The Demon Within
Othello is Shakespeare’s most complete tragedy. It is filled, in my opinion, with some of the strongest characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Othello, the play’s main character, is a cultured Moor, nevertheless insecure and hiding behind a facade of Venetian values and customs. He manages to assimilate into Western European society by denying his background and winning the hearts of the masses (and their daughters) with his tales of victory and strife. He is even appointed as General of the army, the pinnacle of respectability, as he is a skilled soldier and the Venetians are in dire need of his assistance. However, this facade proves to be weak as his insecurities and trusting nature turn into internal conflict after his only "friend," Iago, who is jealous of not being chosen as Othello’s lieutenant, dupes him into believing that Desdemona, Othello’s wife and reason for living, is unchaste. Jealousy overcomes Othello, intensifying his internal strife, and, transform!
ing him from a confident, trusting general, into a devilish murderer. Although Othello seeks to avoid being a victim of what he perceives as his own differences, he, in fact, becomes the classic tragic hero who is destroyed by his own hand.
Othello’s positive qualities seem to work against him. An important example of this is his open and trusting nature, so tragically taken advantage of by Iago. Othello seems to believe that each and every individual is honest and sincere. This open-hearted
-2-
love of his fellow man makes Othello an attractive friend. However, it leaves him open to Iago's scheming; Iago knows his plan will work because Othello trusts him and has no reason to suspect that he would scheme against him. Iago uses this trust to convince him that Desdemona, Othello’s beloved wife, is unchaste and Michael Cassio is untrue.
Othello also is totally naïve in his understanding of the opposite sex. He says, "For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith Tiff now some nine moons wasted, they have used Their dearest action in the tented field" (I, iii, 83-86). Having spent most of his life in army camps, Othello knows little of women and the art of loving. This naivete proves charming in the first act, where the strong and powerful general admits to being shy and cautious in love. In the third act, however, the charm fades, as Othello's inexperience allows Iago to convince him that he doesn't understand Venetian women; that they are known for cheating on their husbands.
Shakespeare’s Othello portrays how jealousy, particularly that of a sexual nature, is one of the most beguiling and destructive of emotions. It is jealousy that prompts Iago to plot Othello's downfall, as Othello has, supposedly, "done [his] business between the sheets." In addition, the fact that Othello has chosen Michael Cassio, another foreigner, to be his Lieutenant, feeds Iago’s evil nature. Jealousy, too, is the tool that Iago uses to arouse Othello's passions. However, it is clear that Othello was not a jealous individual until Iago played upon his insecurities and brought out Othello’s darkest instincts. "Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy, To follow still the changes of the moon With fresh suspicions? No!" (III, iii, 177-179) It is only after Iago executes his plan that Othello becomes the insanely jealous husband who brings about his and Desdemona’s
-3-
demise. Jealousy is similar to loneliness, in that it is an emotion that all humans share; therefore, we watch its destructive influence on Othello with sympathy and horror.
There are no individuals who, at least once in their lives, have not experienced being alienated or despaired at not fitting in. Shakespeare skillfully arouses this universal emotion by making his hero an outsider, one who does not quite belong in the society in which he lives. He is from another race and another land. Right from the start, Othello appears to be a victim of prejudice, held in suspicion by a man who accuses him of seducing his daughter with sorcery and charms. Taken together, whether it be the color of his skin, his foreign birth, or, the cloud of suspicion he lives beneath, Shakespeare has cast the character of Othello clearly apart from everyone else. Iago takes advantage of Othello’s alienation by using it as proof that Desdemona