‘Othello’ is not a tragedy without meaning, because the very genre of tragedy tries to mimic action and life, all of which have an inherited significance. In certain respects, the work of Shakespeare can be considered as didactic as in the case of classical tragedy, the collapse of the hero occurs as a failure of a hamartia on his side, a fault which plagues humanity. In reality Othello is discovered in the work to have far more flaws and shortcomings than a man of his status would possess, offering a justification for his downfall. Ultimately, the main protagonist of the novel, the scheming Iago, has its own motives for its acts; acts that may appear fundamentally evil and unmotivated on surface value. Here a third aspect, the setting’s function and its position in the tragedy also helps understand the reasons for it. Through Iago’s motives, and Othello’s inherit weaknesses, the tragedy of the play is meaningful for the audience.
By observing the acts of Iago and his soliloquies, the viewer can discern that Iago still has reasons for his actions, however slight they may be. Notwithstanding Iago recognizing that the moor is still ‘of free and open nature’ (Oth Act 1 Sc. 3 ll. 381), he still does despise him. Iago has to be examined closer to discover his motives: of course, he is jealous of Cassio’s appointment as Othello’s lieutenant and this is an ultimate irony in itself as he later mocks Othello for his own jealousy, having succumbed to the ‘green-eyed monster’. Of course there are also the blatant ethnic slurs and animosity of Iago against Othello, and his paranoia about his wife’s alleged infidelity, ‘And it’s thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets he’s done my office’ (Oth Act 1 Sc. 3 ll. 369-370). However, the latter explanation may seem less rational, given that Iago also later expresses his suspicion that Cassio has slept with his wife, too. In comparison to Othello’s view of sex as a unifying power, Iago’s approach to the subject is that it’s something inherently disgusting and revolting, heightening his anxiety.
However, the principal vice of Iago is his greed for power. Ultimately, his aim is not to rise to the rank of lieutenant, but to go as far as he is able to. This point is justified by his plotting not only against Cassio, the man who holds his coveted position, but Othello, the general of the Venetian army himself. Ultimately, Iago is surprised by how easy it becomes to manipulate Othello and by the end of the play is even a little sorry for the ease at which his plan has come to fruition. No man without a clear motive, as has been often suggested for Iago, could have devised such a plan, that struck the victim blow by blow, with no time to recover to rational thought in between. Iago’s main motive then becomes a classic case of tall-poppy syndrome as he seeks not only to dethrone the ‘god of war’ and the ‘goddess of love’, but to also make them suffer.
The setting in the play also plays a significant role in the explanation for the reasons for the tragedy. The play opens in Venice, the epitome of western civilization and culture in Shakespeare’s time. Under the influence of Venice’s culture, there does exist imaginary bonds of control and order , which keep characters’ emotions in check. In Act 2, following the move to Cyprus, these bonds are gradually released, freeing the way for chaos to rule over order in a way not possible in the first Act. The characters have now reached the frontier. Evidence of this is found with reference to the poor weather encircling Cyprus at the time. In this case there is both a literal and metaphorical storm brewing, as Iago’s plot begins to shape in his mind.
‘The chidden billow seems to pelt the clouds; The wind-shaked charge, with high and monstrous mane, Seems to cast water on the burning Bear And quench the guards of th’ever-fixed Pole.’ (Oth Act 2 Sc. 1 ll. 12-15)
The fact that Othello fails to note the power of the brewing ‘storm’ condemns him to his fate. It must be noted that Othello is a soldier, a general, by profession. In war, rules and conventions apply, but once these bonds of control are taken away, he does not know how to react or behave, considering he has lived his life as if he were fighting a battle. Nonetheless, these ‘bonds of strength’ are released even further when Othello demands celebration and revelry to mark the devastation of the Turkish fleet. Little does he know that nearby, Iago is using the occasion to plot a destruction of a different kind?
The faults that are found in Othello’s character are sufficient to demonstrate that, although he may not be deserving of his eventual fate, there is some justification for what has happened. At the start of the play, Othello is portrayed as the ‘god of war’, his wife the ‘goddess of love’. However, during the play it is proved that Othello has too many flaws, and has the basic hamartia of the classic tragic hero. He is not a god, but merely a man, which enables the audience to feel sympathy and pathos towards the lead character.
From the very beginning of the play the audience is told that Othello is an outsider. He does not seem to belong to our world, nor do we know how he managed to arrive. Only he is not a European, much less an Italian. This racial and cultural difference is explored throughout the play, mainly in the opening Act. Eventually, his lack of knowledge regarding the customs of Venetian women helps to contribute to his downfall. In short, Othello seems to suffer from an acute form of virgin/whore dichotomy, a condition which means in practice that he is only able to see women, in particular His partner, either as totally pure and sweet, or as otherwise foul and wretched depending on their fidelity or lack thereof. Othello is unable to accept the fact that his wife can make mistakes, and if she does, she can only be considered whore : there proves to be no middle ground. In fact, at the time, although Venice was considered Europe’s cultural capital, it was seen to have certain drawbacks, especially regarding promiscuity and the diminished role of fidelity in marriage. Add to this the fact that Iago is dealing with a man who has only recently been engaged in wedlock and therefore is less certain when questioned about his wife’s character. Othello has seen the way in which Desdemona has deceived her father and eloped, what is to say that such a consummate actress could not be using the same skills to exploit her own husband?
Othello’s weakness in his communication skills and his expression of inner feelings is further testament to his lack of perfection. Despite being humble in his speech before the Duke and Brabantio about his shortcomings, these very attributes are later demonstrated in the play.
‘Rude am I in my speech
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace’ (Oth Act 1 Sc. 3 ll. 81-82) and,
‘And little of this great world can I speak
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle;’ (Oth Act 1 Sc. 3 ll. 86-87)
Othello knows how to communicate with men, through obvious and direct means, but lacks the subtle charms to persuade women. We discover this in Act 1, as his biggest vulnerability so far. Michael Cassio is in fact made a model of how Othello should behave in front of, and when referring to women, through his charming of Desdemona and unwillingness to give in to Iago, as he tries to tempt him with Desdemona’s virtues in Act 2. Cassio make no illusions of perfection, in contrast to Othello. He admits his vices (such as his weakness for drinking), proving he knows his own human qualities. One of the main reasons therefore for Othello’s downfall and Cassio’s realisation of power at the end of the play is that whilst Cassio’s own view of himself and that of others are aligned, Othello’s are askew. Cassio’s communicational behaviour contrasts strongly with Othello’s. When Othello ultimately cannot cope with women, he reverts to the only way he knows how: violence: revenge through blood (note this contrasts with Iago’s ‘wife for wife’ revenge mentality). This point is proof that eventually Othello is not able to cope with playing more than one role at the same time: in Cyprus he is forced to play both the enthusiastic lover and the governor at different times, while the temperament of his wife is much more versatile. At various times Desdemona plays the role of the seductress, loving daughter, the sexually aware woman, and the caring wife. All along there are signs appearing that Othello can anticipate his fall, and Iago will have his way.
Othello’s gullibility also proves a reason for his downfall. He puts full faith in Iago, trusting in the virtues of his history and his supposed fidelity to his wife Emilia. This all-or-nothing approach ultimately transpires to accentuate his jealous rage. He is not prone to introspection, to examining himself from within, but instead is lent to blindly believe the foibles of others, especially Iago. His gullibility enables his self-control, once so evident, to unravel, and be placed in the hands of others. For example, Lodovico cannot believe the changes in his character:
Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce? (Oth Act 4 Sc. 1 ll. 255-258)
The fact is that although Othello’s passionate emotion helps to fire his imagination; it ultimately leads to blind all reason and rational thinking (take 1:3:128-169 as Othello recounts the stories of his adventurous past in order to win Brabantio’s daughter from him).
Ultimately the reason behind all the madness is demonstrated in the last scene of the play. What Othello plans to commit is a sacrifice rather than a crime. He does this through love for Desdemona, to save her from herself, and for his own honour. This act seeks to create a new Othello, an even nobler and braver Othello than Act 1’s Othello, an Othello who is arresting his previous decline.
‘O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more!
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee
And love thee after. One more, and this the last.’ (Oth Act 5 Sc. 2 ll. 16-19)
The audience is left not with a feeling of rage for a senseless, meaningless tragedy, but a knowledge that this has taken place for a reason, for a hamartia on the part of the lead character. As Othello dies ‘upon a kiss’, briefly we are left with no pain, but with only a feeling of redemption.
The reasons behind the disaster are all too plain to see. Iago has his own motives for bringing down Othello and Desdemona, and ultimately he is surprised by how easily he is able to prise apart two people so completely in love with each other. The role of the setting contributes towards the lead character’s downfall as the bonds of continuity are broken with the shift to Cyprus. Othello’s own imperfections are evident from early on in the play, from his gullibility, to his jealousy, to his limited communication skills. It is here where, as in all tragedy, the play contains a certain didactic element as the author seeks to explain the reasons that a great man such as Othello can fall. As Iago ultimately recoils with the ease at which he attains his foul ends, there comes a warning for us all: for if Othello was the greatest the world had to sell, then what do we all hope for?