Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535
Othello, a Moor, is a general and commander of the Venetian armed forces, and later governor of Cyprus. He secretly weds Desdemona and provokes Iago's enmity by promoting Cassio. He later relieves Cassio of his rank when he believes that the lieutenant started a drunken brawl. Othello gradually succumbs to Iago's plot, and, believing that Desdemona is unfaithful, smothers her. When he realizes she was innocent of Iago's accusations, he commits suicide.
Othello is a noble and imposing man, well respected in his profession as a soldier. At the beginning of the play, he enjoys great successes and everything seems to be going his way. Desdemona has chosen him over all of her other Venetian suitors, and Othello prevails over Brabantio's charges that Othello has coerced and abducted her. The duke of Venice and the Venetian senators place him in charge of the troops sent to defend Cyprus against the Turks. Things continue to go Othello's way when he arrives in Cyprus and discovers that the tempest has entirely eliminated the Turkish threat. He and Desdemona act differently toward each other in Cyprus. They are more openly loving, much less formal than they appeared in Venice. The couple celebrate their marriage; and, even when that celebration is interrupted by the brawling of Cassio and Montano, Othello still appears confident and self-controlled. In the tradition of the best strong-armed heroic types, he says, "He that stirs next to carve for his own rage / Holds his soul light; he dies upon his motion" (II.iii.164-165). He is a man in charge, one that will shoot first and ask questions later. But Othello's confidence starts to slip when Iago begins to work on his psyche, intimating that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair.
At first, Othello denies that the attractiveness of his wife's grace, charm, and beauty for other men could make him jealous because, as he says, "she had eyes and chose me" (III.iii.189). But Iago's "medicine" (IV.i.46) soon begins to work, and Othello begins to question how Desdemona could continue to love him. After Iago has suggested that Desdemona has already deceived her father and Othello, the Moor begins to think Desdemona's betrayal of him is inevitable given his skin color, greater age, and lack of courtly charm (III.iii.263-268). He begins to act as if her unfaithfulness is a certainty, bemoaning that "Othello's occupation is gone" (III.iii.357).
Iago works Othello into a jealous rage through these many insinuations. But it seems to be the handkerchief—the one Othello originally gave to Desdemona as a love token—that puts Othello over the edge. Iago convinces Othello that the innocently dropped handkerchief was actually given to Cassio (who in turn gives the handkerchief to Bianca) by Desdemona. Othello focuses on this piece of cloth as damning physical evidence in his confrontation with his wife. He refers to it repeatedly before he kills Desdemona: "That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee, / Thou gav'st to Cassio" (V.ii.48-49); "By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in 's hand" (V.ii.62); and again, "I saw the handkerchief" (V.ii.66). Desdemona repeatedly denies giving the handkerchief to Cassio, suggesting that perhaps he found it somewhere, but to no avail.
In the end, Othello is so convinced by Iago's manipulation that he murders his wife in their bed. The most apparent reason for this deed is the one Othello gives to Emilia, stated repeatedly in response to her persistent questioning, immediately after he has smothered Desdemona: "She turn'd to folly, and she was a whore"; "She was false as water"; "Cassio did top her" (V.ii.133; 135; 137). Desdemona, Othello believes,...
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has betrayed him and the sanctity of marriage, and she paid with her life.
Yet some believe that Othello's motives run deeper, that Othello killed Desdemona because she violated the mores of Venetian society by marrying a Moor. Proponents of this view argue that Othello is accepted by Venetian society as long as he is an external element of that society. Barbantio and the Venetian senators are more than willing to accept his strength and military knowledge, but when Othello is internalized into their society by his marriage to Desdemona, his presence becomes disruptive. In his last speech, Othello asks to be remembered as "one that lov'd not wisely but too well" (V.ii.345). Is the object of that love Desdemona or Venice? Perhaps Othello never stops seeing himself as a soldier with the primary goal of preserving Venetian society. Perhaps his last act—his own suicide—is performed in the service of Venice, as mirrored in the language he uses to introduce it. He says that those around him should record events exactly as they have happened,
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,Where a malignant and turban'd TurkBeat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,I took by the throat the circumcised dogAnd smote him—thus.(V.ii.353-357)
The last word of this speech is punctuated by the sound of Othello's knife sinking into his breast and mortally wounding him.
In his final speech and for the sake of posterity, Othello refers to himself as "one that loved not wisely but too well" (V.ii.345). But from our standpoint, Othello's self-assessment seems wide and short of the mark. Othello is an accomplished, experienced man of the world in his own estimation and in the eyes of the Venetian society; not only has he seen much in his career as a military leader, he is able to convey that experience to others. Defending himself to the Duke against Brabantio's charges, Othello says of his first encounters with the aggrieved senator's daughter:
It was my hint to speak—such was my process;And of the Cannibals that each other eat,The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads(Do grow) beneath their shoulders. These things to hearWould Desdemona seriously incline:But still the house affairs would draw her thence;Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,She'd come again, and with a greedy earDevour up my discourse.(I.iii.142-150)
Even Othello's indirect, summary references to the tales that underpin his life, renown and station in society is marvelous; we can hear the word "Anthropophagi" booming from the Moor and visualize those aliens whose heads hang below their shoulders. In Act I, Othello appears to be a man who is confident of his own worth. Nevertheless, by the end of the play's final act, Othello is completely at a loss concerning what her debasement says about him, her husband. He wrestles with himself while on the verge of smothering Desdemona in the final scene of the play:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood;Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,And smooth as monumental alabaster.Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.Put out the light, and then put out the light:If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,I can again thy former light restore,(V.ii.1-9)
The confusion that Othello suffers at this point cannot be untangled by him or (fully) by us. But here we see Othello justify the killing of Desdemona to save her good name, and this connotes that he has confused his wife's (and victim's) with his own (as both victim and perpetrator).
What strikes us about Othello and what explains in part the extent of his decline from hero-leader to savage beast is just how easily he is led by Iago down the path to self-destruction. Othello thinks he knows Iago; Iago truly knows his long-time superior and exactly how to manipulate him. He knows, for example, that Othello's self-confident posture rests upon his good name in Venetian society. Although that name is itself based on a legion of military heroics, it can be sullied. Moreover, Iago knows that Othello, a man who has spent most of his life in the field, is unsure of himself in civil society and in his role as the governor of Cyprus. In the end, the Moor is an outsider, a hired gun of Venice, on guard for threats and potentially suspicious of those who welcome him should his repute or esteem in their eyes undergo a change.
Two primary interpretations of Othello's character have emerged among students and critics of the play: that he is virtuous, strong, and trustful; and that he is guilty of self-idealization and overweening pride. Both views find support in the change in Othello's behavior. Although he is initially presented as a strong, confident character using typical heroic vocabulary, as he succumbs to jealousy and rage he becomes more like Iago and employs the villain's animal and diabolic imagery. According to critics who regard Othello as essentially noble, this change shows the innocent hero falling victim to Iago's schemes and being corrupted by his evil. Others, however, argue that Iago's actions merely cause Othello's noble facade to crumble, releasing his inherent savagery. The first interpretation places most, if not all, the responsibility for Othello's fall on Iago; the second puts much of the burden on the Moor himself.