Othello and Old Nick

In William Shakespeare’s famous "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice," William Shakespeare presents in the title character of Othello a man whose own personal shortcomings ultimately lead to his downfall. The eponymous Othello is charismatic and eloquent, but these qualities are not well-suited to his position of leadership. The battlefield and the Senate are, at least in "Othello," depicted as places of honor, where men speak sincerely and justly. In addition, the matters of war and state are relatively simple; no one lies to Othello, because he is respected. As we gradually learn, though, all is not well and true in his marriage: It is one based on tall tales and pity. His friendships are never examined; he assumes everyone who knows him respects and loves him. Thus the ultimate evaluation of Othello is that, although he leads others, he lacks good judgment and common sense. This becomes most obvious in his last monologues, where, though the play ends with a respectable conclusion, Othello never fully realizes nor takes responsibility for what he has done.

Othello’s last speeches are dignified, but they lack purpose and he does not seem to have a full understanding of all that has happened. He uses the first speech to condemn himself and his ghastly deed; this is more than likely a reaction of anyone who has come to the realization that they have wrongfully killed a loved one. To his credit Othello blames himself and does seem to feel genuine remorse. His final oration, however, is directed to the men who remain about how to deal with what has happened.

In his initial self-disgust and remorse at realizing the truth of Desdemona's innocence, Othello is genuinely anguished. "This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, / And fiends will snatch at it." It is clear that he is in torment because of her death, and because he himself did the deed. For the first time, it appears that Othello is at a loss with what to do with his power: "Do you go back dismayed? / Man but a rush against Othello's breast / And he retires." Giving up is hardly Othello's style, but this is how a noble and true man should react when he has mistakenly killed his wife. However, Othello's words give a deeper insight into how he still misunderstands the situation. "Who can control his fate?" he asks. Placing responsibility in the hands of fate -- he calls Desdemona an "ill-starred wench" -- is hardly a gallant course of action. It is beyond a doubt Othello's fault that all of this wreckage befalls him, and he still has not had a moment of recognition of his failures at reasoning and understanding.

In fact, it is Othello's final soliloquy that ultimately seals his fate as a man who lacks critical-thinking skills. This is because these are his final words, and they deal with fact, not emotion. He addresses the reasons behind his downfall, and decides how he wants others to see him, in terms of the story and how he takes responsibility for it. It is a noble speech, and a noble ending, but like Othello, it is flawed.

The setting for Othello's final moments onstage is critical to how it is perceived by Othello, the other players onstage and the audience. It adds to Othello's misguided self-perception. The day is slowly breaking as the first beams of light are filtering through the blinds on Othello's bedroom windows. Othello has moved out of the darkness he was sitting in when he began his first speech, and while standing in light, speaks of how he has been enlightened of what occurred. And yet, for all the splendor, glory and excellence of tongue, his final words show that he does not quite understand himself or what he has done. His goal is to tell the messengers from Venice what has happened, but he lacks insight and his words are inarticulate. Othello says he "loved not wisely, but too well." (V.2.404) It is true that he did not love wisely, but neither did he love too well. His marriage is based on storytelling and pity; he does not trust his wife in the least. And while it might be debatable whether Othello is "easily jealous" or just gullible, he does buy Iago's tale of deceit based on no more than a handkerchief and the villain’s words. This is all Othello says, but he begins to plot his suicide.

Othello doesn’t take into account his rash or judgmental faults, but rather condemns his hand for the sin he commits ("of one whose hand, / … threw a pearl away"). This idea that his body is somehow possessed with evil, but not his mind, is perpetuated in his last words:
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th' throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

Othello truly believes that a malignant Turk has taken over the good Venetian within him. He still does not see that his faults are exploited by Iago and used against him. Although he kills himself in such a dignified fashion, Othello is really thinking that he was forced to do this by some unseen evil power. He never has any complete sense of tragic recognition.

Shakespeare sets up Othello as his perfect leader: No one ever questions his ability to lead an army. He speaks well and is widely respected. But the skills that make a good general are only applied to problems in his professional life. Othello never asks questions of those who might be against him; instead, he believes only what is told him by those who come to him first. He believes men over women, and never thinks too deeply or critically about anything. He feels he has to make quick decisions, and therefore he refuses to question.

It is possible to see Othello as a good man who is innocent until Iago’s deeds, as a man who falls only because Iago is so cunning and malicious. One might say, because of this, Othello dies not as a tragic hero, but as someone destroyed by circumstance and evil. But his marriage seems superficial now; if he had been honest with his wife and told her what was going on, he could have found out the truth and prevented the tragedy. Othello could lead, but he could not reason. It was once said that "all it takes for evil to prosper is for a good man to do nothing," and here's the proof: If Iago truly was the Devil, and Othello was the best leader there was, what hope do we have?