Hearing is Believing in Shakespeare's Othello

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The quote appearing inI.iii.146-151 is part of Othello's explanation to the Senators of Venice for his success in winning Desdemona. Othello relates to them Desdemona's behavior during their courtship, where, like most of the characters in the play, she accepts and acts upon second-hand knowledge gained through listening, without the backup of evidence. The tragic action in Othello unfolds based on Iago's exploitation of this over-reliance on hearing. He seems to be the only one who perceives that people often interpret words based on what they want to hear, or through their underlying fears. Even without Iago's interference there are potential problems in how Othello and Desdemona relate to each other through hearing. Othello betrays his fear of Desdemona listening with a greedy ear (150) by saying that she would devour up my discourse (151). As all she knows of Othello is his discourse, this is the same as devouring him. Her active listening betrays her non- passive character, which is threatening to the male role Othello is trying to adopt in Venetian society. Desdemona has also perceived who she thinks Othello is through his discourse - I saw Othello's visage in his mind (I.iii.253)--which has perhaps caused her to only half perceive his colour and otherness, and the potential male opposition to thier marriage. What she has heard is his version of events, and she appears to have fallen in love with his exotic past through this discourse. We can wonder how well she knows Othello the man in the context of Venetian society. The potential problems of their relationship are exploited fully by Iago, who plays on Othello's fears - his insecure position in a white society with a white wife, and his strict adherence to that society's norms as regards a wife's passivity and sexual behaviour--to get him to see through listening. That is, Iago uses words to twist reality and create mental images for people, and then persuades them to accept these as true. Listening to Iago is indeed dangerous. Despite the fact that Iago deliberately subjects Othello to his twisted thoughts, Othello seems to have a greedy ear for his discourse, and appears to rely on Iago for the underlying truths of this white, male-dominated society he wants to belong to. Perhaps that helps explain how easily Othello is fooled without any real evidence. Once Iago has sown the seed of doubt in Othello's mind about Cassio, whom they both presumably see as a proper man (I.

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