To What Extent Is Othello Responsible For His Own Downfall?
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A tragedy is the story of an individual whose downfall is brought about by specific defects in his character, tragic flaws. The play, Othello, is a twisted tale of deceit and revenge. Iago creates an alternate world filled with lies, that unfortunately consumes the trusting and naive Othello. Othello’s downfall comes about due to a combination of the influence of Iago and the fatal character flaws of the otherwise virtuous Othello.
Iago absolutely hates Othello. He is angry with Othello for promoting Michael Cassio, an officer with no real battle experience, to lieutenant over him. Once Iago comes up with a plan for revenge it does not take very long for him to set it into motion. Iago’s plan is to cause Michael Cassio to fall out of Othello’s good graces. Once Cassio has lost his position as lieutenant Iago knows that Cassio will do anything to get it back, so he advises Cassio to get Othello’s wife, Desdemona, to speak on his behalf to Othello. Iago tells Cassio, “Our generals wife is now the general… Confess yourself freely to her. Importune her to help to put you in your place again.” Iago has begun his plan to poison Othello’s brain.
Once Desdemona begins defending Cassio to Othello, Iago begins to make Othello think that there is something odd in the situation and that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Iago does this because he knows that Desdemona is one of Othello’s only weak spots. Othello trusted Desdemona implicitly “my life upon her faith”- showing the audience the extent to which her faithfulness rules his life and his trust. Iago knew Othello loved her so much he would do anything for her, and if he could destroy that love in some way his plan would work. Iago is deliberately plotting for Othello’s downfall.
Othello failed to recognize the strength of this love when Iago started to put the negative thoughts of infidelity into his head. He started to believe Iago right away, and he seemed to forget how much Desdemona had already proved her love for him. Desdemona had previously stated “I do perceive here a divided duty…but here is my husband….so much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord”, Desdemona shows her loyalty to Othello. However it was Othello’s insecurity that caused his downfall. If he had not been so insecure then he would have been able to dismiss Iago’s words, and he would have been able to say to himself that our love is so strong and pure that she would never be able to hurt me this way. Thus we are introduced to one of Othello’s fatal flaws, his insecurity.
Another of Othello’s tragic flaws, which contribute to his downfall, is his open and trusting nature. Iago knows of Othello’s fault and states “The Moor is of a free and open nature/ That thinks men honest that seem to be so/And will as tenderly be led by the nose/As asses are.” Othello is a professional soldier and preaches by the rules and codes of honour thoroughly. He believes that people are honest and genuine until he has proof that they are not. This is what makes Othello easily susceptible to Iago’s schemes. He judges people by their exterior behaviour but really does not know anything about their ulterior motives. Iago takes no time in manipulating this flaw and transforms a one time soldier and righteous individual into a degrading and shameless wife murderer. Iago knows his plan will work because of Othello’s trustworthy nature. Furthermore, Othello has no real reason to suspect that his loyal ensign would scheme against him.
Using jealousy as a weapon is what prompts Iago to plot the ultimate downfall of Othello. Jealousy is the most corrupting and destructive of emotions and is demonstrated throughout this drama by the protagonist, Othello. As the play progresses, we watch it’s vicious influence on the protagonist with compassion and horror. Othello allows Iago to make him suspicious about Desdemona’s intentions in wanting to help Cassio to get his position back. Iago tells Othello, “Look to your wife; observe her with Cassio;… She did deceive her father marrying you.” In reality it was Iago himself who told Cassio to ask for Desdemona’s help in the first place. Desdemona would never even think of cheating on Othello, and confirms this in Act 4, Scene 3 when she says, “Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong for the whole world.” Even though Desdemona is a virtuous and innocent creature Othello still comes to believe that she is a whore who has slept with Cassio while married to him. Othello doesn’t show himself to be a jealous person at the beginning but through Iago’s manipulation, we see the emotion work at full force.
Deceived by Iago’s skillful lies and convincing techniques, Othello must face emotions he can’t handle. Whenever he thinks of Cassio or his wife, an image of the two making love to each other in Othello’s bed appears. His jealousy literally drives him mad. Othello becomes so enraged with the thought and even the sight of her that in Act 4, Scene 1 he calls her “devil” and strikes her in public. In fact he becomes so enraged with her that in Act 5, Scene 2 he states, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.” Later in that scene he proceeds to smother her to death. In actuality the only evidence that Othello has to prove her infidelity is the handkerchief that Iago places in Cassio’s house, and of course the words of Iago, whom he believes he can trust. His perception and conclusions are replaced by fury and hatred. However, the Othello is too late to realize what he’s done, and consequently this results in many lives lost, including his own. Othello allowed his passions to rule over reason, and for that he paid, to him, the ultimate sacrifice.
Although Othello was naive and wrong to put his trust in Iago without the presence of any real evidence, he did so partly because of his low self-esteem. Othello was one of very few black men in Venice and Desdemona was a very young and very beautiful white woman. Othello had to feel extremely unworthy of her affections. Throughout the play Othello is reminded of his inferiority due to his blackness. Emilia refers to Othello as a “blacker devil” and Iago claims that Othello is “an old black ram”, “the devil”, and a “Barbary horse.” Othello was very aware of his colour and it being a flaw in the society in which he lived. This made it easier for him to believe that Desdemona could possibly want someone else, someone easier on the eyes.
However, in reality, there was no reason for him to believe this, and that is where Othello is truly flawed. Desdemona was not blind. She knew whom she was marrying, and she chose Othello of her own free will. If she wanted to marry someone white she would have. Othello let himself be tricked by the lies of Iago, and so it was he who was responsible for his own downfall. After finding that his wife was faithful, he changes from the man we once knew. He is a broken man, broken because he killed the one thing he was passionate about. Othello’s guilt is eventually the killer.
Othello’s lack of self-knowledge makes him easy prey for Iago. Othello’s jealousy stems from his insecurity and feelings of inferiority. If Othello believed that Desdemona was completely devoted to him, he would not ever have killed her. Once Iago inflames Othello’s jealousy and gets the darker aspects of Othello’s nature into action, there is nothing Othello can do to stop it, since he cannot even admit that he has these darker traits.
Despite all this, Othello can be looked upon sympathetically to the extent that he did not ask for this plan to come about. Everything that happened to him he did not plan. He did not ask for Iago not to like him and therefore to set him up. He did not ask for Iago to put those negative thoughts into his head, and he certainly did not plan to kill his wife.
Othello does bear the brunt for the responsibility of Desdemona’s death- after all, it was he himself who committed the murderous deed! However, one must also understand the reasons and circumstances which brought about the act. The manipulations by Iago upon Othello that allowed qualities common to humanity to surface, play a large part in the build up to the act of murder. Iago also was the mechanism that transformed Othello’s values of honour and justice into vengefulness and a rather obsessive hunger for morality in his world. It is evident, therefore, that Othello’s faults and virtues, all that makes him human, played a large part in the demise of Desdemona and himself yet without Iago, there would have been no tragedy to speak of. In the end it was Othello that made his own choices with his own free will, and so it was justified when he had to pay for his mistakes, but the influence of Iago’s manipulation cannot be denied.