In William Shakespeare's play Othello, should we accept Othello's closing claim that he "loved not wisely, but too well"?
Late in the play, Othello describes himself as "one who loved not wisely, but too well." Do you agree with him? What is the nature of his relationship with Desdemona?
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Near the very end of William Shakespeare’s play Othello, the title character, having strangled his wife to death and stabbed Iago, is now planning his own suicide. Just before he fatally stabs himself, however, he asks the Venetians present in the room to describe him in their reports as
one that loved not wisely but too well;
. . . one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme . . .
How accurate is this self-assessment? Opinions, of course, will vary and have varied, as is usually the case with Shakespeare’s plays. Some critics have seen Othello as an extraordinarily gullible figure; others have seen him as a noble tragic hero who, precisely because of his own nobility, could never have imagined the sheer evil that motivates Iago. According to this view, the fact that Othello is so easily deceived by Iago is not evidence that Othello is especially credulous (after all, Iago successfully tricks practically everyone else in the play) but instead is evidence that Othello is a particularly good-hearted man. This view, however, is complicated by that fact that Othello joins in a secret pact, with Iago, to make sure that Desdemona dies. He also agrees to Iago’s suggestion that she should not simply die but be strangled by her own husband in their own bed. Would a person who truly loved “well” participate in such a plan? Would a person who loved “well” murder his own wife without even giving her the chance to explain and defend herself fully? Would a person who loved “well” not seek wise advice from others about how to deal with the possibility that his wife was an adulteress? Would a person who loved “well” (especially in the deepest, truest, Christian sense current at the time) not want to avoid being a murderer at practically any cost? Would he not want to let God decide the fate of Desdemona? Wouldn’t a person who loved “well” (Renaissance Christians might ask) want to love God first and foremost?
These are extremely difficult questions to answer with any degree of certainty; Shakespeare rarely gives us pat moral lessons in his plays. Instead, he usually forces us to wrestle with difficult ethical dilemmas. But the questions asked above are indeed worth asking, and they make us question or at least seriously ponder Othello’s claim that he loved “too well.”
Something extra: Othello lends itself especially well to analysis from multicultural perspectives. The fact that Othello is a black man with a white wife in a white culture complicates his situation. So does the fact that he is not a Venetian. So does the fact that he is not in Venice when the possibility of Desdemona’s adultery arises. In short, the various “cultures” of which Othello is and/or is not a part have significant impacts on his fate and his decisions.
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