At the start of Act III, Scene III, Othello declares his love for Desdemona, ‘Perdition catch my soul, but I do love thee; and when I love thee not, chaos is come again.’ However by the end of this scene he vows to Iago, ‘I’ll tear her all to pieces!’ How does Shakespeare make such a changing character dramatically possible?
Shakespeare’s Othello, in my opinion is one of his most cleverly written plays. It is a tragedy, similar in a way to the likes of the famous Romeo and Juliet, as there is a definite romance in the play, which quickly turns sour, due to lack of trust and jealousy, or as some might think, the tragedy is all down to manipulation and deceit, which both hold huge roles in the script. The play deals with many controversial issues which makes it unique and the way in which it was written, shows us how ahead of his time Shakespeare actually was.
Othello is a black man in the play, of extremely high authority; he is a proud army general who is looked upon with respect by the state and many leading Dukes. He first comes across to the audience as being very composed and a gentle character towards others. My first impressions of Othello were especially positive; he is a powerful figure with glowing qualities, which I detected only from his first few words. However before we hear from Othello in the text, we meet the vicious Iago and his companion Roderigo, who appear in the opening scene.
They both begin by discussing an unknown character that we later learn is the greatly regarded Othello. You can tell their anger towards him almost instantaneously from their speech, it is very harsh and the line structure is indifferent and has no specific order. They refer to Othello negatively, using racist comments and horrible images; once they even label him with being the devil. Iago is infuriated that he failed to gain a promotion that was given to the handsome Michael Cassio instead, by none other than Othello. Iago vows to Roderigo that he was better suited for the position and Othello had definitely chosen the wrong man. Iago swiftly suggests that they both call up to Brabatio’s house to gain some revenge over Othello.
Brabantio is the proud father of fair and young Desdemona, who both Iago and Roderigo know is having a relationship with Othello, unbeknown to Brabantio. After awakening Brabantio from his sleep to let him know of this awful news, Iago cunningly slips away from the commotion, unnamed to Brabantio, leaving Roderigo to go with Brabantio in search of his daughter. This is the first point in the play where we see Iago’s devious side, however the audience are still not yet sure why he is doing these things to disrupt other people’s lives, especially Othello’s. By exiting from the scene in this scheming way, we see the true Iago already unfolding.
Luckily for Desdemona, Brabantio grudgingly consents to his daughter having a relationship with Othello over much debate. However when Brabantio discovers that they are both already married, he feels he has had no choice in the matter anyway! Brabantio listens to Othello affectionately declare his love for Desdemona, and he can do nothing else but agree, and give up on any silly accusations he had against Othello, for him bewitching his daughter, because Desdemona clearly stated herself, that she now obeyed Othello before her father.
Towards the end of the first act we can undoubtedly see this pure and deep love that Othello and Desdemona have for each other and it appears to be unbreakable. The audience today would see this as being a remarkable act of love and would probably sympathise with both Othello and Desdemona as a couple, promoting their romance. However during the time the play was written, audiences would be opposed to their love, thinking it to be immoral.
Desdemona was attracted to Othello mainly because of her sheer fascination with the tales of his captivating life, the battles, sieges and his mere fortunes. Desdemona’s love is shown to be pure, and does not display any signs of Othello enchanting her as implied by Brabantio. Othello is also shown to be a great deal older than Desdemona, and this is one of the many reasons some frowned upon their relationship, another one being their difference in race. Othello, we see treats Desdemona with the uttermost respect, he loves and cares for her sincerely, which makes them look like the perfect couple. Is this a motive for Iago’s behaviour? Are all of Iago’s actions down to jealousy and hatred, for someone having what he wants, the security of a stable relationship? This could possibly be one of the reasons Iago sets out to ruin Othello’s life, because he is jealous. However throughout the play Iago’s motives are not obvious, so we, the audience are only left to suggest and speculate.
Iago’s plan to sabotage Othello begins to take full action in Act III, Scene III, which is a significant turning point in the play, especially for Othello’s character. Although in the events leading up to this scene we find out in Iago’s first soliloquy, at the end of Act I that he plans to seek revenge by making Othello believe that Cassio and Desdemona are lovers. Here, there is a slight mention of Iago’s motives, when he assures Roderigo that he is only carrying out his plan because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife Emilia but this is seen as a minor detail, as he most probably made this up to reel Roderigo into his plan without questioning, for more help to carry it through. In the beginning of Act II, we see Iago yet again telling small white lies, implying to others, things that are far from the truth:
‘That Cassio loves her, I do well believe’t;
That she loves him, ’tis apt and of great credit.’
Later on that same night Cassio is provoked to anger and disgraces himself in a drunken state, which is all down to the evil plotting of Iago and Roderigo. They plan this evening carefully, and amidst Cassio’s quarrelsome behaviour a fight breaks out between himself and Roderigo. Othello then enters the scene and after being told by Iago how the brawl started he dismisses Cassio from his office. When Othello has left, Cassio drowns his sorrows to Iago, about how his reputation is tarnished and Iago slyly suggests he should approach Desdemona to ask her whether she could talk to Othello about his reinstatement. This performance was all arranged so that Cassio would talk to Desdemona more, to emphasize the fact they are spending time together, whether it be totally innocent, or not as Iago might put it towards Othello. Iago also insists that his wife Emilia encourages Desdemona to talk to Cassio. This is the end of Act II, and we see a definite change in Iago’s character, as he is becoming more scheming in his plan, and we start to realise what a clever man Iago is.
The play now goes into Act III, and quickly moves to Scene III, which is where Othello’s character takes a dramatic transformation, from a loving, considerate man, to a man complete with hatred and full of energy for revenge. The big question is, is this change all down to Iago and his plan to disrupt Othello’s life? Or is some of it down to Othello? Everyone in this play has faults, including Othello, and maybe he is also to blame. This scene is the longest scene in the play and throughout it Iago plays a game of his own with Othello’s mind and manages to dwindle him down from being the loved, respected man everyone knew to something quite different.
At the start of Scene III, we see Iago begin to plant small seeds of doubt on Othello’s mind, being very subtle at first. Desdemona instigates the opening of the scene by assuring Cassio she will do her best to help him, by discussing with Othello about him being re-established. Amidst their conversation, Othello and Iago draw close to them, and promptly after their entrance Cassio decides to take his leave. He bids Desdemona goodbye and Iago makes good use of this perfect moment by uttering secretly to Othello,
‘Ha! I like not that.’
By making this small comment, he is putting over to Othello that he doesn’t like the way Cassio had abruptly left, as if something may well have been going on between them before they arrived. There is so much meaning in this one line and Iago is witty to use it when he does, seizing a chance of luck. This smart comment is followed by Desdemona’s constant talk of Cassio, as she fulfils her pledge to him. She undoubtedly does Cassio justice as she continues to persuade Othello to reinstate him. This obviously falls right into place with Iago’s plan, as Othello notices Desdemona’s anxious behaviour about the situation, when really in his eyes she shouldn’t be worrying about it. Othello finishes the conversation by saying,
‘Prithee no more. Let him come when he will;
I will deny thee nothing.’
Here we clearly see that Desdemona is a huge weakness in Othello’s character, he will deny her nothing, which shows us he still cares for her deeply, and it almost assures the audience that he always will.
Iago begins to get into full swing of his plot by continuing to drop hints about Desdemona and Cassio. He does this very well, by not actually stating fictitious stories but by suggesting, and not giving Othello a clear image. However this is somewhat worse, if the mind is left to wonder and imagine it can come up with the wrong answer! By Othello not knowing, it leaves him thinking about and even visualizing Desdemona being unfaithful to him, which we, the audience know is not true. Desdemona is not a strong female character in the play and she does not have regular appearance in the play as one would have thought. She is not as conventional as the other characters and is most definitely not as solid in her persona.
She is almost able to wrap Othello around her finger, although she probably doesn’t intend to do this, it is just the way she works, and Othello allows this to happen because he is insecure. From experiencing this we might come to the conclusion that Desdemona could possibly be seen as the type to liase around with other men. Yet we most certainly feel that she wouldn’t, from the way she respects Othello and how she regards him as first priority in her life, before her own father. Othello lacks terribly in self-confidence, tormenting himself about his race and acceptance in another country. He ponders about Desdemona’s choice of men, why had she chosen Othello over all the fine Italian she knew? Was it his status? Did she only love him because of his high authority? Whilst Iago persists to place uncertainty about Othello’s mind, you can tell from Othello’s speech he is asking himself the same questions already. Here we are reminded of an assertion that Brabantio makes in the first act,
‘Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see:
She has deceived her father and may thee.’
Here Brabantio is warning Othello, since he has been deceived by his daughter’s lies and he is intimating that she may well do it again.
We see from Cassio’s distinctive qualities that he would never be unfaithful towards his companions, and it’s undisputable that he is a perfect gentleman. His only interest in Desdemona is that she can help him to regain his position as Othello’s lieutenant, however Iago ingeniously sees him as the ideal person to use in his plan to enrage Othello. Iago knows Othello would immediately see Cassio as a threat; he is a fine young handsome man, who Othello would feel extremely inferior to and ostracised by. Also Cassio’s character seems to be very at ease around women, and might come across to the audience as being a Here we see a change in Othello’s insecurities as they become more intense and it seems worrying to his reliable nature. In my opinion this is all due to Iago’s malicious words, although some may think Othello should be more trusting concerning his wife.
Here Iago begins to hold back his thoughts, and lets Othello try to dwindle him down into saying them. By Iago playing this sly game, it makes Othello more intrigued to know his thoughts; he uses Othello’s curiosity against him. Iago even warns Othello about being jealous,
‘O beware, my lord, of jealousy:
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
the meat it feeds on.’
Here imagery is used in the script, describing jealousy, in the way Shakespeare himself saw it. Iago does this to show his pretence companionship towards Othello, as if he’s looking out for him when really it’s quite the converse.
Othello begins to consider the idea of Desdemona being unfaithful in their relationship and asks Iago for ocular proof of his thoughts. The fact that Othello is considering this shows us how much his character has changed, but his request for ocular proof gives us the sense that Othello still has his doubts. Iago states that it will be impossible to catch the couple together, but he speaks of hearing Cassio murmur Desdemona’s name in his sleep. However, meanwhile Iago has obtained Desdemona’s most treasured handkerchief, given to her by Othello. Iago, earlier in play explains to his wife, Emilia, that he needs the handkerchief for himself. Whilst Othello is in this state of mind, of anger and distrust, Desdemona enters the scene, and the sheer site of her makes Othello become worked up and feel awkward around her.
Desdemona shows her concern towards him, as she clearly sees something is wrong, she binds his forehead with her cherished handkerchief, but he sharply pushes it away and it falls to the ground. When Emilia sees this happens she takes advantage of the situation and hastily picks it up, remembering her husbands request for it. She later hands it to Iago, and he is grateful, however Emilia is unaware of his plans. Iago now has this precious handkerchief and he discloses to the audience what he intends to do with it. Iago cunningly plants it in Cassio’s lodgings, and lets him find it, making the tale of Cassio and Desdemona’s relationship more convincing. When Iago reveals to Othello that he understands Cassio has the handkerchief, which Othello gave to Desdemona, the comment stands as being the last straw in Othello’s mind and he is overcome with jealousy and vows revenge.
This is where Act III Scene III abruptly ends, with Iago swearing to serve Othello in everything. They make religious like pact between themselves, which seems bizarre at the time, but the scene finishes with Othello declaring he will kill Desdemona and appointing his newfound companion Iago as his lieutenant:
‘Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her, damn her!
Come, go with me apart. I will withdraw
To furnish me with some sift means of death
For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant.’
This ending is very unexpected and almost infuriating because only we the audience Othello is making the wrong decision, all due to Iago’s malicious and scheming ways. The scene is also quite upsetting, as the reality of Desdemona’s premeditated death is just around the corner, and we know she is the innocent, yet a condemned victim. Othello also instructs Iago to kill Cassio too, as in Othello’s mind Cassio is as much to blame as his dishonest wife; they are both works of pure evil.
After this, Othello’s anger is intense and frightening towards Desdemona. When he demands to see the handkerchief he gave to her, Desdemona obviously does not have it and cannot explain where it is. It infuriates Othello when she claims she has misplaced it, as he believes she is lying to him. Othello’s speech is short and impulsive, which shows his uncertainty about the situation. They both part on bad terms, with Desdemona reassuring herself in naivety, that Othello must be upset with some affair of the state. In Act IV Iago continues to encourage Othello’s jealousy by filling his head with graphic images of Desdemona’s infidelity and he persuades Othello to eavesdrop on a conversation which he will initiate with Cassio, who will speak the truth about their intercourse. Iago plans this by asking Cassio about his present relationship, leaving Othello to think he is speaking of Desdemona when it’s the converse.
Here Othello decides he will kill them both, and his deep and final emotions for Desdemona seem to fade into disappearance, he is now definite about what he has to do, and we see confidence in his character. This all builds up into an ultimate confrontation between Desdemona and the enraged Othello, he asks her of her infidelity, and she unknowingly denies it all. Othello unfortunately dismisses all of her pleads and the tragedy ends with him smothering her. The end of the play is tragic and has the audience captivated, yet the real tragedy is still waiting for Othello when he finally learns about Iago’s secrets and lies.
The main point to think about when bringing this essay to a conclusion is, who is to blame for Desdemona’s tragic death? Most people’s first instinct is to hold Iago responsible for the whole sequence of events leading towards the closing scenes, which is a fair comment, as he comes across as being a wicked character with evil intentions. Othello is obviously the one who physically murders Desdemona although he is constantly reassuring himself throughout the final act, telling himself that it is his duty to kill his wife for her unforgivable behaviour, yet he still did not have any hard evidence to justify his actions. When he finally carries his actions through he comes across to the audience as if his judgement has been impaired or as if he has been overcome by another entity.