The structure of Othello is rendered less complicated than is usual in Shakespeare by the fact that there is no effective subplot. The only contender for this role – Roderigo’s hopeless passion for Desdemona and Iago’s attempts to turn this passion to his own advantage – is absorbed into the mainstream of the action by the virtue of Iago’s role in the play.
In a sense the entire structure in terms of action is focused on the ensign, who initiates everything of significance, while the psychological weight of the play lies with Othello.The general’s only two deeds of any note are his victory over the Turks, which is peripheral to the main action and largely achieved by the agency of the storm; and the murder of Desdemona, which is carried out by Othello, but instigated by Iago. Othello cannot be said to will either of these events. In other words, Iago acts while Othello reacts. It is partly this situation that helps to give the play its claustrophobic quality, as we watch Othello becoming increasing helpless in a web of Iago’s spinning.Bu the claustrophobia also results from the concentration of the structure. This is to some extent the result of Shakespeare’s plot treatment; it also owes a good deal to his presentation of relationships.
The network of relationships is unusually close, all the main characters being directly involved with one another. Othello is married to Desdemona whose father Brabantio has been a friend. Michael Cassio and Iago are his lieutenant and ancient respectively, and Iago’s wife Emilia is Desdemona’s maid.Of the small cast of important parts only Roderigo (a Venetian gentlemen) and Bianca (a courtesan who is in fact Cassio’s mistress) come from outside this tiny circle, but they are all drawn into it because all the characters are also involved in complex relationships by virtue of their actual or supposed sexual liaisons: Othello with Desdemona and Emilia, Desdemona with Othello and Cassio, Cassio with Desdemona and Bianca, Roderigo with Desdemona, and Iago with Emilia.Beyond these liaisons are the innumerable speculations about others, general or specific, in the speeches of Iago and Othello. The presentation of all the relationships is devoted to one structural end: the framing of the central links between Othello and Desdemona, and between Iago and Othello. These in turn, both involving Othello as they do, point to him as the indisputable centre of attention in the play.
Besides, all the relationships in the play are affected or even determined in one way or another by the character and circumstances of Othello.In Desdemona’s case, this is obvious, but we also learn from the play that, for example, Cassio conceals hie relationship with Bianca from the general for fear of his displeasure; that Iago believes Othello to have slept with Emilia, Iago’s wife as well as with Othello’s own wife Desdemona; and that Roderigo is jealous of Othello for taking Desdemona from him. All roads lead back to the tragic hero. The same is true of the relationships between Cassio and Iago and Roderigo and Iago, both of which are conditioned by Iago’s need for revenge against Othello, who is thus the passive focal point of all the action.The clarity, energy and economy with which the sequence of events in the play are presented also make for structural concentration, and offer a striking contrast with the murky complexities explored in the psychological presentations of Othello and Iago. Nevertheless there is inevitably an interaction between physical and psychological events. The three major incidents of the plays are Othello’s marriage, which takes place before the proper action begins, Othello’s victory over the Turks, which we do not see, and the murder of Desdemona, largely concealed from us by the marriage bed.The action which takes place on stage is all to do with Imago’s plot: the rousing of Brabant, Montano’s (who is the Governor of Cyprus and Othello’s predecessor) fight with Casio, the planting of the handkerchief, and so on.
What really matters is the action in the minds of the characters, developed in the soliloquies and conversations of Imago and Othello, for the most part. Thus the simple structural outline is composed of Othello’s physical actions – all in the heroic mould – and Imago’s – all base – and this outline is filled out by psychological, emotional and spiritual developments.We can therefore refer more usefully to the structure of the play by thinking in terms of the stages through which Othello and Imago develop. In Act 1 Othello carries all before him: he has married Desdemona, outfaced objections to the marriage, and found himself leading the Venetian fleet against the Turks by acclamation of the people. Imago is the underdog, beginning to hatch his plots.
A hint of the changes to come is given by the framing of Othello’s appearances in the first act by two lengthy conversations between Imago and Rodrigo at the beginning and end.While the general has heroic presence, Imago has more to say, and his intimate manner and grim jocularity bring him closer to the audience at first than the grand remote Othello – whose very blackness sets him apart. In this conversation between Imago and Rodrigo, we find that the relationship between them is obviously somewhat close, as Rodrigo shows in his first statement. Imago “hast had [Rodrigo’s] purse as if the strings were thine,” he tells Imago; the metaphor shows how much trust Rodrigo has in Imago, and also how he uses Imago as a confidante.As far as Rodrigo knows, Imago is his friend: but appearance is one thing and reality another, as Imago soon will tell. Imago tells several truths about himself to Rodrigo; he even trusts Rodrigo with the knowledge that Imago serves Othello, but only to further himself. How ironic that after Imago’s lengthy confession of duplicity, Rodrigo still does not suspect him of doublecrossing or manipulation. Imago seems to do a great deal of character analysis and exposition for the audience; here, he divulges his purpose in serving Othello, and the kind of man he is.
Appearance versus reality is a crucial theme in Imago’s story; throughout the play, he enacts a series of roles, from advisor to confidante, and appears to be helping people though he is only acting out of his own twisted self-interest. “These fellows,” that flutter for their own purposes “have some soul,” Imago say; there is a double irony in this statement that Imago passes off as a truth. People who act one way and are another are duplicitous, and scarcely deserve the credit that Imago is trying to give them.Also, Imago, though he is one of those fellows, seems to have no soul; he never repents, never lets up with his schemes, and never seems to tire of the damaging whatever he is able to. “In following [Othello] I follow but myself,” Imago also professes; this is a paradox in terms, but is revealing of Imago’s purposes in serving Othello.
His language is also revealing of his dark character; he uses the clichi?? “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve” to convey how his heart is false, and his shows of emotion are also falsified.But, he turns this clichi?? into something more dark and fierce, when he adds the image of the birds tearing at his heart; already, he has foreshadowed the great deceptions that he will engineer and the sinister qualities that make up his ego. The key to Imago’s character is in the line “I am not what I am;” Rodrigo should take this as a warning, but fails to.
Everything which Iago presents himself as is a false show; even here, he pretends to be less evil than he truly is, though this first scene represents the peak of Iago’s honesty about himself with another character.In Act 2 Othello reaches the high point of his career, victorious over the Turks and happily ecstatic in marriage. Iago is all the while brooding in the background: in the first two acts Othello’s heroic stance is sharply contrasted with Iago’s transition from unfocused resentment to the formation of a strategy for revenge. In the first scene of Act 1, this is merely a question of appearing to serve Roderigo by stirring up Brabantio against Othello.By the end of Act 2 Cassio’s downfall has been engineered, and Iago has developed the main points of his plan to compromise Desdemona and thereby inflame Othello.
It is in Act 3 Scene 3 that the crucial reversal of their positions takes place: Iago establishes his mastery and Othello becomes the underdog. Structurally this is the central scene: appropriately it is the longest, most complex and subtle in the play. Here Shakespeare shows us what Cinthio does not: how Iago manages to persuade Othello that his lies are truth.The rest of the play presents the working out of Iago’s plot and Othello’s continuing mental and spiritual deterioration, until the final climatic scene (Act 5 Scene 2) provides a structural balance with Act 3 Scene 3. Whereas the earlier scene shows the mystification of Othello and the darkening of his mind, Act 5 Scene 2 does the opposite.
We witness the agonising coming to terms of the hero with a truth he has never suspected. Act 3 Scene 3 and Act 5 Scene 2 have a corresponding intensity and weight.In each we explore the recesses of the hero’s mind and witness the torture he experiences when torn between love and hate, trust and suspicion; each concentrates on the ambiguous nature of sexual passion. When seen in terms of Othello’s development and his waxing relationship with Iago the play falls into three stages: Othello’s prosperity; Othello’s mystification: Othello’s enlightenment and catastrophe. These three stages are matched by the stages of Iago’s inferiority; Iago’s dominance; Iago’s discovery and downfall.
They indicate the broad structural outline of the play.