In Shakespeare's Othello, was Othello a villain or a victim?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Othello is primarily a victim in the play, although it's important to remember that he is a villain to the extent that he kills Desdemona.

Othello is the victim of both Iago's manipulations and his own insecurities, both of which work together to produce tragic results.

Iago is deeply resentful...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of Othello and wants to destroy him. He plays on Othello's own fears that Desdemona doesn't truly find him desirable. Iago plants the fear in Othello's mind that Desdemona is attracted to Cassio, and encourages Othello to misconstrue their relationship. Finally, a dropped handkerchief convinces Othello, given Iago's framing of events, that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello is open to believing he has been betrayed by his wife on such flimsy evidence because it coincides with his own fears that as middle-age black man, characterized by Desdemona's father as sooty with black skin and by himself as begrimed by his blackness, he is unlovable.

Othello makes himself a victim by not believing more in Desdemona, and he feels the full weight of grief as he discovers her innocence after she is dead. By the end of the play, sobered from the frenzied state that led him to killing his wife, he becomes the victim of remorse. He hopes his story to be remembered as:

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe . . .

Othello realizes too late that he has thrown away a great prize in Desdemona, and becomes his own victim at the end too, as he kills himself in anguish over having killed the one he loved. We are not likely to feel the sorrow we do over Othello's fate were he the villain: we do not feel sorrow, for example, when Iago dies.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Whether we should consider Othello a victim or a villain in Shakespeare’s play in depends to a degree on how the lead actor chooses to play him. Obviously, Iago is the main villain of the play; there is nothing good about him. In Othello’s case, one can argue that he is a good man driven mad by Iago’s machinations and jealousy or that he is a mixed character, with the seeds of insane jealousy potentially present. Most contemporary productions portray Othello as a good man, perhaps overly trusting and naive, driven mad beyond endurance by Iago. Earlier productions often emphasized that Othello was a Moor with a savage jealous nature, temporarily suppressed by good influences, but bursting forth under pressure.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Othello, is Iago a villain or a victim?

I find it rather difficult to view Iago as a victim myself, as whatever wrong was done against him, it is certain that the revenge he achieves is completely disproportionate compared to what happened to him in the first place. Let us remember that Iago tells Roderigo in Act I scene 1 that his chief complaint against Othello, and the reason why he desires to see Othello suffer, is that Othello picked Cassio instead of Iago for promotion. It is the injustice of this promotion, when Cassio is unseasoned in battle and Iago was supported by other nobles, that makes Iago so consumed with the desire for revenge:

This counter-caster

He, in good time, must his lieutenant be

And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship's ancient!

Having to serve under Cassio and remain in his current position of power is enough to make Iago angry, and so therefore he could be viewed as a victim. However, it is the extent to which he goes that makes him a definite villain. It is not enough to deliberately cause problems for his master when he marries Desdemona, but he then goes on to deliberately manipulate Othello's weakness of jealousy to drive him to madness to the point where he kills his wife. That is enough to brand him a villain.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Othello, can Iago be called a villain?

To answer the rebuttal question in post 4, I think it depends on your definition of the term law. During this time period, many laws were different than they are today so it's hard to point to a literal law Iago has broken. However, consider that people during this time period lived by a code. A gentleman was expected to act a certain way. For instance, a gentleman giving his word should have been honest. Someone in the employ of a gentleman (as Iago was) would have been expected to live by a code as well. Iago does break this type of law (or code) in nearly every chapter of the book. Even at the opening of the story, Iago breaks the code of conduct when he calls out insults to Desdemona's father, the governor. We can see how apawled he makes the people who know of his true behavior.
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Othello, can Iago be called a villain?

Of course he's a villain.  Here's a guy that is undermining Othello's marriage simply because he is jealous of Othello (and this is his boss, someone he's supposed to be loyal to).  He is willing and even eager to cause various people to die simply so that he can get what he wants.  It doesn't get much more villainous than that, does it?

For an example of someone close to him (his wife) calling him a villain, there is

I will be hang'd if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devis'd this slander.

Last Updated on