Othello as a tragic play
Othello is a tragic play, which was written in 1604 by William Shakespeare. It is based on a novel written by Giradi Cinthio, where Disdemona falls greatly in love with a Moor. The play follows Othello- a black General of the Venetian army, who is gradually driven crazy by Iago- one of his soldiers. Iago targets Othello’s tragic flaw- jealousy. This flaw is shared by Iago. Throughout the duration of the play, Shakespeare uses dramatic devices such as soliloquy, dramatic irony and comic relief. Soliloquy is used by Shakespeare in most cases to convey a characters feelings or plans. During Othello, the characters that have soliloquies are Othello and Iago.
Iago attempts to completely ruin Othello because he hates him, one of his reasons for this is he dislikes black people. Iago refers to Othello as ‘thick-lips,’ this is a racial insult. Very sporadically does Iago refer to Othello in a respectful manner other than when he is there. Iago also suspects that Othello has slept with his wife:
‘…I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
H’as done my office.’
(Act 1, scene 3)
This is a soliloquy used to tell the audience that Iago thinks his wife, Emilia, has slept with Othello. I think Shakespeare put this soliloquy in, in order to make the audience bond with Iago’s character and to sympathise with him..Iago feels greatly aggrieved that he was overlooked for promotion by the moor and instead Cassio was promoted to Lieutenant:
‘But he, as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them with bombastic circumstance,
Horribly stuffed with epithets of war,
Nonsuits my mediators. For, ‘Certes,’ says he,
‘I have already chose my officer,’ And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmatician,’
(Act 1, scene 1)
Othello had fought in battles with Iago, thus he feels betrayed that he was not promoted by his comrade. Iago also had many supporters he feels Othello has disregarded. The audience is induced into feeling sorry for Iago. This means that when it is revealed how dark Iago’s character is compared with Othello that the drama and emotional intensity is greater.
Iago also blames Cassio for not getting promotion and is resentful towards him. He sees Cassio as more of a child than a leader:
‘Mere prattle without practice
Is all his soldiership.’
(Act 1, scene 1)
Iago thinks he should have been promoted because Cassio has no experience of battle and all he has learnt has been in a military academy. Iago is a xenophobic, which is another reason for his hating Cassio ‘One Michael Cassio, a Florentine. ‘This is very similar to Iago’s hatred of black people. Cassio is an outsider just as Othello this threatens Iago’s xenophobic side.
Iago suspects Cassio of sleeping with Emilia also,’…I fear Cassio with my night cap too.’ By making Iago have suspicions Shakespeare shows us that Iago is a paranoid and jealous character. Cassio is good looking, and Iago hates him for it:
Knave is handsome, young, and hath all those
Requisites in him that folly and green minds look after.’
(Act 2, scene 1)
Iago speaks jealously and mentions how naï¿½ve lovers of Cassio’s must be.
Iago puts much trust in Rodrigo. Either that or he thinks Rodrigo is to stupid to comprehend and repeat what he had hears:
‘Though I do hate him as I do hell-pains,
Yet, for necessity of present life,
I must show out a flag and sign of love,
Which is needed but sign.’
(Act 1, scene 1)
Iago is making plans to gain the trust of Othello so that he can destroy him. The first sign of Iago carrying out his plans was in Act 1, scene 1, where Iago goes to Brabantio and calls to him while hiding behind a rock and remaining anonymous:
‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping you’re your white ewe’
(Act 1, scene 1)
Iago appeals to Brabantio’s racial prejudices. He speaks in crude language, using sexually animalistic phrases. Shakespeare uses repetition for emphasis. This is a dramatic device. Iago hides behind a rock because he knows Brabantio and to be recognised this early on as a troublemaker would tarnish his reputation and ruin his plans to become close to Othello and to be greatly trusted. However, all this effort went to waste as the Duke of Venice was told by Othello and Desdemona that they are legally married and are greatly in love. This does actually prove to be of some use to Iago’s cause later on because he reminds Othello of the advice that Brabantio gave to Othello at this point, ‘She has deceived her father and may do thee.’
The scene is than suddenly changed from Venice to Cyprus. This would have been written like this for dramatic effect. Venice is a safe, well governed, civilised environment. Cyprus is uncivilised, unsafe and vulnerable. The reason for going to Cyprus was to fight a war with the Turks, but they sank in storms. Cyprus represents Othello because it is vulnerable is on its own in a sea of white people. Turks represent Iago because he attacks Cyprus (Othello). The soldiers celebrate because they think the enemy is dead, when in fact the enemy is Iago, this is dramatic irony as the enemy is within because the real downfall will be Iago.
Iago is a very persuasive individual and this is well represented in Act 2, scene 3. In this scene, Iago persuades Cassio to get drunk. This is easy as Cassio says he has ‘very poor and unhappy brains for drinking;’ this will cloud his judgement and will make him aggressive. Iago also persuades Rodrigo to provoke Cassio into a fight so his reputation will be severely damaged, especially as Cassio should be guarding Othello’s quarters. Rodrigo goes along with the plan as he thinks that Cassio is trying to make Desdemona fall in love with him. Rodrigo actually believes that he has a chance with Desdemona so he will do anything to stop him.
Iago’s plan works. Cassio draws his sword on Rodrigo and is stopped by the Governor of Cyprus. In the struggle Cassio stabs the Governor. Othello demotes Cassio yet does not promote Iago. This angers Iago. Othello asks Iago what happened, so Iago seizes the opportunity to further his plan. He pretends to be faithful to Cassio by refusing to tell Othello what happened:
‘I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth
Than it should speak offence to Michael Cassio.’
(Act 2, scene 3)
Cassio believes Iago to be a true friend and refers to him as ‘honest Iago,’ this is dramatic irony because we know this to be untruthful. Iago tells Othello a slightly twisted version of the story This makes Othello feel secure and trust Iago. This is ironic because Iago is trying to ruin Othello and the audience know that so there is an increase in tension.
Everyone leaves except from Iago, this gives the latter a chance to give Cassio false advice. He tells him that he should go to Desdemona and:
‘Confess yourself freely to her; importune her help to put you in your place again.
She is so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested.’
(Act 2, scene 3)
This was probably good advice at the time from Cassio’s point of view. This leads to Cassio spending a lot of time with Desdemona and makes her speak of Cassio a lot to her husband. When Iago suggests she is unfaithful, he can back it up by mentioning the attention Desdemona has given to Cassio.
By Act 3, scene 3, Cassio has spoken to Desdemona many times about being reinstated and she has agreed to talk to Othello. Desdemona is talking Cassio in a room as Iago and Othello walk past. Iago begins to plant doubt in the mind of Othello about his wife’s loyalty. He says ‘Ha! I like not that.’ This makes Othello question him of what he saw. Iago pretends not to know. Othello asked if it was Cassio. In response, Iago turned an innocent comment into a big thing by lying:
‘Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.’
(Act 3, scene 3)
By using the words ‘steal away’ and ‘guilty’ Shakespeare makes it sound like Iago is leading Othello on and invites Othello to question his wife about what she was doing, she said ‘I have been talking with a suitor here.’ The word ‘suitor’ is ambiguous and can either mean someone with a legal case to pursue, or a lover. This is typical of the way that Shakespeare portrays Desdemona. She is shown to be naï¿½ve and to always say the wrong thing at the wrong time. She is naï¿½ve in that she has little perception of heated situations when she might want to keep quiet.
Everything is going very well for Iago; Desdemona pesters Othello about Cassio. Othello says to her, ‘I will deny thee nothing.’ He obviously is still in little doubt of Desdemona’s faith. There is quite a large difference between this statement of love and, ‘Why did I marry?'(Act 3, scene 3) for them to be in same scene. Shakespeare shows us how persuasive Iago is and how much Othello trusts him. This conjures more sympathy for Othello.
Iago takes this opportunity to put even more doubt in Othello’s mind by reminding him of her fathers warning, ‘She hath deceived her father, and may thee.’ It is quite ironic that at the time his response was, ‘My life upon her faith.’ I think his opinions had changed at the end of
Act 3, scene 3. Iago uses repetition to make Othello think about what he saying, to place doubt in his mind over whether he should naturally be happy about what Iago finds most absurd.
Othello: ‘Oh, yes, and went between us very oft.’
Othello: ‘Indeed? Ay, indeed! Discern’st though aught in that?
Is he not honest?’
Iago: ‘Honest, my lord?’
Othello: ‘Honest? Ay, honest.’
(Act 3, scene 3)
Iago’s use of short ominous remarks provokes Othello into thinking that he is being economical with the truth. He makes Othello think more deeply into what he is saying and question his own comments. Othello is now curious and interested as to what he is thinking. Iago is portrayed to be very cunning and resourceful in his fight to make Othello kill his wife. So he reminded Othello of a fact or 17th century life:
‘In Venice they do not let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone but, keep’t unknown.’
(Act 3, scene 3)
Venice was the sex capital of Europe, therefore Iago uses this as evidence for his prosecution that Desdemona is promiscuous. This is quite a commonly used method of planting doubt in Othello’s mind by Iago. Othello would have been left thinking, ‘should I be married to a Venician?’ ‘Am I normal?’
The ocular proof that Othello demanded from Iago came by luck. This luck that Iago has makes the audience feel sympathy for Othello because he never gets any. His wife- Emilia, Desdemona’s maid; had picked up Desdemona’s special handkerchief when she had dropped it. She was not sure whether to give it to Iago or not, as he had been indifferent to her lately. She decides to give it to him anyway; ‘I nothing but to please his fantasy.’ She says his fantasy because he had asked her to steal it many times, she believes that he may have some sort of crush on Desdemona but she does not become jealous. Iago is very happy in a devious way, this is all he needs to prove to Othello that his wife is unfaithful. This frustrates the audiencewhich increases the dramatic tension of the scene:
‘I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin
And let him find it.’
(Act 3, scene 3)
Shakespeare uses soliloquy to explain Iago’s plan, that is he will plant the handkerchief in Cassio’s living quarters. Iago told Othello that he saw the handkerchief in Cassio’s room, which Othello is angry.
These scenes are very tense and tragic so Shakespeare has used a dramatic device called comic relief, this allows the audience to calm down and adds to a false sense of security so that when the action restarts, it is makes a larger impact.
Later that day Desdemona is wiping Othello’s brow. He notices that the handkerchief is not the special one he gave her so he asks her for it, Iago had already told him that he had seen Cassio with it:
Othello: ‘Fetch’t, let me see’t!’
Desdemona: ‘Why, so I can; but I will not now.
This is a trick to put me from my suit:
Pray you let Cassio be received again.’
Othello: ‘Fetch me the handkerchief! My mind misgives.’
(Act 3, scene 4)
This is extremely ironic. There is a huge rise of tension in the audience because they want Desdemona to shut up, because she is talking about Cassio sweetly when Cassio is the very reason why Othello is angry. These sentences are probably the best examples of dramatic irony in the play. Othello is at his most erratic; he is like this because of Iago’s huge influence. Shakespeare conveys Othello’s anger to the reader by the contrast in length of his sentences to Desdemona. He speaks in short sentences with many exclamation marks. Whereas Desdemona speaks normally in long flowing sentences. She has no clue of her husband’s suspicions and the reason behind his demands. This highlights the effort and genius Iago put into his plan and the execution of the plan.
The ‘icing on the cake’ for Iago and his plans is when he makes Othello think Cassio has admitted to sleeping with his wife. Iago advises Othello to hide and eavesdrop on his conversation with Cassio. Othello thinks that Iago and Cassio are going to speak about Desdemona. Iago has a plan, ‘Now I will question Cassio of Bianca,’ thus he will entice Cassio’s sexual fantasies of Bianca and the Moor will think he is self incriminating:
Iago: ‘I never knew woman who love a man so.’
Cassio: ‘Alas, poor rogue, I think, i’faith, she loves me.’
(Act 4, scene 1)
At this point the audience would be feeling very sympathetic for everyone except for Iago and frustrated to the point of shouting out. This is proof enough for Othello, ‘I would have him nine years a-killing!’ He briefly contemplates killing Desdemona if he did not love her; he casts his mind back to the days when life was simple. ‘A fine woman, a fair woman, a sweet woman!’ Honest Iago on hand to help, as always, reminds him that he must forget that.
Othello is obliged, so he re-adopts Iago’s language, ‘Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be damned tonight; for she shall not live. This is a brilliant example of Othello’s passionate, conflicting emotions that have helped Iago many times to persuade him to kill his wife. It also shows the contrast in language used by Othello. He talks about her lovingly, like a gentleman. Iago asserts his influence and immediately he changes to the morbid, merciless and hateful language of Iago. This angers and frustrates the audience because they want to tell Othello that his wife is a good woman.
The audience begin by hearing Iago’s tales of hardship and they may feel sympathetic. Iago sees the world through a red mist and is extremely cynical, sly and hateful. Throughout his endless soliloquies of plotting, he uses language that would even be harsh in modern times. He talks as though the world is going to end unless he has his vengeance. Not even Iago was resourceful enough to carry out his plan himself, so he abused the trust and love of his friends.
He used his wife as a ‘strumpet’ and a servant, Rodrigo as his wallet and scapegoat, Desdemona as a target, Othello as a weapon and himself as the honest and innocent friend trying to patch things up. He killed his friends and would not even tell them why when he was found out. He had a huge influence on the personality and language of Othello. He planted obscene images in Othello’s mind using supposition, a handkerchief and animalistic sexual phrases. The audience could monitor Othello’s mental condition throughout the play by his language and behaviour. At the beginning of the play Othello is a true gentleman and is sexually liberal by modern standards:
‘Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
My very noble and approved good masters,
That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
It is most true; true I have married her.
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,’
(Act 1, scene 3)
There is no comparison between that and his later speeches- ‘I will chop her into messes!’ This is one of the harshest conversations in the whole play that takes place. Othello at this point is portrayed to have surpassed human reason and feelings, who beats his wife in public in front of her father and brother. The light of Desdemona and all of his true friends is extinguished by the darkness of Iago. Throughout the play Iago is represented by dark and all of the murders take place in the dark.
At the end, ‘when Iago’s treachery is fully revealed,’ Othello has seen the light of his wifes true self . Othello seems to retain his judgement:
‘Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’throat the circumcis(d dog
And smote him- thus.’
(Act 5, scene 2)
Othello stabs himself. He is saying that he is both the wrongdoer and the avenger in this dilemma. By finding the Turk who made a verbal attack on Venice, Othello thinks he is restoring Venice to its peaceful, civilised and well governed original state. This ending is what the story so tragic. The good honest man is dead along with Emilia, Rodrigo and Desdemona. I think the innocence of Desdemona makes the audience feel particularly sad when she dies. Shakespeare displays this innocence in the dramatic irony of her speech; how she always is trying to do the right thing to all of her friends and family but manages to frustrate and anger Othello so much without knowing why.
The whole play is full of representation, for example Iago represents evil and darkness. It is ironic that the good man in the play is black, as black represents evil. Iago’s whiteness is ironic as he is the darkest character in the whole play. This irony is rivalled by the honesty and goodness of Desdemona who is white and pure. The conflict of the representations is what makes this a good play and is the main topic raised within the play- whether the representations given by people can be relied upon.
Shakespeare uses a word on purpose in one scene then repeats in another for dramatic effect, ‘perdition.’ Perdition means ruin. Othello says this word when he is on the brink of chaos in Act 3, scene 3. The next time we hear it is in Act 3, scene 4. The only difference is that the latter scene he is talking of the past.
I think Shakespeare wrote this play to highlight how rumours and talk of scandal can ruin someone without there being any truth in the accusations and shows that by believing everything you hear without getting the other side of the story is not the best thing. I think this has a great relevance in modern day journalism and politics, where the truth does not matter.