How is conflict portrayed in Othello?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Conflict is portrayed in a variety of ways in Shakespeare's work.  Unlike some of the larger scale dramas like Hamlet or Macbeth that focus conflict on the premise of kingdoms and political dramas, Othello is unique in that it internalizes all of the conflict.  In this light, conflict has political implications, but it is rooted in the nature of the subjective.  There might be underlying causes for conflict such as the status of "insider/ outsider" or the issue of racial prejudice, or gender challenges, yet all of these are rooted in the fundamental insecurity that exists within the human psyche.  It is here where Shakespeare's genius is on display for all to see. Sociological struggles and conflicts on a social scale can all be rooted to some foundational disconnect within the human heart.  In bringing out this psychological dimension to conflict, Othello places this on full display for all to say.

The idea of Othello possessing doubt and insecurity about who he is in the world and how others perceive him is his weakness.  Iago understands this perfectly and aims his daggers here.  In this domain, conflict is personalized and then externalized to another.  Iago, fundamentally distraught at being passed over for promotion, understands human motivation and weakness.  In this, he targets what he does and ensures that conflict becomes the manner in which individual relate to one another.  It is through this where individuals function and operate.  There is little in way of productive dialogue and transparency in discussion.  Iago ensures this by striking at the weaknesses of individuals, exploiting their own pain and heartache for his own benefit while making them feel as if they have autonomy.  In presenting things not as they are, conflict becomes the manner in which individuals relate to one another.  Othello with Cassio, Othello with Desdemona, Othello with self are all examples of conflict in which there is strict division between how things should be and how things are handled.  The conflict lies between how people "should be" in a domain where few know really how "they are."

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