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As a black man in a white man’s world, Othello exists in a highly precarious situation irrespective of his skills as a military strategist and tactician in the service of Venice. It is ethnicity – Othello is a Moor, a dark-skinned individual of northwest African descent – that provides the play’s undercurrent of racial hostility, and that contributes to Shakespeare’s protagonist’s downfall. Othello’s heritage, however, is not his fatal flaw. On the contrary, but for his hubris in marrying his friend’s daughter, the fair and lovely Desdemona, without the father’s consent, his status in Venice could have remained one of privilege. Othello’s tragic flaw could be considered the insecurity, or jealousy, that clouded his judgment, as when Iago, his duplicitous and disloyal surbordinate, angry that he has been declined the promotion that he felt he deserved, laments his subservience to his commander during a conversation with Roderigo in the play’s opening moments:
Why, there's no remedy; 'tis the curse of service,
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to the first. Now, sir, be judge yourself,
Whether I in any just term am affined
To love the Moor.
Simply referring to a superior office – Othello is a general in the Venetian Army – in racial terms (“the Moor”) suggests bitterness and hatred. It is Othello’s flaws, however, that enable Iago to so effectively manipulate his perceptions and emotions. Othello loves Desdemona very deeply, but is insecure in the relationship, unable to accept that this white woman of privilege could truly love a black outsider. As Iago manipulates Othello’s emotions, successfully planting in Othello’s mind the false suggestion of Desdemona’s infidelities, he responds to his own effectiveness with the following comment intended to have the opposite effect of his words:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!
Othello questions Iago’s assertions regarding Desdemona, struggling to believe that his wife cannot possibly be guilty of such sin:
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous:
Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt;
For she had eyes, and chose me. No, Iago;
I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this,--
Away at once with love or jealousy!
Iago very subtly but shrewdly continues to navigate the conversation towards one final resolution:
After Iago departs, Othello, whose loyalty to his wife has begun to succumb to Iago’s machinations, begins to reflect on Iago’s words and on the unlikeliness of his marriage to Desdemona. Iago has succeeded in planting the seeds of doubt, and Othello is now ripe for the kill, asking himself, “Why did I marry? This honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.” With this, the wheels are in motion, and Othello’s descent from greatness to tragedy has begun. His hubris in secretly marrying Brabantio’s daughter is a serious flaw; his most tragic flaw, however, is his insecurity surrounding the strength and integrity of his marriage.
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