What might be a good thesis statement involving good and evil in the human condition as depicted in Shakespeare's Othello?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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One way to deal with the topic of good and evil as it is presented in William Shakespeare’s play Othello might be to rank the characters along a spectrum ranging from severe evil to exemplary goodness.  Iago, obviously, might represent one end of the spectrum; Desdemona might represent the other.  One might then discuss where and why each of the other characters falls in this spectrum.  Which characters are closer to Iago on the spectrum, and which characters are closer to Desdemona?  One might also wish to discuss how even Iago and Desdemona may not be “pure,” “absolute” exemplars of good vs. evil. Even Desdemona, for instance, lies to Othello about the handkerchief, and even Iago feels that he has been wronged and injured by others.  Nevertheless, Iago is definitely at one far end of the spectrum, and Desdemona seems just as definitely at the other far end.

One might then discuss the other characters, perhaps moving from relatively minor characters (such as Brabantio) to definitely major ones (particularly Othello himself). Each of these characters could be compared and contrasted with Iago on the one hand and Desdemona on the other. Such comparison and contrast would allow an analysis to be detailed and specific: one would not be evaluating the characters in terms of large, vague, abstract ideas of good vs. evil but in terms of the actual examples of good and evil exemplified by Desdemona and Iago, respectively. Using this method, one would also be implicitly comparing and contrasting all the characters with one another, not simply with Iago and Desdemona.

In short, this approach might result in an analysis that was lengthy, comprehensive, detailed, specific, and focused.

In trying to show how Iago and Desdemona exemplify different ends of the moral spectrum, one might focus on particular speeches given by these two characters that seem to reveal their basic moral natures.  Practically any of Iago’s early exchanges with Roderigo might provide good evidence, as when he tells Roderigo, concerning Othello,

I follow him to serve my turn upon him. (1.1.42)

Or one might look at Iago’s final words in Act 1.  For Desdemona, one might look at her first speeches, in which she defends her marriage to Othello, as when she says,

I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,

And to his honors and his valiant parts

Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. (1.3.253-55)

It might be best to find early speeches by Iago and Desdemona with which to sketch their essential moral characters, so that speeches and characters who come later can more justly be compared and contrasted with the speeches by these two moral opposites.

 

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Here's how you might include the idea of the Great Chain of Being.  According to the "great chain" theory, humans are superior to animals because humans possess the ability to reason. God also possesses this ability, but his reasoning is  perfect, unlike ours.  Goodness is closely associated with reason; evil is closely associated with a failure to reason properly OR with a perversion of reason. The central purpose of reason is to help us know God.  Iago corrupts his reason -- he uses his reason to commit evil.  Desdemona uses her reason in ways that show her closeness to God.

You thesis might go something like this:

In William Shakespeare's Othello, the characters can be distinguished from one another in several ways. The characters who use reason properly (such as Desdemona) tend to be higher on the "Great Chain of Being" and therefore tend to be morally good. . . .

See if you can provide a sentence that balances the second one here -- a sentence dealing with the "bad" characters.  If you can provide such a sentence, you should have a decent thesis statement.

One way to think of the "great chain" itself is that it is a kind of spectrum, with God at the top and non-living matter (such as stones) at the bottom.  The closer one gets to God, the better, morally, one is likely to be.  A stone is non-living; a plant is living; an animal is living but mainly functions according to instinct and emotion; humans possess reason as well as emotions; angels possess far greater reasoning powers than we do; God is pure Reason (as well as pure Beauty, Love, Goodness, etc.).

What makes Iago so dangerous and reprehenisible is that he perverts reason, using it to produce evil.  (In this sense, he strongly resembles Satan.) Desdemona, in her speeches in act 1, as well as in her conversation late in the play with Emilia, uses reason very well.  Othello falls somewhere between these two other characters: he starts out reasoning well but then allows his reason to become corrupted, as can be seen especially in the speech he gives right before he kills Desdemona.

Hope this helps!  Be sure to copy nothing and be sure to cite all secondary sources. The worst thing any student can do (in a teacher's eyes) is copy (i.e., plagiarize).  Students often don't realize how serious an offense plagiarism is, so I always like to stress this point.

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dubba | eNotes Newbie

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Instead of 'infer' I should use 'illustrate' in the thesis

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dubba | eNotes Newbie

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So I can my thesis be evaluative?  I always think thesises are always yes or no and why...anyways I tok a stab at a thesis and I appreciate any feedback from whomever.

"Shakespeare uses a moral spectrum, from Iago to Desdamona, to infer the human condition's superiority over the prevailing philosphy at the time, 'the great chain of being'."

I feel it can be tighter and more to the point, but I think I am on the right track?  In the PM I sent I mentioned how my prof was adamant about knowing the 'great chain of being' and put it into context of the play.  Knowing at the time that this is how society thought the world was 'ordered'.

So I kind of asked myself why Shakespeare would have a King (the presumed top of the 'great chain') fall becuase of his emotions (the bottom of the chain)...he is trying to dispell the myth that man is in control and above his emotions.

Thanks in advance.

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dubba | eNotes Newbie

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Thanks for the response.  I PM'ed you but I guess I'll post on here as well (new to eNotes).  I have never quite understood how I am to write a thesis when I am comparing and contrasting.  Obviously its got to be a clear idea of what I am trying to write about, but I am comparing and contrasting not neccesarily 'arguing' something.  How to formulate a thesis that one can agree or disagree with when I am doing this sort of essay?

Thanks in advance.

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