"Othello can be viewed as a kind of morality play in which the hero is a prize for which a devil named Iago and an angel named Desdemona compete." How can I assess the validity of this statement?

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This is not a perfect way of interpreting the play, as I will discuss, but it arrives at a way of understanding the play that is not wrong, because it highlights the Iago-Desdemona-Othello triangle and the tensions pulling Othello apart.

Admittedly, if we interpret the angel/devil motif as something we might see in a cartoon—in which a devil named Iago whispers into one of Othello's ears, and an angel named Desdemona into the other—this is not exactly what happens in Othello.

Iago is the devil who maliciously decides to turn Othello against his wife by convincing him she is having an affair with Cassio. He whispers insinuations to Othello, manipulates events to look like what they are not, and plays on Othello's weaknesses.

Desdemona is an angel who shows her husband love, loyalty, and devotion. That is her way of whispering into his ear: she is true to him, if he could only see it. Because she is such an angel, however, she can't imagine her husband being deceived into turning against her. Because her behavior and mind are pure, she can't imagine that Othello would believe she was having an affair with Cassio. She is still an angel, but an angel whose goodness and honesty put her at a severe disadvantage.

Othello is left with a "devil" and without a wife who knows enough about what is going on to set him straight. We can imagine that if she did know and had been whispering words to counter Iago's, Othello might have believed her. Unfortunately, Othello has to trust her without this reassurance, and, in the end, his own demons of insecurity and jealousy bring him down.

Just because Desdemona doesn't know everything Iago knows doesn't negate her role as angel. It simply puts her at a disadvantage, creating an unequal playing field. Therefore, though Desdemona and Iago can be crudely understood as "angel" and "devil," the two can't be understood as "competing."

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There's no game here, hence there can be no prize; the original statement is highly inaccurate as a summary of what Othello is all about. Iago may be the devil, but Desdemona's certainly no saint. And this is not intended as a criticism of her: quite the opposite. Desdemona's a multi-faceted character—a woman of intelligence and spirit—not some one-dimensional goody-two-shoes.

In any case, if there really were a competition between Iago and Desdemona—for anything, let alone Othello's soul—then it would be completely one-sided. The utterly ruthless Iago is intent on destroying Othello, and is prepared to use any means necessary to achieve his overriding goal. Desdemona, on the other hand, being fully human—unlike a saint and especially unlike a devil, like Iago—lacks the wherewithal to engage in any kind of conflict with the forces of unmitigated evil.

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I agree with Greg. Viewing Othello as a morality play would assume that Desdemona and Iago are both aware of the game they are playing. However, Iago is the one who controls and manipulates this game. At the very beginning of the play, Iago paints the image of Othello for the audience. Iago whispers many lies about Othello to the audience and whispers lies about others to Othello. His motivations seem unclear, and almost devilish, but Desdemona is not in an epic battle against Iago. Sadly, she does not know a game is even taking place.

Othello can better be understood as one of Shakespeare's great tragedies of love (see the JStor link I've attached below). Many scholars argue that Othello would be better titled as Othello and Desdemona, in a way that is similar to the titles of Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and JulietOthello is frequently misunderstood and the core elements of the play are misconstrued. Each tragedy of love has external factors that are tearing apart the lovers (Iago is definitely one of these forces). The play is centered around the love between Othello and Desdemona, not the potentially demonic and angelic forces of Iago and Desdemona, respectively. 

There are definitely aspects of this play that could confirm the idea that Othello is a morality play. However, this is ultimately a reductive viewing of the play. 

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I would say this statement is only of limited validity, for several reasons. First, while Iago might well be considered a devil, Desdemona is decidedly human. Second, they aren't really in contest. Iago is playing, and Desdemona, sadly, doesn't know she's in the game. It's only a valid here if it is a morality play in which the devil sets the rules.

Third, Iago's passion is so overwhelming that it really isn't a competition; he would lie, smash, destroy himself, just so Othello suffers.

Greg

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