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In Act IV, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello faints when confronted with the possibility that his wife has been unfaithful. Through the past few scenes, Iago, exploiting Othello’s concerns about his race, has performed a delicate act, slowly but surely leading him towards the inevitable conclusion that his wife and Cassio have ‘cuckolded’ him. When Iago finally refers explicitly to Desdemona’s sexual betrayal, Othello can bear it no longer and faints to escape the reality he cannot bear.
From the outset, Othello has been uncomfortable in aristocratic Venetian society. He has deep insecurities about his ability to fulfill his role as Desdemona’s husband, both sexually and socially. Othello is elated when he realizes that beautiful young Desdemona is attracted to him since he perceives himself to be unworthy of her love, primarily due to his old age, physical unattractiveness, and most importantly because he is a black Moor. Thus, his realization of his racial identity figures prominently in his mindset. Sexually, he fears being unable to satisfy his wife’s desires; for it would be only natural for her to, having sealed the vows of marriage, seek a companion more like her. For he is “rude […] in speech, / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (1.3:81-2), most unfit to wed the daughter of the noble senator Brabanzio. Thus, he makes it clear that he prefers the military atmosphere to the aristocratic civilian one.
While Othello has thoroughly internalized his concerns regarding his marriage, shrewd Iago is able to perceive and exploit them. Iago’s villainous brilliance is manifest in his ability to take himself into Othello’s confidence. The relationship that develops between the two is of great significance. Iago is most careful to avoid explicitly accusing Desdemona of adultery until the time is right. Instead, he gradually weaves the thought into Othello’s mind so that Othello is able to independently arrive at the same conclusion. While initially Iago exhibits deference and fear of his king, the power dynamic progressively shifts so that the two become almost equal allies in an unholy conspiracy. Othello, at one point, is almost thankful to Iago for revealing to him the truth, declaring that “I am bound to thee for ever” (3.3:218). Iago reciprocates in the next scene upon being appointed lieutanant, vowing “I am your own for ever” (3.3:482). Especially in this scene, Iago can be seen as representing Satan himself, inducing good Othello to err thereby securing a vow of loyalty from his servant.
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In order that he may have a healthy marriage, Othello had excised any possible doubts about Desdemona, replacing them with an idealized conception of a virginal eternally faithful bride. Thus, if he wished to achieve his end, Iago would have to destroy Othello’s perception of Desdemona’s purity. It seems that nothing offended Othello more than the image of another man copulating with his wife. When Iago suggests that Othello witness for himself Cassio being intimate with Desdemona, Othello is visibly shaken, and backs down in his insistence on spectral evidence. Throughout all this, Iago does nothing more than insinuate wrongdoing. When Iago explicitly charges Cassio with admitting to adultery, Othello asks if he did “lie with her”. Exploiting the nuances of English diction, Iago slyly responds “With her, on [top of her], what you will” (4.1:33) While Othello has, to a certain extent, conditioned himself in his sessions with Iago, it is the physical component of Desdemona’s adultery that overcomes with emotion, leading to him fainting in a trance. Being a warrior, he is able to intellectually think of the concept of adultery. But when he is himself the victim, when he imagines being cuckolded in such a way that another man occupies the position on top of his wife, he is nauseated.
Othello’s fainting represents a climactic moment in the play. Having crossed the point of no return and declared fealty to Iago, he can no longer harbor tender feelings towards Desdemona. Picturing his wife with another man enables him to realize his difficult duty. Moreover, it allows him to move on and to go about the rectification of the situation.
 William Shakespeare, Othello, In The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999)
Othello's Suicide as a Means of Escape
In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello’s suicide represents the culmination of a gradual progression. The Moor starts out confronted with racial insensitivities that tarnish his image as a brilliant Venetian general. His insecurities regarding his sexual appeal to Desdemona define the nature of their future relationship. Iago’s brilliant manipulation of the general’s weaknesses allows him to lead Othello to his doom.
While Desdemona’s betrayal harmed Othello, it also reinvigorated him as it provided him with the mission of seeking vengeance against his wife. Initially though he may have fainted upon imagining his wife and Cassio intimate with one another, his skills as a soldier enable him to focus on the task at hand. He efficiently deputizes Iago to execute Cassio while he himself kills Desdemona.
Earlier, Othello commented that with Desdemona his world was ordered and without her there was chaos. However as time progresses, Othello becomes desensitized to the violence he must direct; he assumes the cold-hearted character of Iago, with whom he had traded vows of allegiance. Othello’s true emotional breakdown occurs as he listens to Emilia’s revelations about the origins of the handkerchief Cassio flouted around. Othello, in his own mind, followed a precise chain of evidence, provided by Iago, to convict Desdemona of adultery. His realization that he has failed, not as a husband, but as a military tactician is what he cannot bear: evidence of his own great flaw. He realizes he is responsible for the deaths of Desdemona and he has no option but to escape, which he does—by taking his own life.