BOOK (play): Othello by William Shakespeare



Misrepresentation largely controls this play. Iago’s “I am not who I am” foreshadows much of what follows. Iago’s “honesty” in particular is the undoing of most of the characters. He demonstrates the evil in others, while hiding the evil within himself. The word “demonstrate” is related to the word “monster” through Latin etymologies, and Iago arouses the green-eyed monster – jealousy – in Othello by pretending to demonstrate that Desdemona herself was the greatest monster in the play.

If only someone had thought of seeking agency on things other than Iago’s. If only someone had uncovered reality. By someone I mean Othello. The tragedy that befell Othello wasn’t exactly the direct result of his race. But in a way it was the indirect result of it. Despite his standing and military prowess, Othello cannot let go of his insecurities about his ‘otherness’. He was never a ‘savage’ or one of the many animals he is compared to, but he became one when he let his insecurities be exploited by Iago. The tragic consequences are brought about because underneath all the aplomb and confidence, Othello hides his own awareness of him being an outsider. There was a vulnerability in Othello that was only intensified by his love – almost devotion – for Desdemona. If the factor of race is not figured it is almost impossible to imagine how Othello went from being entirely in love, supremely confident and trusting, to being in the agonies of a violent, destructive, and ultimately murderous jealousy.

The fact is that even though it was his exoticness that attracted Desdemona to him, their love had the capacity to overpower all obstacles. It was real. Had Iago not manipulated Othello into believing what he knew would be easy to make him believe, there would have been no tragedy to speak of. And underneath all the unconvincing things that Iago states as his motive for destroying Othello, one in particular is implied – if not explicitly stated – throughout the play. It isn’t just his manhood that is being questioned (he states at one point that his wife has slept with Othello) but also his superiority as a white man. Othello is clearly deserving of all that he has attained, but the fact remains that he is black.

If that (plausible) motive is ignored, Iago is merely the typical Elizabethan Vice figure. He seems to delight and relish in the evil acts he performs, and he is the comic figure in some scenes who has direct access to the audience. The most striking characteristic of this figure, however, is that he has no psychological motivation for doing what he is doing. He is an emblem of the fact that evil is irreducible. As much as I would like to believe that Iago is much more psychologically complicated than that, and not just an emblematic evil figure, there really is an element of such a figure in his character.

The one character that I really loved in the play was Emilia. Her speech about unchaste women doing only what men have taught them brings to mind the Jew’s speech in The Merchant of Venice about his actions being no different than that of a Christian. It was such an empowering speech, and my favourite in the play.