As the protagonist of this tragic play, the characteristics of Othello, both his attributes and flaws, must be established to an audience immediately in order to understand his eventual demise and ruin. As an audience, we are initially only given an assessment of his character from Iago, who describes him as proud and lascivious, ‘loving his own pride and purposes’. However, his entrance in 1.2 quickly dispels this idea, as does Iago’s emergence as a deceitful and dishonest character.
Othello appears calm and dignified in our first meeting of him. His language is measured and dignified, and the authority he commands even when he is accused of witchcraft is immediately clear:
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them:
Good signior, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons.
Act 1, Scene 3, ll 58-60
The steady iambic pentameter of his speech reflects his self-control and composure even when confronted with animosity. Throughout most of Acts One and Two he speaks in this steady rhythm, creating a greater impact when contrasted with his steady loss of control in his speech from the end of Act Three onwards.
To lend greater pathos for the inevitable tragic ending, Shakespeare initially introduces few dislikeable aspects to Othello’s character. He appears compassionate (‘The goodness of the night upon you, friends’ – 1.2), dedicated to his job (‘The tyrant custom, most grave senators,/Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war/My thrice driven bed of down’) and a loving and sincere husband to Desdemona, contradicting Iago’s cynical view on their marriage being based solely on sex:
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
Iago – Act 1, Scene 1, ll 85-84
In fact, it emerges that Othello and Desdemona have not yet consummated their marriage when we meet them. To prove his sincerity of intentions further, Othello desires that Desdemona be given ‘fit disposition…With such accommodation and besort/As levels with her breeding’ when he goes to Cyprus, and it is Desdemona that persuades the Duke to go with him.
His elaborate tale of how he won Desdemona’s love, and his stories of ‘Cannibals that each other eat/The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders’ both impress the audience and win pathos for his character, given his previous angst. The progressive preparation for the catastrophe is made even more acute given Othello’s unhappy life so far, and his genuine happiness with Desdemona now. If any thing could add to the force of our sympathy with Othello, or compassion for his fate, it would be the frankness and generosity of his nature, which so little deserve it.
The main flaw that emerges in Othello is his pride, later exploited by Iago. He appears slightly immodest; his claim ‘Rude am I in my speech/And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace’ is contradicted by his elaborate story of how he impressed Desdemona. He also appears slightly boastful when describing his ancestry:
I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege; and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reached.
Act 1, Scene 2, ll 20-23
This pride can be subtly seen, thus preparing the audience for his progression into a jealous wreck at the hands of Iago. Two other contributing factors to this inevitable downfall are also established within the first act and later confirmed in Act Two.
His implicit trust of Iago is clearly seen in their first scene together. Iago initially describes Othello to Roderigo as gullible (‘will as tenderly be led by th’nose/As asses are’), which we later discover to be an accurate insult. Iago is very quickly established as a dishonest character, which makes Othello’s continued trust in his actions even more frustrating for an audience. The constant dramatic irony when Othello refers to Iago as ‘honest’ is almost painful for the audience, who know from the outset Iago’s malicious intent. Despite his apparent control in 2.3, he is, in fact, completely dominated by Iago’s story:
I know Iago,
Thy honesty and love doth mince this manner;
Making it light to Cassio.’
Act 2, Scene 3, ll 242-244
The other factor that weakens Othello’s character is his passion for Desdemona. His complete infatuation with her is highlighted in 2.1, where he appears completely irrational in his love for her and it is suggested that he may be in possession of feelings out of his control:
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.
Act 2, Scene 1, ll 188-192
The continuation of speech through these lines adds rapidity and urgency to his description of feeling, highlighting his passion for Desdemona and also illustrating his lack of control of his feelings. This incredibly free and emotive verse contrasts sharply with his measured and steady iambic speeches when addressing the Duke and Brabantio in 1.3. His love for Desdemona, although requited, is ultimately the cause of his demise. Iago, known for his cynicism of human nature, looks to exploit the implicit love that Othello has in Desdemona – and destroy the very thing that gives him happiness. It is essential that the audience can see some weaknesses in Othello from the outset, to add plausibility to the ending.
Othello’s physical appearance is constantly scrutinised with most characters giving mention to his race. Brabantio’s accusations that Othello must have used witchcraft to win Desdemona are insulting, but despite this distrust as a result of his colour, Othello is still a general in the army and commands great respect from other Venetians, proving his obvious talent and generous nature for overcoming any racial biases.
Even Desdemona hints at his slightly unattractive appearance but iterates that ‘I saw Othello’s visage in his mind’, again highlighting his compassionate nature and proving herself to be a faithful wife. Her role as ‘half the wooer’ is clear. Peoples incredulity at Desdemona’s marriage to Othello discuss race, but also age. The contrast to Othello’s ‘ram’ to Desdemona’s ‘ewe’ highlights their incompatibility, and in 3.3 we can clearly see the difference in age between the two, Desdemona’s persistence opposing Othello’s passivity:
D Good love, call him back.
O Not now, sweet Desdemon; some other time.
D But shall’t be shortly?
O The sooner, sweet, for you.
D Shall’t be tonight at supper?
O No, not tonight.
D Tomorrow dinner then…
Act 3, Scene 3, ll 54-57
However, their incompatibility seems to present no issue to the couple, both seeming happy and tender toward each other in the opening acts, lending even greater pathos to their separation at the hands of Iago.
The issue of self-control is central when assessing Othello’s progression of character. It is this authority he commands over others that lend his character the respect of the audience and other people within the play. We can see the peak of his control, both of himself and exerting it over others, in 2.3. His entrance and opening lines (‘For Christian shame put by this barbarous brawl!’) immediately shames those fighting into silence. Although clearly angry, his speech is still stately, his alliteration in the words ‘barbarous brawl’ highlighting his composure and his rank above those present. He remains focussed on assessing who started the fight but gradually is seen to become more impatient at the lack of response from the soldiers. This confession of rage, although an admission of weakness, cannot altogether be believed as his language remains precise and accurate:
My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
And passion, having my best judgement collied,
Assays to lead the way.
Act 2, Scene 3, ll 201-203
Othello’s character, that of a noble, dignified, confident and self-controlled general is constant up until 3.3. He presents little that could cause an audience to dislike him, unlike other tragic protagonists like Macbeth who essentially lead themselves astray. In the instance of Othello, he is purely encouraged to his demise by Iago, who embodies the entirety of the plays evil spirit. Despite some suggestions that Othello’s noble nature and all-consuming love of Desdemona may lead to his downfall, these are not dislikeable characteristics, merely exploited by Iago for vengeance. His lack of soliloquies mean the audience never truly see the ‘real’ Othello, but although by no means a simple character, Othello’s honesty and compassion means most of what he says is genuine, sharply contrasting with Iago who presents a different persona to all he meets.