The Manipulation of Perception in Shakespeare's Othello

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The Manipulation of Perception in Othello  


This paper contains 237 words of teacher’s comments.   What one perceives is influenced by one’s environment. The setting and commentary surrounding events changes our perception of them. Any innocent gesture can be perceived in the wrong way with enough persuading from someone else. Even if someone has total faith in another person's innocence, they can be persuaded to doubt them through the twisting of events. Once just a small amount of doubt has been planted, it influences the way everything else is seen. This occurs throughout the play, Othello. In this play, Iago influences Othello's perception of events through speeches and lies, making him doubt Desdemona's fidelity. Iago uses his talent of manipulating events to exact his revenge on Othello. Iago's twisting of events in Othello's mind leads to the downfall of Othello as planned, but because he fails to twist Emilia's perception as well, he facilitates his own eventual downfall.


When Iago first sets out to deceive Othello, he tells him, "look at your wife; observe her well with Cassio" (3.3.196). He knows that if he can plant enough doubt and jealousy in Othello's mind, Othello only needs to look at Desdemona being friendly with Cassio to suspect infidelity. After this, when Desdemona asks for Cassio's reinstatement, it looks as though she is trying to get something better for her lover, as opposed to just helping a friend.


Iago talks about jealousy and deception in this same scene, but never gives any proof or direct descriptions of Desdemona's betrayal. Yet we know that Othello's perception has been sufficiently influenced to make him angry and sick by the end of this conversation. He tells Desdemona he has a headache, but he refuses any help from her. When she puts her handkerchief to his head, he pushes it away saying, "your napkin is too little" (3.3.285). This takes on more significance later on in the play when we find out that this handkerchief is the first token of love Othello ever gave to Desdemona.


Also in this scene, we see how much Othello had trusted, loved, and believed in Desdemona. He says, "I do not think but Desdemona's honest" and "If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself! I'll not believe't"(3.3.223, 275-6). But he does suspect her, and it seems these statements are only there to convince himself that she really is true.

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MLA Citation:
"The Manipulation of Perception in Shakespeare's Othello." 28 Feb 2017

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The doubt is already in his heart.


In Act three, scene four, after Othello has questioned Desdemona about the handkerchief and they have fought, Emilia says, "Is not this man jealous?" Desdemona replies, "I ne'er saw this before"(3.4.104-5). Obviously, Othello had never shown jealousy towards her before, and he had probably never even raised his voice to her. Iago's plan of planting suspicion in Othello is working and it gets worse the more Desdemona talks about Cassio. That Othello would mistrust the woman he had loved and trusted so much shows how strongly another person can influence one's perception.



Iago uses words to twist events not only in Othello's mind, but in the other characters as well. He hints at Desdemona being "full of game" to Cassio in act two, scene three. In this scene, Cassio knows that Desdemona is a good woman. Every time Iago says something suggestive, Cassio answers with a compliment. Iago says:




Iago. What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley to provocation.

Cassio. An inviting eye, and yet methinks right modest.





Cassio refuses to give in to Iago's baiting and talk of Desdemona in an immoral way, so Iago changes the topic of conversation. Instead, he brings up the subject of drinking, knowing he can manipulate in a different way.


In act two, scene one; Iago tries to make Roderigo believe that Desdemona does not truly love Othello and that she will soon change her mind. To do this, he uses their common prejudice against black people to convince Roderigo that she could not possibly want Othello. Then he discusses the recent events, in which Cassio took Desdemona by the hand. We know that Cassio only did that to be courteous, but Iago twists its meaning. He says to Roderigo, "Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of her hand? _ Lechery _ [a] prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts"(2.1.246-50). Thus an innocent gesture of kindness has taken on foul connotations because of Iago's commentary on it.


Although Iago can change everyone's perception so well, he cannot change Emilia's perception of Desdemona. In fact, he doesn't even try. He must assume that because she is a woman and his wife, Emilia will not question him. Usually, he doesn't. When Emilia gives Iago Desdemona's handkerchief, he thanks her by calling her a "good wench." When she asks "what will you do with't," he says, "Be no acknown on it: I have use for it. Go, leave me" and she leaves (3.3.316-7). Perhaps if Iago had taken the time to deceive Emilia as well she would not have spoken out against him in the end.


In act five, scene two; Iago's plan has finally paid off. Othello has killed Desdemona and Cassio and Roderigo have wounded each other as well. It seems as though his revenge is complete, but then Emilia tells everyone what really happened with the handkerchief. Iago expected her to obey him, as she had always done before. He says, "I charge you get you home." Emilia says, "'Tis proper I obey him, but not now" (5.2.193-5). Even she is apprehensive about disobeying her husband.


In the end, after all the work that Iago did to manipulate events and everyone's perception, his ignorance about his wife's loyalty ultimately causes his downfall and eventual punishment: as Lodovico says, "the censure of this hellish villain." And thus, Iago fails.




This paper, while not perfect, has two important things going for it. First, it has a really good idea for its thesis. It doesn't just assert that Iago is manipulative of others' perception, but also that he omits to deceive his wife--and that this is crucial to the outcome of the play. The second, related strength is that this thesis lends the paper a very good organization. It has a trajectory, moving through the examples of Iago's successful manipulation to the crucial point of his failure to manipulate Emilia. It builds on the earlier examples to set up the contrasting point at its conclusion.


This paper does not, however, make it into the A range, for several reasons. First and foremost, it is fundamentally imbalanced, spending much more time on the early examples of Iago's success than on the main point (his failure with Emilia): what the thesis indicates as the main point of the paper is not treated with the appropriate detail. The quotations in paragraphs three, four and five don't seem particularly useful or relevant to the main point the author is making about Iago's manipulative technique. The paper suffers from a number of awkward sentence constructions and doesn't flow very smoothly in places--for instance, in the last two sentences of the paper (paragraph ten).




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