assertion to use sexual power to control Othello’s actions. Emily Bartrels states that Desdemona "Promises to make it fearful and difficult demands… desiring a subject to command Othello love"("Strategies of submission" Studies of English Literature: online). Shakespeare, in developing the power struggle of Othello’s marriage, reminds the audience that to control a person fully only brings about turmoil.
Like the sexual relationships, the non-sexual relationships in Othello emphasize the vulnerability of people when involved with other people personally and especially when dealing with people of shady character. The two adversarial relationships in the play develop out of Iago’s master plan to destroy any happiness Othello has. Iago gets into the hearts and minds of his colleagues so he can use psychological and emotional control over them. Harold Bloom, Professor of Humanities at Yale University, compares Iago to the devil because of Iago’s unusual resentment towards Othello and his plot to destroy not only Othello but also his wife and everything Othello values (Introduction Modern Critical Interpretations page 1). The only explanation Iago gives for his behavior is "I am not, what I am" (act 1 line 60). Shakespeare uses the character, Iago, to show that it is dangerous to believe any individual completely. The eagerness of Othello and Roderigo to accept Iago’s lies shows that they found some strange type of comfort in what he was saying. In a profound statement, Professor Steven Hale says that Iago is successful in manipulating Othello, because of Othello’s yearning to be sure of something in his marriage to Desdemona (lecture, Georgia Perimeter College). The relationships between Iago and the other characters display that one’s own emotions and desires can be used against one when interacting individually with another person.
The emotional attitudes in the tragedy display vulnerabilities that are caused by interrelation among characters. Othello portrays emotional attitudes in such a way that they touch a very personal core and remind the drama’s audience how fragile man truly is. Emotional attitudes such as marital love, admiration, jealousies, prejudices, greed, and self insecurities enable an Othello viewer to identify with a certain or all of the characters. As Carol Neely points out " The play develops out of the oppositions of attitudes, viewpoints, and sexes,"("Women and Men in Othello" Critical Essays 70). Understanding this point is essential to understanding the play because each of the attitudes and emotions presented in the play are balanced to an equally contrary emotion or attitude such as love, hate or pride and self insecurity.
Prejudices, rather racial or sexist, are clearly portrayed in the play to point out the injustice caused by such attacks on a person’s humanity. Racism is an inescapable component of Othello’s life just as sexism is a major component of the women’s lives in Othello. From the very start of the tragedy, the viewer is bombarded with the overtly racist and sexual language of Iago to Brabantio,
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise. Arise!
. . .
Or else the devil will make you a grandsire of you.
Act 1.1 (lines 84-89)
This negative imagery of Othello and his new wife is demonstrated before a viewer sees or hears Othello or his bride. Yet, this kind of injustice and racism, whether hidden or public, is what Othello must deal with constantly. Later, Brabantio proclaims to Othello and the senate, " A maiden never bold/…. / To fall in love with what she feared to look on!" (act 1.3 lines 94 and 99). Such harsh words from Brabantio, Othello’s father-in-law, no doubt damages Othello’s pride and feelings. Yet, he must encounter them with the utmost respect and honor. It is in this atmosphere that Othello the noble Moorish general of royal lineage must thrive. Eldred Jones has stated this well saying, "Brabantio, ignoring the facts angrily classes Othello with bond slaves and pagans…. Brabantio reflects popular prejudices"("Othello- An Interpretation" Critical Essays 42). For these reasons, Othello is weary; he is always seen as an outsider despite constant effort and service to Venice. Shakespeare sets the tragedy of Othello in type of hostile environment to enable an audience to understand the unfairness and struggles that a person like Othello would have to cope with in real life.
In the tragedy, sexism is in many ways seen as more acceptable than racism. Iago openly jokes about a woman’s worth by saying to Desdemona,
Come on, come on! You are pictures out of the door,
Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens
devils being offended, players in your housewifery
and housewives in your beds. (act 2.1 lines 108-112)
Although a joke, Iago’s speech represents a type of mistrust in all women. Furthermore Brabantio reminds Othello that Desdemona may be unfaithful to him. These kinds of perceptions make women very susceptible to the whims of men.
However strong the emotional attitude of prejudices may be in Othello, Love is the most powerful emotion and ironically the emotion that leads to the most vulnerability. Loves of all kinds are tested in the tragedy and ultimately all fail to rectify the horrible situation. Marital love for Othello and Desdemona serve as both a heaven and a hell on earth. As Othello portrays by saying,
If I were now to die
'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like unto
Succeeds in unknown fate. (act 2.1 188-191)
Such statement gives mixed messages suggesting happiness yet weariness about the future. Susan Snyder has cited the same irony in Othello’s statement "… Othello celebrate his peak of joy, yet so markedly his invocations of death and fear make us apprehensive" ("Beyond the Comedy" Critical interpretations 24). Emilia’s love for her husband, Iago, leaves her nothing but regret and deep despair. Emilia, out of love for her husband, Iago, betrays Desdemona and steals her precious handkerchief. Emilia does this "to please Iago’s fancy"( 3.3 lines 290-295). By the time Emilia realizes her horrible mistake, Desdemona is dead which could possibly be partly due to Emilia's misgivings. Cassio’s love and admiration for Othello leaves him constantly striving to regain Othello’s love and respect. Even after being demoted by Othello, Cassio still loves and shows the utmost respect for Othello by saying "I would rather sue to be despised than to deceive/ so good a commander with… so drunken…officer." Love is the central emotional attitude in the play, Othello. Yet, love does not help the characters workout their problems.
Feelings of insecurities, in the characters, further develop out of their love or attachment to a certain character character. Othello is already insecure about his place in Venetian society, but to face losing Desdemona love to a younger white male is just too much for him. Susan Snyder states "Barbantio, Iago and finally Othello see the love Between Othello and Desdemona as unnatural, ‘nature erring from it self’." Othello expresses this through his statement,
. . . Haply for I am black
and have no soft parts of conversation
That chambers have, or for I am declined
Into vale of years- yet that’s not much-
She’s gone. I am abused, . . .
Furthermore Desdemona finds herself and her self-worth in question after Othello’s cruel treatment to her. She says " And his unkindness may defeat my life,/ But never taint my love" (4.2 line 159-160) Shakespeare makes the characters think love will bring them the most joy, but it actually brings them the most pain and suffering. This is done to portray that uncertainly of all that is in life and to make one think more about putting all ones faith, or hope in one object or person.
In Othello, the most prominent emotions of love, jealousy and finally hate lead into one another to further intensify each and bring about a most tragic end. Hate and jealously are a response to insecurities felt over the beloved of each character. In turn, all the emotions bring total destruction to any peace of mind or happiness that any of the major characters may have. By the end of the drama, Othello, the once loving husband, has become a green-eyed monster. He is so filled with jealousy that he does not even listen to Emilia’s repeated denial of an affair between Desdemona and Cassio. He kills Desdemona, then afterwards kills himself due to regret and shame. Anthony Barthelemy claims, " In other word the play undoes what it does: It turns a heroic Moor into a villainous Moor…"(Introduction, Critical Essays, 2). This is exactly what Shakespeare wanted to prove, that love can turn to hate and admiration can turn to jealousy. Most importantly, Shakespeare demonstrated that everything good in life may turn into something bad.
Othello is a tragedy about human nature and relationships. One critic has written that the love of Othello and Desdemona is like the love of Adam and Eve before and after the fall (Barthelemy, Introduction Critical Essays 12). This is true because Othello commits a horrific act out of jealousy and self-insecurities. However he learns from his mistakes and regrets his actions. Shakespeare, through Othello, reminds humans how vulnerable they truly are and that they must accept themselves and other people as they are.
Barthelemy, Anthony G. "Introduction" Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Othello. Ed. Anthony G. Barthelemy Pub. Macmillan New York, NY 1994. (page 1-19)
Bartels, Emily C. "Strategies of submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the assertion of desire" Studies of English Literature Spring 1996: (Online) accessed. April 27 1999 http://www. Galileo pechnet.edu
Bloom, Harold. "Introduction" Modern Critical Interpretations, Othello Ed. Harold Bloom, Pub. Chelsea House New Haven CT 1987. (1-6)
Hale, Steven. Class lectures. Georgia Perimeter College. April 20th –30th, 1999
Jones, Eldred. "Othello- An Interpretation" Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Othello. Ed. Anthony G. Barthelemy Pub. Macmillan New York, NY 1994. (page 39-55)
Neely, Carol. "Women and Men in Othello" Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Othello. Ed. Anthony G. Barthelemy Pub. Macmillan New York, NY 1994. (page 68-90)
Snyder, Susan. "Beyond the Comedy: Othello" Modern Critical Interpretations, Othello Ed. Harold Bloom, Pub. Chelsea House New Haven CT 1987. (page 23-37)