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Othello: Naiveté in the Face of Evil Duplicity

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            Shakespeare’s Othello is a timeless emotional saga of lust, jealously, conspiracy, duplicity, and murder, all essential assets for a drama ripe for endless interpretation.  Of some things and characters we can be certain.  Othello’s wife, Desdemona is a beautiful woman desired by many.  She is also an innocent victim, killed by her enraged and mistaken husband.  Cassio, a prized lieutenant of Othello, fell victim as well, in part due to his  love and devotion to Othello.  Roderigo is an unwelcome suitor, enraptured by Desdemona and willing to do almost anything to be her mate.  Othello, distracted by events that send him off for war against the Turks, is as jealous and suspicious as any new husband could possibly be.  Iago is the one capable of manipulating all of the errant emotions for his own gain:

“(i)n following him (Othello), I follow but myself. Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty but seeming so, for my peculiar end; for when my outward action doth demonstrate the native act and figure of my heart in complement extern, ‘tis not long after but I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at; I am not what I am” (p. 5).

It is Othello who is what he is; naïve, obsessive, suspicious, and the epitome of a thick oaf easily snared by the cunning Iago.  He is more than a victim of circumstance; he is naïve enough to be the victim of his own, as well as others’ emotions.  While he can certainly be faulted for his shortcomings, and there is no sympathy for anyone killing a wife out of jealousy, he is not simply a mad murderer.  As vanity and gullibility are his weaknesses, he becomes easy prey for those who falsely ingratiate themselves to him.

            Unknown to Othello, Iago, upset at Othello’s placement of Cassio superior to Iago, and Roderigo, still desirous of Desdemona, have conspired to wreak havoc upon Othello by informing her father that “your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs” (p. 7).  Although Desdemona’s father Brabantio has no love lost for Roderigo, he is outraged by this information, and petitions for the arrest of Othello.  He is rebuffed; Othello is needed for an impending war, and Desdemona has explained to her father her love for Othello.  Brabantio is told by the Duke to “take up this mangled matter at the best”—leave it alone—but the conspiracy does not end. (p. 20)

            Othello returns from the sea; the Turks had been shattered by a storm which he survived.  Iago begins his strategy to play all the sides to his benefit.  Roderigo still longs for Desdemona, and is willing to pay to receive her affections—jewels that Iago will of course assure him will reach Desdemona.  Cassio, close to both Othello and Desdemona, appears to be Iago’s perfect foil.  He will convince Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are lovers.  By doing so, he expects Desdemona to be cast aside by Othello and convinces Roderigo that she will then be his.  Iago’s hatred of Cassio will be capped as Othello’s affection for Cassio will disappear, and Iago will once again be in his grace:

I’ll have our Michael Cassio on the hip, abuse him to the Moor in the right garb (for I fear Cassio with my nightcap, too), make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me for making him egregiously an ass and practicing upon his peace and quiet, even to madness. ‘Tis here, but yet confused; knavery’s plain face is never seen till used. (p. 40)

            Iago is correct; it will be some time before the deceit is visible.  He is able to play Othello like an instrument and connives to initiate a scene to make Cassio fall from Othello’s favor.  Othello is clearly at a disadvantage; to him “Iago is most honest” (p. 41).  Iago is able to get Cassio drunk, and stages a fight between Cassio and Roderigo.  Othello hears the commotion and breaks it up.  Iago is called upon by Othello to explain the confrontation; he would “rather have this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offense to Michael Cassio” (p. 48)  The ruse works on the hoodwinked Othello:  not only does he believe Iago is stretching the story to Cassio’s advantage, even better Cassio will “never more be an officer of mine” (p. 49).

            Iago’s machinations continue.  He convinces the out-of-favor Cassio that he will arrange for him to meet privately with Desdemona, ostensibly for her assistance and intercession with Othello to gain back his graces.  Cassio is again the pawn; by unwittingly meeting with Desdemona he sets himself up to appear to be having an affair with her.  Iago maintains his charade with Othello, and by appearing hesitant to implicate Cassio does the very opposite.  Othello believes Iago loves him, but believes he hesitates in speaking poorly of Cassio as “close dilations, working from the heart that passion cannot rule” (61).  Iago professes his love and belief of Cassio’s honesty in one breath, and damns him with the next.  His coup de grace with Othello is to play upon his own fears and knowledge of Desdemona.  Iago tells him “(s)he did deceive her father, marrying you; and when she seemed to shake and fear your looks, she loved them the most” (p. 64)  Othello unhesitatingly agrees; she is capable of duplicity.

            The intrigue continues and thickens as Iago’s scheme begins to unfold.  Iago, the master manipulator, cannot be content with rumor, innuendo, or testimony.  He knows the value of something physical, something that Othello cannot dismiss.  He must have something that will convince Othello beyond doubt of an affair between Cassio and Desdemona. The proof takes the form of a special handkerchief Othello had given Desdemona.  He has compelled his wife Emilia to take a part in his plot:

I am glad I have found this napkin; this was her first remembrance from the Moor.  My wayward husband hath a hundred times wooed me to steal it; but she so loves the token (for he conjured her she should ever keep it that she reserves it evermore to her to kiss and talk to. (p. 68)

But Emilia may not be as innocent as she wants to appear.  According to some Shakespeare researchers, she was the villain behind the villain.  Cory Halbig asserts she was the master manipulator, having Iago well under her influence; however, he indicates that is very much open to speculation. (Halbig, p. 25)

By placing the handkerchief with Cassio, the evidence is planted, yet it is made worse.  Liking the pattern, Cassio has it copied, and gives it to his mistress.  When Othello becomes aware of this, it is to him proof that Cassio was having an affair with Desdemona, and thought so little of it he gave the handkerchief away!

            The intricate web weaved by Iago may be untangled.  Roderigo is suspicious that Iago took the jewels he intended to woo Desdemona; he is correct.  Iago will benefit from the death of Cassio, Roderigo, or both:

Live Roderigo, he calls me to restitution large of gold and jewels I bobbed from him as gifts to Desdemona.  It must not be.  If Cassio do remain, he hath made daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly; and besides, the Moor may unfold me to him; there stand I in much peril.  No, he must die. (p. 109)

Iago is able to convince Othello of the need to kill both Cassio and Desdemona for their adultery.  It is though Iago is either a wizard keeping Othello within his spell, or Othello is desperately hearing from Iago only what he wants to hear.  In a trance of jealously, Othello smothers Desdemona, who dies protesting her innocence.  Iago is able to once again orchestrate a violent encounter between Cassio and Roderigo, but unfortunately for him, Cassio survives.  Othello commits his vile deed; however, the results are anything but what Iago expected.  His complicity is finally uncovered; Emilia admits to taking the handkerchief.  If indeed she was a mastermind of his actions, it served her naught, as he unhesitatingly killed her.  Finally, Othello sees Iago for what he is:  “Precious villain!” (p. 123).

            The tragic aftermath can be predicted:  “knavery’s plain face” is finally in plain view.  Othello has the opportunity to kill Iago, but wounds him instead, intentionally. Seemingly in defiance, or perhaps mocking Othello, Iago points out that he is merely wounded by the blow, and still alive.  Othello has no regret;  “I am not sorry neither.  I’d have thee live; for in my sense, ‘tis happiness to die” (125).  Othello makes good his intention, and dies with his wife.  Iago, now prisoner, has lived to see the governors place Cassio in Othello’s stead, giving him command of Cyprus.  For Iago, “(i)f there be any cunning cruelty that can torment him as much, and hold him long, it shall be his” (127)   Othello voices his epitaph:

“(s)peak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.  Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well; of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Judean, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe… (p.127)

He is a man who has lost it all, not out of meaningless rage or base meanness, but by unwittingly having strings attached to be pulled by a very cunning puppeteer.


Halbig, Cory.  (Spring, 2007).  Shakespeare’s Othello and the Insidious Creation of an

 Unwilling Victim.  University of Southern Indiana Amalgam, 25-30.

Shakespeare, William.  (1982). Othello.  New York:  Signet Classic.

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