How has Shakespeare used Desdemona and Iago to portray the good and evil of human nature?
I have to write a presentation on an aspect of Othello and have chosen to talk about how Shakespeare has used these two characters to portray the good and evil of human nature. I want to know what he was trying to tell his Elizabethan audience through this representation and also how this correlates to society today.
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I think that it might be easier to explore how psychological terror and intimidation can represent a form of pure evil through Iago's characterization. You should be able to find many examples of how Iago simply uses deceit and calculation to the utmost degree in manipulating individuals. Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley said that "evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the evil character of Iago." It won't be that difficult to find specific lines and instances where this evil is on display, something that Shakespeare attempted to bring out from his audience in terms of an appreciation at what "evil" can resemble. I cannot help but feel that your choice of Desdemona as "good" is going to be a challenge. It's not that I think she's bad or malevolent, but I have a difficult time finding those qualities of virtue that need to be contrasted in terms of the opposite end represented by Iago. She lies to her father, runs off with Othello lacking consent, and begins her relationship with Othello through deceit. No doubt this is something that Iago picks up on and runs with in terms of manipulating Othello. If there is a lesson here it might not be as much with Desdemona being "good" or "bad" but rather displaying how commencing a relationship predicated upon truth and honor will face difficulty if it is rendered upon a foundation of dishonesty and a lack of forthrightness. If we are looking for "good" in human nature, especially to contrast with Iago's "bad," it might be tough to find and I think it doesn't quite resonate with Desdemona.
You might discuss the difficulty of judging good and evil. Othello is a good man--honorable, brave, skilled, but he makes a horrible error in judgment. In Act 3, scene 3, Othello chooses Iago over Desdemona. It is not necessarily because he is tempted; rather it was because he was deceived. Iago appears to be good ("I am not what I am"), but in actuality is evil incarnate. He turns Desdemona's "virtue black as pitch" in Othello's eyes, and what appears to be evil to Othello is actually good.
This mistake has devastating consequences. Since Othello is the military head of state in Cyprus, he can exact the punishment. Desdemona's supposed infidelity is equated to treason, and Othello feels that he has no choice but to execute her ("It is the cause"). At the same time that Othello is contemplating Desdemona's death, he bonds more solidly with Iago. The end of Act 3, scene 3, is reminiscent of a wedding scene in which two people exchange vows. In this case the vows that are exchanged are Iago and Othello's commitment to murder the innocents: Cassio and Desdemona.
If I were writing this paper, I would focus on Othello's choice--his belief that he is is right, that he is just. You could from there explore how Iago manages to manipulate Othello and why Othello is vulnerable to Iago's manipulation. You might also explore the Christ imagery used to characterize Desdemona--especially in her death scene in Act 5. She dies asking for Othello's blessing and attempting to place the blame for her death on herself.
At the end of the play, Othello realizes that he has been duped. He calls Iago a "demi-devil that hath ensnared [his] soul and body." Othello's mistake and realization are universally relevant. It is so easy to misjudge those around us, to become suspicious because of our own failings, to embrace those that in reality want to do us harm. Shakespeare's message is as relevant to us as it was to 17th century audiences: sometimes is is very difficult to distinguish the good from the bad guys, but it is vitally important that we do so.
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