A tragedy has many definitions, but the Merriam-Webster version defines it as: “a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror.” The latter part, about disastrous conclusion is true for Shakespeare’s tragedies, and Othello is no exception.
Roderigo blindly follows Iago’s lead and while his contribution to the disaster is minimal at best, he still is able to feed Iago’s desire for revenge, as all the characters do. The only difference between Roderigo and the other characters is how he does it. Roderigo is madly in love with Desdemona and wants her for himself. The first sign of Roderigo’s desires comes from Barbantio when he speaks: “I have charged thee not to haunt my doors:/In honest plainness thou hast heard me say/My daughter is not for thee…”(I, i)
Iago seduces Roderigo’s compliance in the disaster by dripping sweetened words of his attempts to sway Desdemona away from Othello. Roderigo, in his naïve and loving mind, give Iago the financial means to further his plot of disaster. Iago tells Roderigo that the money and jewels he spends go to Desdemona, but there is little evidence of this. And it seems unlikely that Iago needed large sums of money to exact his revenge on the Moor. He does it with words and a handkerchief, not rubies and emeralds.
But Roderigo’s lust for Desdemona leads to his attempt to kill Cassio. After Iago has convinced Cassio to plea to Desdemona for his rank back, Iago is then able to convince Roderigo that the way to take Desdemona is to kill Cassio (IV, ii) because, according to Iago, Cassio and Desdemona are now sleeping together.
It is ultimately his attempts to defile and kill Cassio that contribute the most to the tragedy. He causes Cassio to lose his rank (II, iii) and then attempts to kill him. The question Roderigo should’ve been asking himself is this: “If Desdemona is such a lovely, innocent creature, why does she jump from bed to bed? What makes me think that she’d stay in mine?”
Emilia’s role in the tragedy seems very small at first. Iago mentions suspicions of unfaithfulness very early on (I, iii) but it is not these suspicions that Emilia contributes to her death and the death of others. Rather, it is the very simple action of...
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... not a factor.
So what drives Iago to commit all these acts? Jealousy is a major portion, but perhaps Iago views this all as a game as well. He prides himself on his wit and cunning and is appreciated for it by his peers. Perhaps it is ego that drives Iago to do all of this, a test of his skills to see if he can keep so many threads playing together and for his benefit.
Almost all of his actions, plantings seeds of doubt (III, iii) or giving dangerous instructions (II, iii) lead to the tragic ending of the play. Even at the end, Iago refuses to explain his motives, by simply saying, “What you know, you know.” (V, ii). Perhaps this was Shakespeare’s way of saying not to look for a reason, but rather to appreciate what an amazing amount of cunning and patience this would’ve taken to pull off.
In the end, Iago’s last words perhaps best suit the play. “What you know, you know.” Everything is presented for the entire world to see, with little hidden meanings to things and actions. Roderigo’s lust, Emilia’s fear and loyalty, Desdemona’s purity, Othello’s trust and insecurities, and Iago’s jealousy and ego contribute to the “disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror.
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