Othello: A tragedy of jealousy and suspicion [Archives:2005/854/Education]

June 27 2005

By Anamika
B.A. Part Two (Eng. Hons.)
L.S. College Muzaffarpur, India

Shakespeare is the greatest dramatic genius in the annals of English literature. He has produced comedies, tragedies and histories and portrayed a large variety of characters. Othello is one of his four great tragedies. It is a tragedy of jealousy and suspicion. Jealousy in Roderigo, Desdemona's disappointed lover, is caused by her elopement with Othello. Jealousy in Iago, an ancient to Othello, is caused by Cassio's promotion to the rank of lieutenant. This jealousy brings both Iago and Roderigo closer. So they hatch out conspiracy against both Cassio and Othello. Iago, burning with jealousy, is suspicious of his wife's illicit relation with Othello. Jealousy and suspicion incite Iago to poison Othello's mind against Desdemona's chastity. Iago is a villain to the core. He exploits Desdemona's loss of her handkerchief and tries to convince Othello about his wife's liaison with Cassio.

Othello is a great tragic hero indeed. He falls an easy prey to Iago's conspiracy. For all his goodness, he has a grave tragic flaw in his character. He is a gullible person who cannot see through Iago's 'motive hunting, motiveless malignity'. His credulous nature is his greatest handicap. It prevents him from suspecting the well calculated evil design of his enemies. Naturally, he believes what he sees. Moreover, Othello is essentially a valiant soldier. He believes in valor and victories. He cannot take to trick and deception. He does not possess a clever mind capable of subtle intellectual distinctions. Whenever emotion excites him, it undermines his intellectual faculty. A.C. Bradley rightly describes Othello's character in the following lines:

Emotion excites his imagination but it confuses and dulls his intellect.

Othello believes in the dignity of life and moral values. This belief combined with his credulous nature clouds his vision and, consequently, he fails to see through Iago's malice.

Iago's villainy is at its peak in the third scene of the third Act where Othello's mind succumbs to constant poisoning. When Cassio is closeted with Desdemona, Iago brings Othello to the scene with a villainous purpose. Cassio has no courage to face Othello and, therefore, sneaks away from the scene. As Cassio leaves the scene, Desdemona requests her husband for Cassio's restoration to his former position. But the devilish Iago misinterprets the whole scene. He suggests that Desdemona is no longer faithful to her husband ,by drawing his attention to the supposedly notorious, questionable character of a Venetian woman. He says that Venetian women are generally unfaithful to their husbands. So he successfully insinuates Othello that it is impossible for a fair and charming Venetian lady like Desdemona to love a dark and ugly moor like him (Othello). He further inflames Othello's mind by saying that the handkerchief presented to Desdemona by him is presently used by Cassio.

All these machinations destroy Othello's confidence in his wife and make him impatient to verify the truth. Therefore, he feigns headache and asks Desdemona to bind his head with the same handkerchief. But Desdemona fails to produce it and this failure confirms his suspicion. It is the handkerchief that was dropped by chance and picked up by Emilia. Emilia passed it to Iago who managed to send it to Cassio. Lastly, when Desdemona learns the news of Cassio's death, she bursts into tears which really infuriates Othello. Wild with fury and suspicion, Othello fails to restrain himself and smothers his beautiful innocent wife. His credulous nature proves fatal and brings about his undoing. When Iago conspires against him, Othello is unable to see his evil design. Rather, he praises his enemy:

I know thou art full of love and honesty.

Othello murders Desdemona, not in jealous rage but for the sake of his moral universe. He is an idealist who believes in moral principles. He feels to have lost his social prestige and finds his world shattered. Just before Desdemona's murder, Othello gives reason and justifies his plan:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.

To Othello, Desdemona appears to have lost her chastity. It is the cause that Othello is unable to bear. It is the cause that takes Desdemona's life. But this cause is artificially created and the credulous Othello is taken in. When the truth is revealed, it restores Othello's moral universe. But it fails to make his life endurable. He is unable to stand the sight of dead Desdemona as cold as her chastity. He utterly regrets his foul deed and plunges into deep agony. Conscience bites him and renders him restless:

O Desdemona! Dead! Desdemona! Dead!

Oh! Oh! Oh!

At last, Othello kills himself and gets rid of his suffering. His suicide is inevitable to escape the mental torture he undergoes.

Othello is trapped in a web of intrigue. Iago deceives Roderigo into losing his purse. He deceives Cassio into losing his honour and lieutenancy. He deceives Othello into losing his nuptial love and trust. Lastly, he deceives himself and loses his life. In Iago's intrigues against Othello and Desdemona, the handkerchief plays a crucial role. It breeds suspicion and suspicion ruins their life. And the play appropriately ends in arousing the emotions of pity and fear.