How does Othello's power isolate him from others and what quotes prove this?

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hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Othello, the title character is a general in the Venetian army. His rank gives him power over other officers and soldiers. This is one way that his power isolates him. The phrase "it's lonely at the top" comes to mind. Othello doesn't have peers — he is the highest-ranking military officer. When the duke asks him to intervene in the war, he has to put his marriage celebrations on hold. This is a type of isolation because his military service comes before anything else in his life, even that which is most important to him, like Desdemona. The duke states in the quote below that he already has a good officer in the battle, but everyone says Othello is the better one for the job. This is an example of his power isolating him. Replacing an officer who is doing well could create enemies for Othello. 

"The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus. Othello, the fortitude of the place is best known to you, and though we have there a substitute of most allowed sufficiency, yet opinion, a sovereign mistress of effects, throws a more safer voice on you. You must therefore be content to slubber the gloss of your new fortunes with this more stubborn and boist'rous expedition."

Othello is not immune to being a victim of attempts to manipulate people in positions of power through deception.  Holding such positions makes people question other's intentions, and who they can really trust. Iago is a fine example of a one who pretends to serve an authority figure but has his own agenda in doing so. He divulges that agenda below, though Othello doesn't realize his deception: 

"I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That (doting on his own obsequious bondage)
Wears out his time much like his master’s ass
For naught but provender, and when he’s old, cashiered.
Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them. And when they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul, 
And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am."

Being a general, Othello has to discipline others who are not following commands or who are acting rashly. This isolates him even further. In the speech below, he states that even if the person who started the fight were his own twin brother, someone who had shared his life since even before birth, he would have nothing more to do with him. This shows that duty, honor, and military service are more important to him than anything else, including family: 

"Now, by heaven, My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
And passion, having my best judgment collied,
Assays to lead the way. If I once stir, 
Or do but lift this arm, the best of you
Shall sink in my rebuke. Give me to know
How this foul rout began, who set it on,
And he that is approved in this offence,
Though he had twinned with me, both at a birth,
Shall lose me. What, in a town of war
Yet wild, the people’s hearts brimful of fear,
To manage private and domestic quarrel?
In night, and on the court and guard of safety?"

Othello's power isolates him because he chooses his military position over his relationships. Bound by honor and duty, he makes his decisions according to this set of ethics. He doesn't let the fact that he has a long friendship with Cassio stand in the way of his need to discipline the officer for his misconduct. However, this also isolates him from others, because it breaks a code of trust between friends. It's difficult to maintain a friendship with a person who has authority, because that authority, when exercised, can damage personal bonds. In act 3, when Desdemona is trying to assure Cassio that his relationship with Othello will be restored, she tells him that the only reason Othello is distancing himself from Cassio is political, and she seems to think it won't last long: 

"I know ’t, I thank you. You do love my lord.
You have known him long, and be you well assured
He shall in strangeness stand no farther off
Than in a polite distance."

Finally, Othello's power isolates him because the duty and honor learned from military service are his highest ideals. When he believes he has been betrayed by Desdemona and Cassio, he cannot forgive, and instead punishes them both unto death, therefore losing his greatest friend and greatest love. He reacts to Desdemona's perceived deceit as a vengeful soldier, and not as a man in love: 

"Thou teachest me. Minion, your dear lies dead,
And your unblest fate hies. Strumpet, I come.
For, of my heart, those charms, thine eyes, are blotted.
Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted."
susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We get the first indication that Othello's power isolates him when Iago speaks to Roderigo in the opening scene.  Iago complains that Othello would not even listen to three prominent men of the city who were supporting Iago's promotion to lieutenant.  Othello, according to Iago, dismissed them, "loving his own pride and purposes" and "horribly stuffed with epithets of war," with a curt, "I have already chose my officer."  Iago suggests here that Othello is so prideful that he will not listen to the opinions of others, isolating himself with his authority. 

This image of Othello is not completely sustained in the second scene, but it is clear that Othello has more power than Brabantio because the Duke is willing to hear Othello's side of the story when he finds out that it is Othello that Brabantio is accusing of stealing his daughter.  After Othello's speech and Desdemona's confirmation, the Duke gives the couple his blessing, and Othello, as well as Desdemona, becomes alienated from Brabantio. 

In Act 2, Othello's power as chief in command in Cyprus isolates him from his dear friend Cassio.  As general, Othello must punish the drunkened Cassio who injured Montano:  "I love thee, /But never more be officer of mine." 

In Act 3, Othello's position as general and head of state allows him to judge, convict, and sentence Cassio and Desmona of disloyalty or, in his mind, treason.  He orders the death of Cassio, "Within these three days let me hear thee say/ That Cassio's not alive," and plans to kill Desdemona himself. 

Because Othello is such a prominent man, a powerful soldier, and the supreme authority in Cyprus, he becomes more and more isolated from those that are truly his friends and more and more dependent on the manipulative Iago.

laurniko | Student

Your question is about how Othello, a general in the Venetian army, is isolated from those around him by his power. Ultimately, Othello is isolated by both his duty to make decisions regarding the fates of others and his personal rigid sense of ethics.

The acquisition of his power has led to isolation for Othello because he was away from normal life and amassing power and rank on the battlefield. In Act I, scene 2, Othello says:

Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it/ Without a prompter 

All he knows is fighting and battle -- things which grant him his power. That (along with his race) isolates him from normal society and experience in Venice and later Cyprus and helps set the scene for what happens when Iago sets out to isolate him further from his loved ones.

The first indication that his current position is isolating him from others occurs in Act II and comes from his duty to demote his friend and captain Cassio after he drunkenly injures another man. 

I love thee, /But never more be officer of mine.

Othello, of course, is unaware of Iago's manipulation of Cassio throughout the play. But that doesn't negate the fact that his attachment to duty and honor, as well as the power granted to him by his position in the military, creates circumstances in which he is isolated from those around him.

Later, when Iago's treachery leads to Othello's belief that his wife Desdemona and friend Cassio have betrayed him, it's Othello's position of power and unease in Venetian society that again set the stage for a tragic series of events. 

Othello is inclined to believe Iago's false claims rather than discuss the matter directly with Desdemona and Cassio, which leads to several deaths and, eventually, Othello's suicide.

Shakespeare isolates Othello from the character's closest confidantes throughout the play, making him unwilling to hear what others would tell him. Had Othello:

  • listened to the men who championed Iago's promotion over Cassio at the beginning of the play
  • spoken to Cassio directly about the accusations against him
  • or discussed her supposed infidelity with Desdemona herself

The characters may have avoided the tragedies that took place altogether. Unfortunately, Othello's position of power and authority -- as well as his reliance on such due to his isolation from a society he isn't comfortable in -- lead him to lean on his own, flawed understanding.