Analysis of Othello

February 1, 2022 by Essay Writer

John Dexter saw Othello as ‘a man essentially narcissistic and self-dramatising… a pompous, word-spinning arrogant black general’. However, Helen Gardner believed him to be ‘a man of action and heroic in his deeds’. Using these views of Othello and your own opinions, how far do you agree that the tragic outcome of the play is due to character flaws in Othello?One of the problems of analysing Othello’s character is that he can be read in two mutually exclusive ways; he is either the self important, self-dramatising man Dexter saw; or the noble and tragic hero brought down by the manipulation of Iago that Gardner saw. As he has so few soliloquies, it is very hard to know what exists beneath his calm exterior before Iago’s scheming destroys him; is he consciously trying to seem good and pure, or is it an intrinsic part of his character? In order to evaluate these ideas objectively, it is necessary to closely observe Shakespeare’s portrayal of him throughout the play, concentrating on his language, and how other critics have viewed him.Othello is made deliberately incongruous to his setting and fellow characters by Shakespeare. He is ‘thick lips’, and a ‘black ram’ to Desdemona’s ‘white ewe.’ Iago especially attacks his race; he is always ‘the moor’, ‘the devil,’ and even a ‘Barbary horse’. He is associated with blackness, devilry, and all things animalistic and dark by his enemies, and yet this shows only the traditional Elizabethan suspicion of other races. In such situations Othello would have to work hard to dispel both an audience’s, and Venice’s inherent bias and create for himself a reputation for solidarity and reliability. Thus any narcissism found could initially be excused if it was evidence of Othello’s struggle to fit into Venetian society; a black man in a white world would have to seem ‘extra-good’ if he was to be accepted.Othello’s insecurity stems from this racial disparity. Iago suggests to him that it is odd for Desdemona ‘Not to affect many proposèd matches / Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,’ but instead to marry him behind her father’s back. He strikes at Othello’s deep sense of incongruity to pervert him from a man of good sense and reputation to one of treacherous insecurity who strikes out at what he sees as the source of his vulnerability. He tells Desdemona in act II sc.1 that;’It gives me wonder great as my contentTo see you here before me’From this we can deduce that he is surprised at Desdemona’s obvious preference of him; he expects her to fall in with traditional prejudices showing his low opinion of the woman he has married. As Anne Barto suggests, Othello and Desdemona seem to be in love without understanding each other, and that allows Othello to believe unlikely things of his spouse. This ignorance is taken by Dexter as evidence of Othello’s arogance as he does not understand the woman whose praises he is at such pains to sing. However, surely we can allow Othello to be a little over-aware of his dark skin in the intolerant world in which he lives. On the other hand, Gardner’s ‘full portrait of a professional soldier’ does not seem to include the insecurity of Othello’s struggle to shake off the racial prejudice attached to all Moors. Instead a mixture of lack of self-confidence and awareness of perilous social standing are behind Othello’s uneasiness, and this is what Iago exploits to turn him into a ‘green-eyed monster… of jealousy’.From another angle, if by act two Othello has this low opinion of Desdemona, it is surprising that in act I sc.3 he has already declared ‘My life upon her faith!’. It is too soon for Iago’s poisons to have destroyed Othello’s faith in his wife, so we must conclude that publicly he professes to have more faith and love in her than he actually feels. As Dexter says, he is narcissistic and arrogant; his love has to be the greatest. He shows a heart upon his tunic with great apparent pride and yet it is not necessarily entirely his. This would certainly give a reason for the speed at which Othello succumbs to Iago if he does not actually have the tust and understanding of Desdemona which he says he has.At other times, too, Othello seems to have boundless natural hyperbole and a sense of his own importance which could easily be termed ‘self-dramatising’. He is either head over heels in love, or overwhelmed with hate. He is not a reasonable man, we could conclude; he lets his emotions take control and perhaps deliberately exaggerates them to seem more extreme, and yet it is unlikely he would kill his wife purely out of a love of self-indulgent melodrama. His hyperbole is then, a mixture of nature and artfullness affected both for his love of drama and the desire to win favour.Othello also takes pains to seem a better Christian than the other Venetians and his language is littered with religious references;’Vouch with me, heaven… heaven defend your good souls… as truly as to heaven’He could seem either noble or narcissistic here, although the former view is most likely more accurate; Othello’s religious zeal is present even into the conclusion of the play, and were it a self-consciously projected ‘perfect cocoon exterior’, as Sir Laurence Olivier once wrote, it would surely crumble in the same manner as his sanity and his grasp on reality. Instead he becomes distressed at Desdemona’s refusal to confess to her supposed crimes before heaven, showing a true and deep faith, as opposed to the Olivier’s ‘statue of a perfect man’.Another battleground of opinion is Othello’s eloquence. His language is almost musical in a perfect pentameter, and Dexter saw this as a deliberate attempt at ‘word-spinning’ from a pompous general. Othello’s seeming modesty (‘Rude am I in my speech’) would support this as it leads to two possible conclusions; he is either genuinely unaware of the beauty of his language, or trying to seem humble and unpretentious, which in Dexter’s eyes would make him arrogant. The latter view seems more likely, and yet Dexter’s opinions do not allow for Othello’s race. He has to project an image better than he is if he is not to become entangled in racial intolerance, even if he does over-compensate for it. Supporting this view is Othello’s unnecessarily long listing of all the dangers he has bravely fought in act I sc.3 lines 75-94. Here a little ‘self-dramatising’ is Othello’s way of reminding Brabantio and the Duke of his past merit. Gardner simply avoids commenting on the beauty of Othello’s speech, and so avoids one of the major issues of an interpretation of this character.However, Othello’s actions regarding Cassio would seem to suggest a man who is not capable of pretending to be better than he is; he unwisely appoints Cassio over Iago, although we are told, admittedly by a biased source, that Cassio is ‘Mere prattle without practice’, despite Othello apparently having ‘seen the proof At Rhodes… and on other grounds’ of Iago’s skill. Although this information comes from Iago’s ‘motive-hunting of motiveless malignity’ (Coleridge), it sounds plausible. This is, then, an instance of Othello’s poor judgement, and a man who makes such mistakes would find it difficult to combat his racial stereotype. Yet he has succeeded: the Duke obviously thinks of him as capable and even laudable. Perhaps as Gardner suggests, he is a man of action, and his skill at this in the eyes of his superiors makes up for social mistakes (even to marrying Desdemona behind her father’s back) and over-compensation for his race (which Dexter has interpreted as arrogance). His language seems naturally beautiful, but Othello is deliberately ornamenting his speech more than usual to curry favour in his precarious social position.Contrast this with the psychosomatic degeneration of Othello’s language to the bestial stichomythia so reminiscent of Iago in later scenes, and we see more fully the extent of the damage Iago has done to Othello, who is destroyed so totally that he abandons all pretence, and does not even care about seeming cruel in front of other prominent Venetians. This would suggest that he really does love Desdemona, as do his pleas for her to confess her sins before she dies. Why, then, does he kill her?The answer is simply honour. Great importance is placed on this in Othello’s mind for it is, after all, the reason he desires to shake off his racial stereotypes in the first place. The friendship of Cassio cannot prevent him from his duty, moreover it is the reason he kills his wife; she has cuckolded him and so the honourable thing to do is kill her. He even tells us ‘she must die, else she’ll betray more men’, and so Othello’s first soliloquy in actV sc.2 is an internal struggle between his love for Desdemona and his desire to seem honourable. Honour wins and Desdemona dies; Othello thinks honour is saved, and when he realises she was in fact blameless, he exclaims ‘why should honour outlive honesty?’ and commits suicide. He takes trouble to explain that ‘naught did [he] in hate, but all in honour’, and his famous line ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’ shows both the deep love he felt for Desdemona, and the love he felt for his own honour. This Othello is an amalgamation of Gardner’s hero and a man conscious of his image as a hero and perhaps guilty of a little self-dramatising to retain it.However, if we look at green-eyed Othello, it is impossible to believe that his vehement and violent language could have been entirely created by Iago’s prompting;’Lie with her? Lie on her? … Zounds! That’s fulsome! Handkerchief ­ confession ­handkerchief! … I will chop her into messes!’Here, at the height of his rage, Othello seems to have entirely lost the ability to make sentences, let alone sustain a strict pentameter for fifty lines. The crudity and obscenity in his language is now so strong that it must have been in noble Othello before Iago’s plotting invoked it to surface. Here Gardner’s argument falls down; a man capable of such cruelty as he shows to Desdemona in act IV sc.1 can hardly be a man ‘heroic in his deeds’, even if he is reeling in the horrors of revelation. Furthermore, to suppress such a dark part of his character, Othello would have to be more than arrogant, but, as Olivier put it, ‘the greatest exponent of self-deception there’s ever been’, or in the words of Levis, a man self-centred, but without self-knowledge. Sinking into his pretences, Othello has forgotten in all his hyperbole that he still is genuinely capable of great and uncontrollable rage, and even in his lucid anago¯risis he is still protesting that he is ‘not easily jealous’.Othello’s hamartia is that he creates an image of himself for the benefit of those around him so that they will not see him simply as ‘the Moor’. His honour becomes all-important to him as he has spent a lifetime trying to establish it. As the play progresses, Othello is beguiled by the image of himself he has created and forgets that he is capable of tremendous anger and jealously as he retreats into his ‘cocoon exterior’. Iago then presents him with a slight to his honour. Overcome with the supposed betrayal of his beautiful wife, and yet riddled with the insecurities of his black skin, Othello’s jealousy is easily invoked. His character changes and he regresses to what he has always tried hardest not to be; the animalistic, uncivilized black man, and yet he still clings onto the hope that his honour can be saved. Sacrificing his love for this hope, he kills Desdemona, and then is told that there was no betrayal. Left with no option, Othello kills himself. His arrogance is in the creation of his ‘statue of a perfect man’, and that he becomes obsessed with this beguilingly ‘flawless’ character he has created for himself, taking a great pride in its upkeep. When it is threatened by Desdemona’s unfaithfullness, he is prepared to do anything to protect it. Because of this, the outcome of the play can be said to rest as much on Othello’s shoulders as on Iago’s.

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