Othello, considered as one of the most painful Shakespearean tragedies (Bradley 176), is a fine demonstrator of a man’s mental vulnerability when temptation begins to penetrate his mind, blurring his judgment. In the book Shakespearean Tragedy, Othello is not only a noble hero who is brought down by fatal jealousy,perhaps, because he has married before his time “But, I pray you, sir, Are you fast married? (II, 10-12), according to Iago, but also a protagonist of domestic tragedy that is characterized byrepetitive themes, such as love and hate, intrigue and jealousy, revenge and suspicion, self-interest, racism and judgment (Hunt 55). Othellois definitely courageous and efficient in the battle field, judging from his accomplishments in the militia, where he started as a mercenary soldier and is now a general in the army serving the republic of Venice; however, his insecurities and masterly manipulations of people around him, together with his weak character and background, lead to his destruction. He steps into a fight with evil, where his insecurities feed his jealousy, which in turns resulted to him murdering his other half.
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To begin with, Othello apart from being considered a valued army general he is also referenced as “the Moor”, meaning a North African native, throughout the majority of the play. At a very basic level, he is looking for acceptance and respect based on his difference of race. One of the very first references that display what people think of Othello is by Roderigo, “But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier/To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (I.i.126-29 p.612). Despite the fact that he has won the trust of the Venetian government and leads the voyage to Cyprus, his origins seem to get into the way and prevent him from being fully accepted socially. In other words, although Othello’s professional life was highly appreciated, his personal life was not. On the contrary, Othello is presented as a man that will take advantage of Brabantio’s daughter. Indicatively, Iago, expressing the prevailing views of his time says to Barbantio: “an old black ramIs topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you: Arise, I say” (I.i. 90-93 p.612). With Iago’s words one can comprehend the race discrimination Othello had to put up with.
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Othello is also naïve enough to trust Iago with his personal affairs. He thinks of Iago as a loving, honest friend and he puts his opinion on Iago over Emilia’s word for her husband being a dishonest, mean man: “My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago” (II. 160 p. 652). It is obvious, though, that from the moment his “honest” friend tells him of Desdemona’s supposed adultery, meaning her affair with Cassio, Othello blocks his rational thinking process and becomes emotional. He did not even stop to question Iago’s accusations. The fact that the family heirloom, a handkerchief with special magical powers, which was a gift from Othello to his wife as a token of his affection for her, ended up in Emily’s hands and in turns to Iago’s, was conceived by Othello as another act of disregard on behalf of Desdemona.
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As a result, Othello was convinced of his wife’s adultery and even though his jealousy was created out of sheer illusion, it penetrated his soul (Ardolino, 2006 p.50). Could it be that he felt superior to Desdemona’s noble cast and place in society that he sees himself unworthy of her love? There is certainly a good reason for his behavior and mindset. Othello appears unable to control his feelings and finds a way out via violence. He showed his rage by killing the woman he loved, but as soon as he realized what he had done, and just a step before taking his own life, he admits that he had loved her, yet wisely: “Of one that loved not wisely but too well” (II 354 p.655). Definitely a portrait of a mentally ill individual.
On the other hand, Desdemona appears helpless to prove her love and devotion to Othello. Although she can stand up for her marriage, her position in society does not allow her to do much. When she is credited with some sort of activity throughout the play, she is characterized as a manipulative woman using witchcraft (Neely, 1977 p. 134). As a matter of fact, witchcraft is often used as an accusation in Othello, as Othello himself was accused of using witchcraft to mesmerize Desdemona: “She is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted/ By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks; For nature so preposterously to err, Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, Sans witchcraft could not” (I.iii.62-66 p.616).
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That being said, to many critics, Othello was not a demonstration of a battle between good and evil, rather than among sexes in marriage (Neely, 1977 p. 134). Interestingly enough, the play showcases how people used to think of those getting married. Couples that were bound with the bonds of marriage would be mocked. Indicatively, Emilia tells Othello: “O mistress, villany hath made mocks with love, My husband say that she was false!” (IV.ii. 158-159 p. 652). So, one can understand that Othello had lots to confront on a personal level, and his origins, as well as the prevailing social perceptions on many things, like one’s marital status and their role in the family and society, definitely put an obstacle to his rational thinking process. That made him vulnerable and weak; completely unable to balance what society expected from him and his own desires and feelings.
Specific characters played a significant role in Othello’s mind manipulation and affected the overall outcome. Although, according to Bradley (1905), “Evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the character of Iago” (207), one needs to be careful when interpreting Iago’s words, as they may fail to identify truth from lie in them and misinterpret Iago’s sayings (Bradley 211). Iago may be a mystery; yet, if one looks at how his desires change throughout the play, and what are his intentions towards the other characters of the play, his personality is not much of a mystery anymore (Zender 323). Iago appears to feel rather incompetent, due to his social place and education and sees dangers and betrayals everywhere, even when they are not there.
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For example, when Cassio kisses Emilia as a token of his noble breeding and manners, Iago, immediately answers: “Sir, would she give you so much of her lipsAs of her tongue she oft bestows on me,You’ll have enough” (II.i. 102-103 p.622). He also seems to have a bizarre change of interest for Desdemona that complexes as the play unfolds. At first, Desdemona is not of great interest for Iago, but soon she becomes the center of his desire, in a very twisted way. Iago wanted to sleep with Desdemona, just as he thought Othello had done with Emilia, until he reaches a final stage, where he wished for Desdemona’s death (Zender 323): “Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, eventhe bed she hath contaminated” (IV.i.209-210 p. 642). All through the play, he tries to pass on the message that there are different categories of women such as fair and wise, and foul and foolish (Zender 331), as a means to strongly point out that there, in fact, do not exist deserving women (Zender 331), in contrast to Desdemona’s speech in Act II. Indicatively, he says that women are good to “suckle fools and chronicle small beer” (II.i.160 p.623). His misogyny and strong will to destroy Desdemona give him a powerful motive to play with Othello’s mind and make him want to take Desdemona’s life.
However, Iago’s goal is not only to see Desdemona fall, but to put Othello in an endless torture and destroy all Othello cherishes, rather than see him dead (Zender 333) “Itcannot be that Desdemona should long continue herlove to the Moor,– put money in thy purse,–nor hehis to her” (I.iii 343-346 p.620)and for that reason he uses Desdemona’s beauty and virtue to provoke Othello’s jealousy. What is the reason for all this obsession on behalf of Iago? Zender (1994) gives an interesting viewpoint, according to which Iago wanted to cover his social and physic inadequacy, as he was nowhere near Othello’s eloquence and social class, by becoming a tyrannous to his own wife (335). When Emilia rebelled against Iago, his misogyny aroused greater than before and wanted the same to happen to Othello. Another point of view wants Iago to have fallen in love with Desdemona and her strangulation, as he has foretold, would be a way to silence her not only to the world but inside him too (Zender333). Iago clearlydespises Othello and wants him to suffer, due to a fake certainly: “I hate the Moor:And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets. He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,Will do as if for surety” (I.iii. 385-389 p.620). A man driven and blinded by passion can do a lot of things, and most of them are rather immoral and unethical. This is exactly what Iago does to Othello’s mind, when he repeatedly praises Desdemona’s good voice and her other skills and virtues.
To Othello, Desdemona was a woman with principles and kind heart, inner strength unlike other women’s, who gave him great support when he needed it: “To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart […] She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:She swore, in faith, twas strange, ’twas passing strange […] shethank’d me,And bade me” (I.iii, 161-165, p 617). He deeply believed that she was there for him and has come to love him, due to his misfortunes and challenges in life. From the state of deep love and appreciation, he has certainly gone a long way, since he turned into accusing her of adultery and strongly desired to take her life, which he actually did in the end. So, one can understand that a lot has changed in his mind throughout the play, revealing his troubled mind and inability to keep balance in his life. Living in a masculine world, Othello had to stand up to his masculine traits and expected role. That was to remain intact by women’s influence. In Othello’s time, women were perceived as dangerous beings because they had the power to transform a masculine man into an emotional lover and husband (Neely, 1977 p.136). Like aforementioned, Othello had great influence from the society he was living in. So, consequently, he could not help it but fall into that groundless social perception about women: “O! she will sing the savageness out of a bear: of so high and plenteous wit and invention” (IV.i.196-98 p.642), in his delirium while talking with his “honest” friend Iago in Act IV. In fact, his jealousy steeps in such dangerous levels that he became completely incapable of coming to terms of his going into extremes and that his jealousy had indeed blinded him.
Othello’s mental torture made him long for revenge and it is so unbearable and uncontrolled that things only get worse for him. Driven by Iago’s mental manipulation and masterly use of language, Othello’s vicious feeling are accelerated by his racism act: “Arise ,black vengeance ,from the hollow hell!” (III.iii.461 p.636) and is followed by a cold-blooded seek for vengeance through violent means “O, blood, blood, blood!” (III.iii.467 p.636). Othello becomes a blood-thirsty “betrayed” husband desperately seeking of social acceptance and establishing his role and reputation in society. His feelings rapidly escalate “Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love, Till that a capable and wide revenge Swallow them up” (III.iii.473-76 p.636). One might say that he may be struggling inside to balance existing categories of differences; yet, his barbarous nature prevents him from repairing his fractured sense of self, which is why his only way to resolve things is through the only effective way he knows his entire life: violence (Feather).
To sum up, Othello was cunningly manipulated by a man that he thought as his friend and swore for his honesty. Iago, using rhetorical deception and masterly coded language managed to twist Othello’s mind and make him desire for Desdemona’s death more than anything in the world. He assured Othello into believing false conclusions that placed Desdemona in another man’s bed, which made Othello, without ever really giving himself, his wife and their marriage the time to talk things through and let the truth shine, want to restore his lost pride.
Looking into the social environment Othello was raise in, one can see that there were prevailing concepts that Othello could not –or did not want to- escape, like the fact that men had to be masculine and not be drawn into a woman’s tricks that turned men into “foolish” husbands. Also, Othello had to confront the fact that he was indeed an outcast in his society. He was a remarkable soldier and general, yet in his personal life he was nothing but a black Moore trying to make a fit with the rest of his world. No matter what were the real reasons behind Iago’s intentions, meanness, viciousness and misogyny, truth is that he managed to put Othello into a mental torture that eventually destroyed him.
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