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This page will look at a handful of the main characters from Shakespeare's tragedy. Don't forget the others, though!
Othello: the tragic hero. One may ask how did Iago manage to persuade Othello so completely, even before he gets his "ocular" proof. By the end of Act III, Sc iii, Othello declares that he will use "some swift means of death / For the fair devil [Desdemona]" and that like the "Pontic sea", a great, powerful surge that "Ne'er feels retiring ebb", his mind will never be changed.
It is a rapid change from his earlier calm. Perhaps partly, it comes from Iago's skills in manipulation: his language is powerful in its persuasion with his tempting hanging utterances, questions and echoes: "My noble lord--" "Honest, my lord?", which all provoke Othello to begin questioning. At the point where he demands Iago to "give thy worst of thoughts", he is more concerned with gaining an answer, rather than considering it.
However, Iago's skill also lies in having picked out Othello's core weakness. Through the colour of his skin, Othello is obviously an outsider, and every mention of "Moor", even from the very title of the play (Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice), distances him from the others.
Though Othello begins with such confidence and eloquence, such as his triadic, flattering opening to the Senators: "Most noble, grave and reverend signors," perhaps it can be argued that Othello's language is too perfect in its extended use of the metaphor and perfect iambic pentameter. The perfection shows that the language is learned, much like every other aspect of Othello's struggle to fit in with the Venetian society. Its seeming confidence is a cover for the insecurities hidden just below.
Iago attacks the "outsider" weakness, suggesting that he, unlike Othello, "know[s] our country disposition well; / In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands."
Combined into this is also the little experience Othello has in the field of relationships. He is a solider, as he has earlier explained, "little blessed with the soft phase of peace." He has never before been around women much, but why should he doubt a loyal soldier who he has fought with before? Iago is "honest", as far as Othello has seen, a role Iago has carefully prepared over the years.
Inbuilt into his insecurities, Othello is acutely aware of his age and colour, and is a little amazed that Desdemona chose him at all. His nostalgic repetition in his speech to the Senate again tells us much:
The quote breaks the usual flow of Othello's speech in its repetition and stresses the 'strange'. Though Desdemona may have indeed said "'twas strange" it seems to show that Othello is lost in his own reflections on the word for a moment: strange, for him, sums up how Desdemona could ever love him.
Iago pounces on these doubts, too, in his racist utterance about how "unnatural" it is for her to choose away from "her own clime, complexion and degree". When we see Othello's soliloquy, further proof that the doubts always lay there, he considers:
The quote contains everything: the fear due to his colour, the fact that his speech is slightly 'artificial' and his age. Considering all these points, it's almost surprising, really, that Othello takes so long to be succumbed to Iago's way of seeing things.
Another question for Othello is his end? Is his suicide "noble"? Or is it an easy way out? Othello, as a solider, would perhaps consider it noble, reminiscent of how Roman soldiers saw nobility in suicide. Having murdered Desdemona, and feeling the "hell fires", he perhaps sees that he can no further damn himself with his suicide; perhaps he even welcomes the death, as it will take him to the punishment sooner.
Yet, is it an easy way out? By killing himself, is he giving up? Does he want to save what remains of his reputation, at least in his eyes, by avoiding a public spectacle of humiliation through the trial? Is it weak to be able to cope, or only natural?
Regardless of our own subjective views of Othello, I think Shakespeare does intent for us to feel pathos at the end.
The melancholic speech, using the familiar sea imagery, shows Othello's desperation... He sees no way to go on now, and it evokes sympathy in the reader.
Almost as hotly debated as Hamlet’s “antic disposition” are Iago’s motives. What drives Iago to his acts?
In the play itself, Iago presents a string of answers, which one can take on face value. In acting against Othello, he says that it is vengeance, “punishment that is inflicted in return for a wrong” – and the wrong for Iago is first for the act of promoting Cassio over him.
“I know my price; I am worth no less…”
Perhaps this does explain the general jealousy towards Cassio, and why he is willing to implicate Cassio, but surely the act on Othello’s part isn’t worthy of such a violent destruction?
As the play goes on, Iago finds another motive: that “it is said abroad”, Othello has done “his office” with Emilia. So, vengeance against Othello, “wife for wife” as he claims later? But the moment he comes out with this ‘motive’ he immediately states that he doesn’t believe it, but will act as if he does. This weakens his later, more assertive accusation, and the wild accusation against Cassio with his “nightcap”.
Iago never feels the things he uses as motives. They are merely ‘excuses’ for the actions, not the causes of them.
A very good argument for Iago’s actions is his class position. He is an outsider…can never climb as far as he wishes, but must remain an “ensign” and see this younger boy promoted above him. Iago is stuck in a dead end servile position, as much as he claims to be on the advance to Roderigo, and his response, perhaps, is to vent the frustrated rage on the only person possible: the other outsider, who, for the colour of his skin, is Othello. Even worse, Othello, this black man, is in a higher position to Iago! It isn’t fair!
Other suggestions are that Iago is actually “impotent”. His scene with Desdemona, and her “O most lame and impotent conclusion”, is very telling. The fact that Iago spends all his time talking about sex and never having sex with his wife suggests as much, as would his obsession with "birth" imagery. His hatred of women could be explained by his feelings of inadequacy, and his weakness could – just as in the previous argument – be taken out on those that he can – a black man, who he perceives is an outsider too.
Of course, it seems that Shakespeare never wishes us to fully understand Iago’s motives. When Othello demands an explanation, Iago is silent. Iago can often be likened to the devil, if we use a piece of religious imagery. He often aligns himself with the devil, such as when he describes his “tribe” – the “tribe of Hell” and in, "When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now." If Iago is the devil incarnate, pure evil, then he needs no motives other than evil itself. That is his motive. Only human compassion forces us to try to humanise him by projecting the various motives upon him… to allow us to understand him.
A standard villain would tell all when asked, would relish in it, but Iago is silent. If his hatred stems from impotence, he will not speak for his shame – that is one secret no one must ever no – but if he is the devil incarnate, he does not speak because evil has no explanation to offer. As Coleridge put it, perhaps he is "motiveless malignity".
Though trapped in a patriarchal society, Desdemona is by no means a feeble, dependent female. If we are to believe Othello's words to the Duke of Venice, it was she who came to him at the beginning of their relationship: “She’d come again, and with a greedy ear / Devour up my discourse,” and indeed hinted to Othello:
If I had a friend that loved her, I should but teach him how to tell my story, And that would woo her. (Act 1, Scene 3, Line 164-166)
When her father questions her on the affair, she is careful to be dutiful towards him, "I am bound to you for life and education," but is not afraid to assert her love, and point out her father's hypocrisy: "And so much duty as my mother showed / To you, preferring you before her father, / So much I challenge that I may profess / Due to the Moor my lord".
To go from being her father's possession to the Moor's is not a great leap of independence, but she does marry in secret, against her father's whims - and we cannot forget the period that the play is written in.
There are many examples of her strength. While wondering, in Act I, Scene i, what has befallen Othello, she controls her emotions, explaining in an aside to the audience: "I am not merry; but I do beguile / The thing I am by seeming otherwise" - pretending to be merry. Like Iago, she is able to put on a front.
Cassio, Othello's lieutenant.
Othello's lieutenant, and close friend in the beginning, "Good Michael," Othello once says. Iago twists Othello's mind and turns his friend into his enemy, a quite simple task in Iago's mind as he describes Cassio as "he has a person and a smooth dispose / To be suspected".
Cassio's mannerisms can be identified as matching Iago's assessment. He is courtly, and his praise for Desdemona is perhaps, one can argue, over the top:
Cassio's darker side is revealed in his use of Bianca, however. While she is present, he is fairly courteous, "I was on my way to see you," but apart from her, he is cruel and finds her love amusing, calling her various animal names like "fitchew". If we extend this two-sided nature to Othello, it perhaps suggests that other Venetians, when he is not present, have similar distaste for the "outsider" of society.
Emilia, Iago's wife, Desdemona's waiting woman.
Emilia is a character of contradictions. Throughout most of the play, very much subservient, she is eventually the voice of feminism. Questionable in morals, she is eventually the voice of good, uncovering the horrors of Iago's plot.
As Iago's wife, she is desperate for attention. This is her main reason for stealing the handkerchief is that her "wayward husband hath a hundred times / Wooed me to steal it". The romantic lexical choice "wooed" makes quite clear the desperation that drives her to such an immoral position. As does her last line: "I nothing, but to please his fantasy." His misogynism and cruelty have driven her to consider herself as "nothing", and she'll do anything to "please his fantasy".
Emilia never intends to merely "steal" the handkerchief. She plans to "have the work ta'en out" before she gives it to Iago, in order words, to have a copy made for him. It is only ill timing, with Iago's entrance, that changes her mind - moves her on a spur of moment.
Her ill-treatment eventually brings about her proto-feminist speech. "But I do think it is their husbands faults / If wives do fall" clearly refers to Iago, and is the reason she appears willing to do the terrible act Desdemona cannot consider "i'th'dark".
As modern readers, we might ask why Emilia doesn't just leave Iago, once "a year or two shows us a man", but we must remember her position in the Elizabethan world. Were she to leave Iago, she would be reduced to poverty or to prostitution, neither thinkable alternatives.
In the end, Emilia shows her strength in more than just words. She reveals the truth about Iago, "You told a lie, a foul, damned lie!" and refuses to be silenced, "I peace? / No, I will speak as liberal as the north." Her courage, even when Iago draws his sword is remarkable for a woman of her time, and makes up for her role in the tragic events. Sadly, Emilia dies for her mistress.
Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman.
Roderigo, often played as a young man, and often presented as a comic figure in the play, is intoxicated by Desdemona, though neither she nor her father are interested by his prospective love.
He makes the mistake of going to Iago for help in wooing the fair maiden, and is continually manipulated by Iago throughout the play in the naive belief that his actions are helping him to get closer to Desdemona. Whenever he challenges Iago, Iago is able to calm him, and bring him back under control.
Iago takes everything from Roderigo, his money, his time, his effort, and eventually his life. It is only while he lies dying that he sees Iago for what he is: "O damned Iago! O inhuman dog!"
A comic figure, but also a pitiful one -- a reluctant villain.
Bianca, a courtesan.
Though she is a "courtesan", a prostetute, Bianca isn't the usual type. She is summed up in Iago's words:
She has been "beguiled" or charmed by one man: Cassio. Her reaction, on recieving the handkerchief from Cassio, is one of jealousy: "this is some token from a newer friend," a little parallel to Othello's own jealousy. But though "jealous", hers is harmless - perhaps because of her position as a female in the patriarchial society - and she is forced to submit in this scene, "I must be circumstanced."
When she interrupts proceedings in Act IV, Sc i, Iago shows how well he is able to manipulate events to his own desires. Bianca shows more strength in this scene, giving Cassio a threat: "If you'll come to supper tonight, you may. If you wll not, come when you are next prepared for" (i.e. never). Cassio chases after her.
Why does Iago attempt to pin things on Bianca in the final act? "Look you pale?" he asks her, as paleness was associated with guilt, and, "Do you perceive the gastness of her eye?" It seems to be more than the low status of a prostitute being an excellent 'scapegoat'. As Iago is a misogynist, perhaps Bianca's position fears him? She is, after all, denying "acceptible" conventions in Elizabethan times. Iago seems to rebel against anything that seems to him "unnatural"...
Brabantio, a Senator of Venice, Desdemona's father.
Brabantio is representative of a common Elizabethan. On the surface, he seems to accept Othello in their society; as Othello points out in his speech, "her father loved me". However, prejudice lingers just below the surface of this show of affection, proving Jimmy-Jack's utterance, "Do you know the Greek word endogamein? It means to marry within the tribe. And the word exogamein means to marry outside the tribe. And you don't cross those borders casually - both sides get very angry." Othello is good enough to be admired, and befriended, but marriage is completely out of the question.
With a little prompting from Iago, these prejudices break free, though as the events are "not unlike [his] dream", it shows that the seeds of hatred were there long before Iago. His words draw on all the common stereotypes of the time: that Moors were "lasvicious", users of "witchcraft" and something "she feared to look on" (monstrous in their black appearance). Hyperbolic, perhaps, but quite sincere. Brabantio eventually died from the horrific marriage, which is "against all the rules of nature".