Many people feel that Othello reaches the depths of humiliation and degradation in Act IV
Act IV is a crucial scene in the play Othello. It is the first time that we see Othello himself physically and mentally damaged from the constant manipulation by Iago, as he first suffers a mental breakdown and then goes on to strike Desdemona. These actions could be considered not just surprising but also, in the case of the striking of his wife, immoral.
In terms of whether or not we feel sympathy for Othello in this Act, while he may gain our support when he has a mental fit, as we can see the full effects of Iago’s constant manipulation of him, he loses a significant amount of audience support in physically attacking Desdemona, as hitting a woman was and still is considered morally wrong. However, to what extent is Othello humiliated and degraded in Act IV?
Once convinced by Iago that his wife is a whore, cheating on him, Othello goes to extreme lengths to try and gain revenge on her. Act IV Scene I is the final scene in which we see Iago attempting to convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. Iago finally fully wins Othello over when reminding him of the handkerchief that originally belonging to Desdemona, had been discovered in Cassio’s possession.
At the reminder of the handkerchief, Othello begins to rage – ‘By heaven, I would most gladly have forgot it! – and Iago then continues to torment him by stating that he has heard Cassio boast about having had sex with Desdemona – ‘as knaves be such abroad,/Who having by their own importunate suit/Or voluntary dotage of some mistress/Convinced or supplied them, cannot choose/But they must blab’. Here Iago is saying that some men who, once they’ve had a woman, can’t stop talking about it, effectively implying that Cassio is such a man. This skilful piece of manipulation is the final nail in the coffin as far for Desdemona. It is the last straw for Othello, who is now well and truly at the mercy of Iago.
He is now fully convinced that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio, and what happens next in the scene is a key moment in the play. Firstly Othello has a mental breakdown, deeply disturbed by the supposed evidence of confession and the handkerchief, and lies on the floor in a trance. This to the audience serves as evidence of the extent of Iago’s manipulation of Othello and the effect it has had on him. We are inclined to feel sympathy for him at this stage as we see the full effects of his mind being tortured by Iago.
It is also humiliating that Othello is at the mercy of Iago, lying on the floor at Iago’s feet, while Iago gloats over the evidence that his plan is working. Having recovered, Othello eavesdrops on Iago’s conversation with Cassio, and becomes even more infuriated at what he hears. Again it is down to Iago’s skill that Othello is able to be deceived here – he tells the audience that he is going to ask Cassio not about Desdemona but about Bianca, a prostitute who adores Cassio – ‘Now will I question Cassio of Bianca’. Iago knows that the onlooking Othello will believe that Cassio is talking about Desdemona – ‘Othello shall go mad’.
Everything goes according to plan for Iago. Othello becomes more and more enraged at what he is hearing – ‘Now he tells how she plucked him to my chamber. /O, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw it to! ‘ – until eventually, once Cassio has left, Othello reemerges with the words ‘How shall I murder him, Iago? ‘. This sentence obviously delights Iago, for two reasons – it proves that he has achieved his goal of getting Cassio out of favour with Othello, and it again reinforces the stranglehold he has on Othello, that Othello is even asking Iago how to carry out the murder, as he trusts him so.
This again is ultimate humiliation for Othello; he is even asking Iago how he should carry out the murder, having been manipulated by Iago in the first place to carry it out. It shows a complete lack of control on Othello’s part and his submission to the will of Iago. The third and final key moment in the scene occurs when Lodovico arrives from Venice with instructions for Othello to return to Venice.
Desdemona informs Lodovico of the rift between Othello and Cassio, but in just talking to Lodovico, she fuels Othello’s anger – ‘Fire and brimstone! What happens next is pivotal in shaping our sympathy for Othello. His anger and jealousy gets the better of him and suddenly, in a flash of fury, he strikes Desdemona and tells her to get out of his sight. Immediately our support for Othello falls after this act of violence. We know Desdemona is innocent, and it was and still is considered morally wrong to hit a woman anyway. Not only does he lose the audience’s support, but both Desdemona and Lodovico are shocked at his actions too.
The action is degrading to Othello’s own character as it invalidates much of the respect he has earnt from the audience. Shakespeare encourages the audience to feel differing levels of sympathy and support for Othello throughout the play, but the levels of sympathy we feel for Othello, while clearly being largely defined by the factor of Iago and Iago’s manipulation, also have to take into account where Othello shoots himself in the foot, so to speak.
Shakespeare puts the question into our minds as to whether Othello is a ‘tragic hero’, whose downfall is essentially down to his ‘tragic flaw’. There appears to be an argument for this case, too – jealousy would appear to be Othello’s ‘tragic flaw’ if he were to be classified as a ‘tragic hero’, as it is a key factor in Othello’s mindset and decisions he makes. His jealousy of Cassio means it is all the more easier for Iago to exploit Othello – as Iago recognises this flaw too.
Act IV proves to be a possible turning point in how much sympathy we feel for Othello as the audience. Prior to this Act, we were feeling a significantly greater deal of support for him than we do afterwards, mainly down to his degrading and humiliating actions in falling metaphorically and physically to Iago’s feet, eavesdropping on Cassio and striking of Desdemona.
We are presented with the idea of Othello as a ‘tragic hero’, whose ‘tragic flaw’, jealousy, is accountable for his actions, rather than his manipulation by Iago, but it is down to which we agree with. It could be argued either way, or a more likely reason for Othello’s degrading actions in the Act could be a combination of the two, suggesting that without Othello’s ‘tragic flaw’ jealousy it wouldn’t be so easy for Iago to manipulate him as he pleases.