Shakespeare’s Othello Analysis: Naivety, Misanthropy, Reputation

The wine she drinks is made of grapes.
-Othello

Introduction – Shakespeare wrote a tragedy about a black military hero, portrayed in a glowing light in the beginning, in the midst of a Europe that was still killing people over whether or not they believed that wine is the blood of Christ, let alone a man who was from another continent, with entirely different genetic phenotypes, and whose family presumably had a history of not only Islam but a pagan religion. Considering that only a few years later Englishmen in the New World would begin enslaving Africans in mass numbers, Othello is a remarkable example of tolerance.

Naivety and Othello – I can imagine Othello agreeing with the following quote from Gandhi: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Othello converted to Christianity, presumably as an adult, and it’s notable that the events take place with a war against Muslims in the background. Othello does not question fighting on the side of Venice as he feels that the true divide is between the Res publica Christiana vs. its attackers, and not meaningless genetic or ancestral divides.

At the beginning of the story we find him to be an honest character who refuses to hide from Brabantio when he finds out about his elopement. “I must be found / My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly.” It’s inconceivable to him that in a city so close to Rome (Venice was predominately Catholic) there are men who would have acted differently. Because he is a foreign solider, and thus thus not educated in the ways of being a courtier, Othello finds it difficult to see through appearances in this world of civilian dishonesty. Iago says of him: “The Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.” Cassio adds, “You may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar.”

Regardless, he is a more textbook Christian than many we find in the play. His very optimism and happiness blind him to the way that the world works, and he cannot recognize Iago for the little Mephistopheles that he is. In fact, he’s not so unlike another of Shakespeare’s characters, Coriolanus, the eminent war hero turned enemy of the people due to lack of understanding. On the other hand, Iago, the worst character of all, is quick to believe the absolute worst in others.

But one thing that a solider would have understood is that in every era of peace lies the next war’s stirring. All we can hope for is fleeting happiness because it won’t last. Iago twists his fervent love into a fervent hate toward Desdemona and Cassio.

Misanthropy and Iago – Iago flagrantly disregards people. He sociopathically punishes Cassio for rising higher than him and attacks the newlyweds because he feels Othello has ruined his own chance at happiness by passing him over for promotion and allegedly sleeping with his wife. He also views Roderigo as prey, “thus do I ever make my fool my purse,” he says, and encourages him to sell off his property so that he can take even more from him. The predator fattens his prey.

In this sense, Iago is a personification of the dark side of fortune, the resistance of the world to our happiness. He is Queen Mab from Romeo and Juliet, tearing down the mythologies the characters live by. Othello thought that Venice was a meritocracy; Desdemona thought that she could break society’s customs without consequences; Roderigo thought that his love would conquer all. But Iago proves them all wrong. He’s the serpent in Eden and, inadvertently, the other characters get caught up in his web.

In fact, the more the characters attempt to reverse their fortunes, the deeper they dig their graves. The more that Desdemona pleads for Cassio, the more violent Othello becomes. The greater a soldier Othello becomes, the less able he is to deal with civilian life. The harder that Cassio tries to be upright, the harder he falls. Life backfires.

Iago is the one character who has a keen grasp on this fact. For example, the more he “defends” Desdemona by saying that maybe she was just innocently lying naked with Cassio, the harder Desdemona’s fate is sealed. He can see all the bitterness of life around him, and somewhere along the line has given up kindness and come to believe that manipulating others and destroying their lives redeems his existence. Eternal Iago ensures that nobody will transcend the binding ties of life on this earth. There is only a small shred of light at the end, when he is tortured and presumably dies alone.

Reputation and Desdemona-

Rumor, the swiftest of evils. She thrives on speed
And gains power as she goes. Small and timid at first,
She grows quickly…By day she perches on rooftops or towers,
Watching, and she throws whole cities into panic
.
Aeneid, Virgil

Gossip and rumors are fun house mirrors that twist Desdemona’s good qualities into bad ones, leading to her downfall. Her assertiveness and strength become perceived as instability and even wantonness. Iago says, and believes, she will soon need to kindle her fire with another man and “give satiety a fresh appetite.” Further, her desire to break the mold of what is acceptable and love a man for his own goodness become wicked betrayal against her father. Brabantio warns Othello, “She has deceived her father, and may thee.” Even Othello, because of his inability to see through the falseness of rumors, is swayed by them and ends up murdering her. Thus, her elopement with Othello has destroyed her reputation. “He that files from me my good name / Robs me of what which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed.”

A reputation takes years to build and only a moment to destroy, like Cassio’s single drunken night, but a woman’s is particularly precarious. In Iago’s words: “Reputation is an idle and most false impression: oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”

Advertisements


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s