Othello is one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known plays and is considered one of the finest tragedies he ever wrote. It is a tale of jealousy, personal motivation, and betrayal. The characters of Iago and Othello are set against each other in a relationship rife with jealousy and suspicion that brings out the worst in each man. Shakespeare illustrates vividly how the spiteful actions of others against us can bring out our own negative character flaws, and how both of these elements can contribute to one’s undoing.
In the play, it is Iago’s greedy drive for revenge and his need to watch Othello’s disgrace that lead to Othello’s downfall, but Othello’s own tragic character flaws of jealousy and distrust contribute equally to his undoing. Othello tells the story of a black man, or Moor, who is a military general and married to a woman named Desdemona. The antagonist in the play is Iago, an ensign serving under Othello who is jealous of Othello’s ranking and his marriage to the lovely Desdemona but also resentful that Othello has passed him over for promotion to lieutenant in favor of Cassio.
Iago is determined to ruin Othello. Iago makes several strong statements that indicate that his jealousy towards Othello is mostly sexual in nature. Shakespeare conveys the crudeness of Iago’s thoughts and feelings towards the relationship between Othello and Desdemona by using a lot of animal imagery and references to sexual relations between common animals when describing talking to others, including Desdemona’s own father. He tells Brabantio, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (1. 1. 0-91, 6) and refers to, “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (1. 1. 118-19, 7).
This crude imagery serves to debase the loving relationship between Othello and Desdemona and also incenses Brabantio into believing Iago that the relationship between the two of them is not legal and that Desdemona has been seduced or kidnapped. Othello later manages to convince Desdemona’s father that he won her over with tales of war victories, not with seduction, and Iago, seeing that Brabantio is not going to be an ally in his war against Othello, moves on to manipulating Cassio.
Iago’s dislike for Othello is racial as well as sexual. Iago repeatedly makes disparaging comments about Othello’s race to others, referring to him as, “the lascivious Moor” (1. 1. 129, 8) to Brabantio. This racial prejudice is not present in the other characters, which acknowledge Othello’s race but respect him based on his merit and military accomplishments, calling him, “the valiant Moor” (1. 3. 50, 16).
It seems that Iago’s dislike for Othello based on his race is amplified by the fact that Othello is married a white woman, and he manipulates Roderigo based on Roderigo’s lust for Desdemona in a self-serving way that will destroy the marriage and remove the offense, in Iago’s eyes, of a mixed-race marriage. Another primary motivation for Iago’s spiteful actions against Othello and skilled manipulation of the other characters for his own benefit seems to be based on a basic desire to do evil and cause trouble. This can be seen in other antagonists in several of Shakespeare’s works.
Shakespeare’s character of Macbeth could be seen as being motivated by the same ambition and drive for personal gain as Iago, but it could also be argued that Macbeth’s wife was the evil one that manipulated her weaker husband like Iago manipulated Othello by playing on his insecurities. In King Lear, the character of Edmund serves this purpose, trying to take power from his older brother, make his father look disloyal in the eyes of King Lear, and cause general trouble among all the members of King Lear’s family and court.
In Hamlet, it is, “the devil himself” (3. 1. 49, 63) that wreaks havoc among the characters, seemingly leading to Ophelia’s insanity and suicide, the lustful behavior of Hamlet’s mother and uncle and the tragic deaths of Hamlet and several others. Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedy Coriolanus features the sins of jealousy and pride as the main villain. Wounded pride makes Coriolanus turn against his countrymen and befriend an enemy in much the same way that jealousy makes Iago manipulate everyone around him to cause Othello’s tragic demise.
Iago, like these other mischievous Shakespearean characters, manipulates others with actions unseen and language full of double meanings and inferences. He turns Cassio’s remorse at stabbing Roderigo into guilt and plants the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind simply by pretending to not want to reveal Cassio’s “real” reason for visiting Desdemona. It was Iago that suggested Cassio use Desdemona as a mediator between himself and Othello, but he presents Cassio’s quietly leaving her chambers upon Othello’s arrival as sneaky and immoral.
When Othello asks Iago if it was Cassio he saw leaving her chambers, Iago replies, “Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think that he would steal away so guiltylike, seeing you coming” (3. 3. 39-41, 58). This single statement makes both Cassio and Desdemona look guilty of being unfaithful. There is no strong action here, but Shakespeare succeeds in making the exchange meaningful by using the stage direction of Cassio leaving and Iago’s lines that implicate them both.
Here, as in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the final tragic action is begun with a single action and thought. This is the point at which Othello suspects Desdemona of being unfaithful, and Iago’s planting of that seed of doubt is what leads to the tragic end. Iago utilizes severe imagery and hints at the devil, hell and damnation to manipulate Othello’s thoughts towards negative and dangerous thinking. He repeatedly references monsters and demons, including the imagery of jealousy as, “the green eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” (3. . 170-71).
When he starts to plant thoughts in Othello’s head that there have been acts of infidelity between Cassio and Desdemona, he uses shocking sexual imagery and frank sexual references to paint Desdemona as wanton and lustful. He tells Othello, “It is impossible you should see this, were they prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, as salt as wolves in pride… ” (3. 3. 402-05). This vulgar imagery makes Othello think of Cassio and Desdemona having sex, and the seeds of doubt and anger are planted.
Iago also tells Othello, who has demanded physical evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity, that he overheard Cassio saying Desdemona’s name in his sleep when the two men were sharing a bed, and that after her name was uttered Cassio threw his arm and leg over Iago like a lover. This image is enough for Othello to picture Cassio in a similar embrace with his wife and it enrages him. The animal imagery that Iago used in the beginning of the play gives way to imagery of demons and damnation. The effects of his manipulation and planting of imagery in Othello’s mind are so severe that Othello goes from feeling that, “Heaven is my judge (1. . 59) to begging for damnation and for demons to, “Whip me, ye devils! ” (5. 2. 284).
The turn of action at this point of the story is indicative of Shakespeare’s structure of his tragic plays. There is one single action that affects every character either directly or indirectly, and deeds are set in motion that will profoundly affect the protagonist and everyone around him. In Hamlet, for example, it could be argued that this point is either Ophelia’s death or Hamlet’s confrontation of his mother in her bedchamber. Here, it is Othello’s false realization that Desdemona has been unfaithful.
He loses sight of his pride in his career and his military standing, he loses trust in his wife, and his sole focus becomes finding out what she has been doing, proving that she is guilty and seeing her punished for her perceived unfaithful actions. For all of Iago’s manipulation and deceit, Othello is equally guilty for bringing about the final actions that take place. He states to Brabantio that he loves Desdemona with all his heart, yet he is quick to believe that she has been unfaithful to him and has cheated on him with Cassio.
He gives her no chance to explain her side of things, and does not believe her when he asks where her handkerchief is and she explains that she doesn’t know. Instead, he takes the words and implications of Iago as truth. Iago even tells Othello that he has no physical evidence of her affair, only circumstantial evidence, and tells him that, “If imputation and strong circumstances which lead directly to the door of truth will give you satisfaction, you might have ‘t” (3. 3. 422-24, 72). He is saying that if all Othello needs to believe Desdemona has been unfaithful is hearsay and secondhand accounts, there is plenty to believe.
Othello never stops to consider that Iago is also telling him that there is no real proof, he just takes what he perceives to be real and decides that Desdemona is guilty. Because of this, Desdemona looks even guiltier when she later tries to talk to Othello on Cassio’s behalf. Again, she does nothing wrong, but Othello’s jealousy and presumptions of guilt have already condemned her without ever giving her a chance to defend herself. Othello is quick to believe that his wife has been unfaithful, and after he believes this he is just as quick to let his imagination run wild imagining all the evil, lustful sins she has committed.
He lets Iago speak of her disrespectfully: “Her honor is an essence that’s not seen… he hath and is again to cope your wife” (4. 1. 16, 4. 1. 88, p. 86). He is saying that Desdemona has no honor and that Cassio has not only slept with her before, but that he will do it again. Othello shows no anger or reaction towards Iago for speaking about Desdemona this way, only lets him keep talking and questions him further about what he knows about the supposed affair.
This is an example of the way that Othello lets himself be completely swayed by Iago’s manipulative ways and allows himself to be convinced that his wife is an unfaithful, evil, weak woman that can’t be trusted, so much so that he condemns her to death. The play could have ended much differently if the only person responsible for Othello’s downfall was Iago. If Othello was stronger, less gullible and more trusting in his wife, he might have allowed her to explain what had happened instead of referring to their marriage as, “Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted” (5. 1. 37, 108) and killing Desdemona and then himself.
Instead, he chooses to believe the scheming Iago and condemns both his beloved Desdemona and then himself out of guilt. Emilia is used as the character foil to show how Othello could have been strong in the last moments when she stands up to Iago, in spite of Iago’s threats of physical violence, and tells him, “”You told a lie, an odious, damned lie! ” (5. 2. 187, 120). She refuses to stop talking until the truth is completely told and Desdemona has been vindicated. It is only then that Othello realizes how he has been manipulated and how he has accused and murdered Desdemona with no proof or reason.
The truth was there for him to see all along, but he chose not to see it until it was too late and the damage was fatally done. Shakespeare presents Iago as the representation of trouble-making and evil caused by resentment and spite. Iago represents a cautionary statement about letting oneself be manipulated by pride and jealousy. But in Othello, Shakespeare also relates that one’s own character flaws can be just as dangerous and contribute equally to one’s self-destruction. Othello allowed his own personal insecurities to cloud his judgment. In the end, his character flaws were just as evil, and just as fatal, as Iago’s actions.