The Pitiful Characters of Othello

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The Pitiful Characters of Othello

 
   In Othello, no "good" love exists between any of the characters. Shakespeare creates a cast of romantic and platonic couples whose affection is weak and unsustainable. Iago, not Othello, is master of this play; he establishes all the action. There is an underlying weakness and depravity in all the characters, or Iago would never have been able to ruin so many lives. But Iago is unswayed by the external; his black heart is his only guide.

 

When Iago tells Roderigo to awaken Brabantio and set the wheels of distrust in motion, he is loud and boisterous, even vulgar. He says, "Rouse him...Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell as when by night and negligence, the fire is spied..." (1.1 75, 82-84). Iago is interested only in the act of alarm. We imagine him lurking around the canals, sticking his bony finger into every soul to testing their limits and act accordingly. He has no conscience. For Iago, there is nothing bigger than he to temper his need to destroy.

 

Iago's bad behavior sets the tone for all other interactions in the play. He has no need for honesty or affiliation; he uses his wife to further his plot, betrays Roderigo, cares nothing for Cassio, and loathes Othello. He is a foil for characters who may know right from wrong but are not passionately committed to acting for good or evil. Shakespeare mirrors this noxious model in other characters' relationships. Desdemona rebels against her father; the Duke takes Othello's side; Roderigo is so lovesick that he will stoop to any level to win Desdemona. Even in the primary romantic relationship, Othello's and Desdemona's, the love is flimsy and easily broken.

 

Neither Desdemona nor Othello gush about the heavenly course their love has taken - never do they claim to be "star-crossed lovers." The origin of their love lies in the myths that Othello has fashioned from his travels and conquests, not in common interests or a compatibility of spirit. Desdemona can only imagine what Othello's life is like; she is too passive to ever truly live. Though some may argue that this love is mature and doesn't need Romeo-style proclamation, it is clear that Shakespeare has built their relationship on sand.

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Hero worship is not a good basis for marriage, and both Desdemona and Othello buy into his heroic reputation too readily. No wonder Iago is able to bend Othello's will. If Othello's love for Desdemona was pure, he would never have killed her with so little evidence of her impurity.

 

The appeal of Othello is that the reader gets to decide for himself the big questions of good vs. evil. But the text provides a roadmap with which to explore the quality of the characters' consciences - and our own - one weakling soul at a time.

 Work Cited

Shakespeare, William. "Othello". The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

 


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