Using direct quotes, how might it be said that Othello is responsible for his own downfall?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that Othello should bear some of the responsibility for his predicament. As a soldier, I don't think he would have it any other way.  Yet, having said this, it might not be entirely accurate to place the entirety of blame at his feet. Iago is the agent of action and must be seen as the cause of human suffering in the drama.  To avoid assigning blame to Iago almost fulfills more of what he would have wanted.  In the end, we can see that Othello made terrible mistakes that were not intentionally cruel. They amounted to unintentional cruelty, and thus he is responsible in this regard.  However, when looking at someone who is deliberately cruel and thereby must assume a greater level of responsibility for what happens, Iago becomes the agent of action.

Othello is to blame for his downfall because of his insecurity.  Othello's inability to control his own sense of doubt and uncertainty are the elements that cause his downfall.  This condition results in because of both external and subjective elements.  From his own point of view, Othello never quite overcomes the fact that Desdemona picked him.  Undeniably, he is in love with her.  However, it becomes clear that he never fully accepts the fact that he was worthy of her choice.  In this regard, he becomes easily susceptible to Iago's manipulations. Othello's love for her is more than simply affection.  It reveals an almost surprised element to have been chosen, as seen in Act II, sc. 1:

It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. Oh, my soul’s joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have wakened death,
And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven! If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
The "soul's joy" and his open admission that he could "die" at that moment and be the happiest reflects something more than simplistic "puppy love" or "newlywed bliss."  It reflects a hollowness within Othello.  Simply put, he cannot believe he was chosen.  It places a strain on the relationship because of the unrealistic set of expectations that are created as a result.  
 
Part of the reason for this set of conditions is that Othello's own sense of subjective insecurity is a reflection of the outside world.  Othello recognizes that he is a man of color in a world where White people are the dominant majority.  Venice is not the most tolerant of worlds.  Iago displays this.  His constant reference to Othello's blackness through animalistic imagery is repugnant.  However, it is clear that Iago knows his audience.  He understands that such imagery resonates with Venetians.  Accordingly, Othello recognizes his outsider status.  To an extent, he struggles with this reality.  Othello counters this external reality with his own internal belief that merit will win out over all other considerations:  "…I must be found./My parts, my title, and my perfect soul/Shall manifest me rightly.”  The continual references to "trust" that Othello places in people is reflective of his belief that the best way to counter discrimination is to have faith in the system of merit and justice which will be blind to nothing else but actions.  This works for a while, seen in lines such as, "He that stirs next to carve for his own rage / Holds his soul light; he dies upon his motion."  However, the reality is that Othello understands the implications of the world around him.  He knows that he is an outsider to Venetian society because he is a soldier in a world of landed wealth, and that he is a man of color in a world where White people are the dominant power brokers. At some level, he never quite overcomes both conditions in seeing how Desdmona chooses him over all others.
 
It is this insecurity, a reflection of how individuals deal with difference in the world around them, that causes Othello to become susceptible to the belief that Desdemona has cheated on him.  In the darkest regions of his mind, it makes sense:  Why would someone like her, an established insider, be with him, the outsider?  Shakespeare is able to develop Othello as a great man who is plagued by the weakness of self- doubt.  This becomes a crushing weight when played in the hands of Iago. It is why we see Othello move so much from extreme to extreme in Act IV, scene 1.  Othello struggles between the world of confidence and doubt.  When Othello speaks his final words on stage, one sees the extent to which Othello himself understood his own role in his downfall:

Then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely, but too well./Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,/ Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand, /Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away /Richer than all his tribe. Of one whose subdued eyes, /Albeit unused to the melting mood, /Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees /Their medicinal gum. (Act V, sc. 2)

In this moment, Othello shows himself as the "outsider" coming to terms with his own reality.  In "one that loved not wisely, but too well," his own admission of not being able to regulate his self- doubt is evident.  The reference to the "base Indian" and invocation of the "Arabian trees" are reflective of one who fully understands that his own condition as an outsider was never fully processed.  This condition enabled him to fall victim to Iago, becoming a prisoner to his own weaknesses.  In throwing " a pearl away," it is sadly evident that Othello recognized his own responsibility in his downfall in letting fear, doubt, and insecurity taint what should have been a marvelous narrative.  
 
For more analysis of the themes of love and jealousy in Othello, watch this video:
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