How is the concept of identity shown to be fluid and changeable over the course of Othello?

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

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One of Shakespeare's aspects of pure talent in Othello is to show how identity is not static.  It is the result of how individuals perceive the outside world. Shakespeare shows that identity and the way in which one sees themselves can be dependent on the world around them.  In some regards, this construction of self- identity asserts that individual freedom and action is dependent on reality outside of the individual. As a result, Shakespeare posits a concept of identity that is malleable, reflective of how the individual in the modern setting.

Othello, himself, is an example of a fluid notion of identity throughout the drama.  The way in which Othello is at the start of the drama is not how he is by the end of it.  In the opening of the drama, Othello is quite secure and safe in how he sees himself.  His identity is fixed in his own mind, but Shakespeare also shows it as contingent on the external conditions that surround him:

Let him do his spite:
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints. 'Tis yet to know,—
Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,
I shall promulgate—I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reach'd: for know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth.

Othello's sense of identity is rooted in being a man of "royal siege," and linked to a "fortune" that he has "reach'd."  In this construction, Othello's "unhoused free condition" is actually linked to external reality.  Othello asserts a construction of identity that is dependent on the perceptions of others.  While Shakespeare offers a confident and secure characterization, it reflects how individual identity is fluid when it is linked to other aspects that exist outside of self.  Brabantio experiences this same fluid identity in how he perceives Desdemona.  He is a doting and loving father, essential to his concept of self. However, when she disobeys him, he remarks, "Who would be a father," as a repudiation of his identity that is the result of her mistreatment. In Desdemona's husband and father, one sees how identity is fluid. It is not consistent and stable because it is dependent on the world around the individual and the external perceptions others may hold of the individual.

It is in this regard where Othello is able to fall victim to Iago's machinations. Iago is able to use Othello's self- identity linked to external reality as the way to convince him of Desdemona's unfaithful condition.  As Iago uses more and more external constructions of reality, Othello's own identity changes.  The once certain elements erode and in their place is insecurity and doubt. Shakespeare argues that identity changes and is fluid when human beings link it to external reality, an entity that is constantly shifting and in flux.  Othello's final speech reflects this seismic change in the outer world that has embedded itself within his own sense of self: "Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,/ It is the cause."  "The cause" of Othello's pain is external, caused by her perceived unfaithfulness.  His sense of identity has been broken as a result of this external condition.  Identity that was so linked to her favor and her embrace has been shifted with insinuation that this was not the case.  Desdemona has become a "flaming minister," reflective of how external reality has tainted her in Othello's eyes. The "fatal" aspect of her kiss is only because external reality has changed how Othello perceives and understands her. This final moment is indicative of how identity changes based on external reality.  Through Othello, Shakespeare suggests that Human beings who choose to connect their own identity and build their own notion of self upon a firmament of what exists outside of them will always experience a shifting and malleable notion of self. 

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