In William Shakespeare's play Othello, what do you think leads to Othello's downfall? Jealousy? A naive trust in Iago? Being thrust into a culture/environment with which he was unfamiliar?
Othello, as we know, is considered one of Shakespeare's supreme tragedies. However, there has been considerable debate over the years about Othello's tragic flaw or hamartia. What do you think leads to his downfall? Jealousy? A naive trust in Iago? Being thrust into a culture/environment with which he was unfamiliar? (An African man in a European setting, says this point, will be hard challenged to cope with custom and attention.) Or something else?
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Many factors have been suggested causes of the downfall of the title character in William Shakespeare’s play Othello. Is the cause jealousy? Naïve trust in Iago? The dilemma of a black male married to a white woman in a white society?
No single cause alone seems an adequate explanation. All the suggested causes already mentioned seemed relevant, and so do various others, including these:
- Othello is primarily a soldier who seems to have had little previous experience in dealing with women. He never mentions a prior relationship, nor does anyone else in the play. An experienced soldier, he seems inexperienced in romantic relationships.
- Because he is indeed a highly regarded soldier and leader, he finds it even harder than most men would to accept the possibility that his wife may be an adulteress. Most men would be extremely pained to hear such news, but Othello has even more of a reputation to think about than most men would. He is famous and highly respected; if his wife were cheating on him, the humiliation would be all the greater.
- Othello is indeed a stranger in a strange land. He has been of great service to Venice, but he realizes that he is not a Venetian, and the fact that he is not a Venetian is compounded even further by the fact that he is not a white. Both factors make him feel less secure than he would if he were a white person who was also a citizen of Venice.
- His posting in Cyprus means that he is even more isolated than has already been suggested. He is shown interacting very little with any Cypriots; he seems to have no truly close friends in Cyprus, respected though he is there. When his world begins to crumble around him, he has few persons to consult except Iago.
- He is not only a black man married to a white wife; he is also an older man married to a very beautiful young wife. He thus has one more reason to worry about becoming a “cuckold.”
- He is deceived by one of the master deceivers and manipulators in all of literature: Iago. Some critics have complained that Othello falls too easily and quickly under Iago’s sway. These critics think that Othello should have been much more suspicious of Iago much earlier in the play. However, it is important to note that practically everyone else in the play is also deceived by Iago. This includes not only the highly gullible Roderigo but also the far more intelligent Michael Cassio as well as Desdemona, Emilia, the Venetian court, the Cypriots, and the representatives from Venice. Ironically, it is actually the foolish Roderigo who comes closest, most often, to suspecting that Iago is a liar. Othello is hardly alone in being taken in by this highly dishonest “honest” man.
- Othello does give into his passions very easily, but so do most people, as anyone who has ever lost his temper can attest. People in Shakespeare’s time believed that passions were like horses and that reason should be like the riders who restrain and control horses by reining them in. Othello is just one of many, many characters in Shakespeare (just as he is just one of many, many human beings) who have difficulty keeping passions under control.
Many more reasons might be listed to help explain Othello’s fall, but no single reason alone can explain why and how he came to believe that Desdemona
. . . with Cassio . . . the act of shame
A thousand times committed
or why he felt he had to kill her as punishment.
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