The Character of Othello
One of the most obvious focal points of disagreement is interpreting Othello is the character of Othello himself. To Swinburne, Othello was ‘the noblest man of man’s waiting’. T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, spoke unfavourably of his ‘cheering himself up’, and came out with that celebrated critical term ‘Bovarysme And the dispute goes on. Neville Coghill shows convincingly that Eliot’s view could never be convincingly manifested by an actor and is therefore unlikely to have been intended by a consummate dramatic, Artist like Shakespeare. On the other side, Robert B. Heilman comes very close to restating the Eliot position when he says :
Othello is the least heroic of Shakespeare’s tragic, heroes. The need for justification, for a constant reconstruction of himself in acceptable terms, falls short of the achieved selfhood which can plunge with pride into great errors and face up with humility to what has been done. All passion spent, Othello obscures his vision by trying to keep his virtues, in focus.
Bradley Versus Leavis
The two contrasted viewpoints are further elaborated by Bradley and Leavis. In their respective essays, the two possible attitudes towards ‘the noble Moor’ stand revealed without qualification or misgiving. To read the two essays together, and try to achieve some mediation or synthesis between them, is a, fascinating critical exercise For the disagreement affects,, as it is bound to, every facet of the play and every character. Since Bradley takes Othello to be entirely blameless, he has to explain why anyone should hate him so much as to destroy him. He accordingly places the main complexity of the play within Iago’s character, and devotes about half of his total space to an analysis of it, conducted with the characteristic Bradleian scrupulousness and intensity. To Leavis, this preoccupation with the inner reaches of Iago’s mind is hardly more than a simple waste of time; as be sees it, Iago, though ‘sufficiently convincing as a person’, is ‘subordinate and merely ancillary … not much more than a necessary piece of dramatic mechanism’. Othello’s tragedy, to Leavis, is essentially precipitated by Othello’s own shortcomings––by his egotism, and by his love of Desdemona which is merely sensual and possessive and does not extend to any real knowledge of who and what it is that he is loving. To him, Othello’s habit of self-idealization, his simple heroic way of seeing himself in wide-screen images, served him well enough in a life of martial adventure, but would never have fitted him for the reciprocity of marriage, so that ‘the tragedy is inherent in the Othello-Desdemona relationship’. When things go wrong, when pressure builds up, Othello’s inadequacies are revealed like the cracks in a dam. ‘The self-idealization is shown as blindness and the nobility as here no longer something real, but the disguise of an obtuse and brutal egotism.’
The Leavis faction takes an unfavourable view of Othello’s character. There is no doubt that Othello’s blindness, his vulnerability to Iago’s suggestions, arises from that statuesque largeness of outline which makes him unwieldy in manoeuvre.’ He is an egotist ; according to this view, we see it in his coolly callous treatment of Brabantio, or in the account of his wooing which he gives to the Senators––an account which makes it sound as if she wooed him, and does not at all square with Desdemona’s later protestation that Cassio––
Came a-wooing with you, and so many a time,
When I have spoke of you dispraisingly,
Hath ta’en your part.
Othello’s life has not been such as to allow him the luxury of fine discrimination and subtle considerations. Since his arms had seven years’ pith, he has lived in an atmosphere where to hesitate, to have second thoughts or inner reservations, was to be killed by enemies who were prepared to be simple and decisive. Such a life breeds .egotists. And Othello’s egotism is intense enough to make Iago’s work fairly easy. But to say this and to wash our hands of him,’ to echo Leavis’ words–– ‘the essential traitor is within the gates’, is to lose sight of the emotional impact of the play, to deny somehow that the tragedy is tragic. And this, surely, falsifies the experience we can testify to having undergone. We know that we have witnessed the overthrow of a strong and generous man ; our hearts have been wrung as they would not have been wrung by the sight of a preposterous egotist (whatever his countervailing good qualities) getting his deserts. Bradley is closer to the heart of the play, for all his over-elaboration and his side-issues. He recognizes that the tragedy lies in the assassination of love by non-love; he may go on too much about Iago, but he understands the essential truth about him, that he was less than a complete human being because love had been left of his composition, left out so completely that he did not recognize it or suspect its existence. Even Roderigo, who perceives very little, understands things that Iago does not understand ; he knows that Desdemona is ‘full of most blessed condition’ ; he loves her, and his love instructs him in her true nature. Bradley puts it very well “(Iago) was destroyed by the power that he attacked, the power of love, and he was destroyed y it because he could not understand it ; and he could not understand it because it was not in him.” Othello, egotist as he is, unpractised at understanding other people as he is, retains the possibility of development because be knows what it is to love. And it is only the loveless heart that cannot learn.
This oppressive and fatal atmosphere of the play becomes more potent with a central character like Othello who is simple and trustful and whose character is essentially romantic. The credibility of the play and the success of Iago’s plot is closely connected with this character. Othello describes himself as :
…one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme.
This description is perfectly just. His tragedy lies in this––that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to deception. If he was once wrought to passion, he was unlikely to act with reflection ; he could not tolerate any delay and acted in the most decisive manner conceivable. Othello’s racial temperament has its importance in the play. It make a difference to our idea of him ; it makes a difference to the action and catastrophe, but in regard to the essentials of his character, it is not important. What is important is the strange life of war and adventure––his wanderings in vast deserts, his stories of magic and prophetic Sibyls, his experiences of slavery, his sojourn in Aleppo and his participation in battles and sieges. This makes Othello by far the most romantic figure among Shakespeare’s heroes. Yet he is not merely a romantic figure; his own nature is romantic. He has not, indeed, the meditative or speculative imagination of Hamlet, but in the strictest sense of the word, he is more poetic than Hamlet and when we recall his most famous ‘speeches and compare them with an equal number of speeches by any other hero, Othello seems to be the greatest poet of them all. Even his brief phrases express his intense feeling. This imaginative temperament accompanies his whole life and makes him susceptible to the tragic catastrophe.
This romantic element is not the only source of danger in Othello’s character. Other sources are revealed only too clearly by the story. In the first place, his mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite incapable of introspection and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and bulls his intellect. He shares a great openness and trustfulness of nature. ‘In addition, be has little experience of the corrupt products of civilised life, and is ignorant of European women. Moreover, for all his dignity and massive calm, he is by nature, full of the most vehement passion.
Although Othello is subject to vehement passions when his jealousy is aroused, yet Shakespeare emphasises his self-control in practical matters. This aspect of his character is exhibited by the wonderful pictures of the first Act and specially by a single line, the words by which he silences in a moment the night-brawl between his attendants and those of Brabantio : “Keep up your bright swords, -for the dew will rust them.” The same self-control is strikingly shown where Othello endeavors to elicit some explanation of the fight between Cassio and Montano. Even other characters of the play seem aware of Othello’s control over himself. It is for this reason that when he loses this and becomes violent, Lodovico is amazed and exclaims
Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate
Call all is all sufficient ? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake ? whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce ?
Even Iago, who has here no motive for lying asks :
Can he be angry ? I have seen the cannon
When it hath blown his ranks into he air
And, like the devil, from his very arm
Puffed his own brother ; and is he angry ?
Something of moment then : I will go meet him ;
There’s matter in’t indeed if he be angry.
Othello’s nature is all of one piece. His trust, where he trusts, is absolute. Hesitation is almost impossible to him. He is extremely self-reliant, and decides and acts instantaneously. If stirred to indignation, as ‘in Aleppo once’, he answers with one lightning stroke. Love, if he loves, most be to him the heaven where either he must love or bear no life. If such a passion as jealousy seizes him, it will swell into a well-nigh uncontrollable flood. He will press for immediate conviction or immediate relief. Convinced, he will act with the authority of a judge and the swiftness of a man in mortal pain. He is so noble that his sufferings are heart-rending. He stirs in the readers a passion of mingled love and pity which no other Shakespearean hero claims.
Treat in Iago
Othello’s suspicion of Desdemona and the consequent suffering seems more pitiful when we find that Shakespeare depicts him as trustful and thorough in his trust. Although when Iago starts working on him, Othello suspects him and asks for evidence, yet from the beginning of the play, he seems to have put entire confidence in the honesty of Iago, who had not only been his companion in arms, but as he believed, has just proved his faithfulness in the matter of the marriage. The confidence is misplaced but it is no sign of stupidity in Othello. For his opinion of Iago is the opinion also of practically everyone who know him that Iago is before all things ‘honest’, his very faults being those of excess in honesty. It is natural that Othello is moved by the warning of so honest a friend, specially when warnings are offered with extreme reluctance and manifestly from a sense of a friend’s duty. Since Othello was newly married, he cannot have known much of Desdemona before his marriage. Moreover be is under the spell of a feeling which can give glory to the truth but can also give it to a dream. This consciousness in any imaginative man is enough, in such circumstances, to destroy his confidence in his power of perception. Moreover he is not an Italian, nor even a European ; he is totally Ignorant of the thoughts and the customary morality of Venetian women, and he bad himself seen in Desdemona’s deception of her father how perfect an actress she could be. As Othello listens in horror, for a moment at least, the past is revealed to him in a new and dreadful light, and the ground seems to sink under his feet. These suggestions are followed by a tentative but hideous and humiliating insinuation of what his honest and much-experienced friend fears may be the true explanation of Desdemona’s rejection of acceptable suitors. Yet the mere sight of Desdemona is enough to make him strongly resist Iago’s insinuations as long as he can.
Iago’s part in Othello’s tragedy most not be over-emphasized. He does not destroy Othello but merely awakens some latent traits and suspicions in him through which he must effect his own destruction. Before Iago provokes his passions, he means to corrupt his mind ; there must be ultimately self-destruction. Othello has unquestioning self-confidence. Yet he is not an egoist ; he translates this spontaneously into confidence in others ; but the more unquestioningly it has been given the harder will any breach made in it be to restore ; and to loss of confidence in the culprit will be added some latent loss of self-confidence too. Othello loved Cassia and his confidence in him was betrayed ; he can never feel sure of him again and less sure of himself. The envenoming jealousy is first merely insinuated by Iago, incidentally, as self-reproach–– “It is my nature’s plague/To spy into abuses……” Confessing to our faults wins confidence. How, after that, should simplicity of heart suspect in a fervent warping “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy”––the poisonous suggestion from which jealousy may breed ?––to this final “jealousy” Othello responds……“She did deceive her father……” It is a two-fold accusation ; both aspects of it actually true ; her very love for Othello turned its seamy side outside. It is a most apt thrust, and back to his wing he must come “…and may thee,” warns Iago.
Iago is the most unique villain of Shakespeare. There has been a lot of controversy about his motives but there has been little, real progress since the day when Coleridge referred to Iago’s ‘constant motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity’. Iago is an incarnation of the devil and at the end of the play Othello says in great frustration that he cannot kill him because he is a devil. Iago is one of the most brilliant characters of Shakespeare although, he uses his cunning only for diabolical purposes. He has rightly been called an atheist of human nature and a stealthy corrupt or of human piety, a fearless disturber of domestic peace and an unbeliever in and denier of all things spiritual. It is interesting that all the characters in the play, except for. Roderigo (to whom he sometimes shows his real face), have a high opinion of Iago and refer to him as ‘honest Iago’. Iago is an embittered cynic and a man with a diseased imagination. He lives the part of a blunt outspoken plain fellow who is always prepared to say what he really thinks without caring for the effect it may hays on others. Although we are never really’ certain that we understand why Iago commits his evil deeds, there is no doubt that he is throughout an artist in villainy.
According to Coleridge’s well-known views, the malignity of Iago is motiveless. A. C. Bradley does not agree, with Coleridge and maintains that not only has Shakespeare assigned several motives to Iago, but that difficulty is caused by the fact that the motives assigned are too many. A man moved by simple passions due to simple causes does not stand fingering his feelings, industriously enumerating their sources, and groping about for new, ones. But this is what Iago does. And this is not all. These motives appear and disappear in the most extraordinary manner. Resentment at Cassio’s appointment is expressed in the first conversation with Roderigo, and from that moment is never once mentioned again in the whole play. Hatred of Othello is expressed, in the first act alone. Desire to get Cassio’s place- scarcely appears after the first soliloquy, and when it is gratified Iago does not refer to it by a single word. The suspicion of Cassio’s intrigue with Emilia emerges suddenly, as an afterthought, not in the first soliloquy but the second, and then disappears for ever. Iago’s ‘love’ of Desdemona is alluded to in the second soliloquy ; there is not the faintest trace of it in word or deed either before or after. The mention of jealousy of Othello is followed by declarations that Othello is infatuated about Desdemona and is of a constant nature, and during Othello’s sufferings Iago never shows a sign of the idea that he is now paying his rival in his own coin. In the second soliloquy he declares that he quite believes Cassio to be in love with Desdemona ; it, is obvious that he believes no such thing, for he never alludes to the idea again, and within a few hours describes Cassio in soliloquy as an honest fool. This final reason for ill-will to Cassio never appears till the fifth act.
It could not have been a mere coincidence that so many motives have been attributed to Iago. A. C. Bradley believes that there must be a meaning in what Shakespeare does here. One view is ‘that Iago has no real motive of which he is convinced, but be only indulges in motive-hunting. Bradley agrees with this assertion of Coleridge and adds that Iago’s soliloquies do produce an impression that he is indulging in motive-hunting. He is pondering his design, and unconsciously trying to justify it to himself. He speaks of one or two real feelings, such as resentment ‘against Othello, and he mentions one or two real causes of these feelings. But these are not enough for him. Along with them, or alone, here come’ into his head, only to leave it again, ideas and suspicions, the creation of his own baseness, or uneasiness, some old, some new, caressed for a moment to feed his purpose and give it a reasonable look, but never really believed in, and never the main forces which are determining his action. Iago in these soliloquies is a man setting out on a project which strongly attracts his desire, but at the same time conscious of a resistance to the desire, and unconsciously trying to argue the resistance away by assigning reasons for the project. He is the counterpart of Hamlet, who tried to find reasons for his delay in Pursuing a design which excites his aversion. And most of Iago’s reasons for actions are no more the real ones than Hamlet’s reasons for delay were the real ones. Each is moved by forces which he does not understand ; and it is probably no accident that these two studies of states psychologically so similar were produced at about the same period.
The key to Iago’s motives may lie in the composition of his character. One of the noticeable traits in his character is a keen sense of superiority and contempt of others, the sensitiveness to everything which wounds these feelings, the spite against goodness in men as a thing not only, stupid but, both in its nature and by its success, contrary to Iago’s, nature and irritating to his pride. There is also the annoyance of having always to play a part, the consciousness of exceptional but unused ingenuity and address, the enjoyment of action, and the absence of fear. The most delightful thing to such a man would be something that gave an extreme satisfaction to his sense of power and superiority ; and if it involved, secondly, the triumphant exertion of his abilities, and, thirdly, the excitement of danger, his delight would be consummated. And the moment most dangerous to such a man would be one when his sense of superiority bad met with an affront, so that its habitual crazing was reinforced by resentment, while at the same time he saw an opportunity of satisfying it by subjecting to his will the, very persons who bad affronted it. This is the temptation that comes to Iago. Othello’s eminence, Othello’s goodness, and his own dependence on Othello, must have been a, perpetual annoyance to him. At any time he would have enjoyed befooling and tormenting Othello. Under, ordinary circumstances he was restrained, chiefly by self-interest, in some slight degree perhaps by the faintest pulsations of conscience or humanity. But disappointment at the loss of the lieutenancy supplied the touch of lively resentment that was required to overcome these obstacles ; and the prospect of, satisfying the sense of power by mastering Othello through an intricate and hazardous intrigue no became irresistible. Iago did not clearly understand what was moving his desire ; though he tried to give ‘himself reasons for his action, even those that had some reality made but a small part of the motive force ; one may almost say they were no more than the turning of the handle which admits the driving power into the machine. Only once does he appear to see something of the truth. It is when he uses the phrase ‘to plume up my will in double’ knavery’.
Sense of Superiority
There is little doubt that one of Iago’s strongest needs is to highten his sense of power and superiority and that this is the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty not only in this play but in life. Iago’s sense of superiority has been thwarted and it demands satisfaction. The fullest satisfaction it could find would, no doubt, be in the consciousness that he is the master of the General who has undervalued him and of the rival who has been preferred to him that these worthy people, who are so successful and popular and stupid, are mere puppets in his hands, but living puppets, who at the motion of his finger must contort themselves in agony while all the time they believe that he is their one friend and comforter. It must have been an ecstasy of bliss to ‘him. And this, granted a most abnormal deadness of human feeling, is, however horrible, perfectly intelligible. There is no mystery in the psychology of Iago.
In addition to Iago’s strong desire to satisfy his sense of power, there are also other forces which drive him on. One of these is the pleasure in an action very difficult and perilous and, therefore intensely exciting. This action sets all his powers on the strain. He feels the delight of one who executes successfully a feat thoroughly congenial to his special aptitude, and only just within his compass ; and, as he is fearless by nature, the fact that a single -slip will cost him his life only increases his pleasure. His exhilaration breaks out in the ghastly words with which he greets the sunrise after the night of the drunken tumult which has led to Cassio’s disgrace : ‘By the mass, ‘tis morning. Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.’ Here, however, the joy in exciting action is quickened by other feelings. It appears more simply elsewhere in such a way as to suggest that nothing but such actions gave him happiness, and that his happiness was greater if the action was destructive as well as exciting. We find it, for instance, in his gleeful cry to Roderigo, who proposes to shout to Brabantio in order to wake him and tell him of his daughter’s flight :
Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is spied in populous cities.
All through that scene, again, in the scene where Cassio is attacked and Roderigo murdered––everywhere where Iago is in physical action, we catch this sound of almost feverish enjoyment. His blood, usually so cold and slow, is racing through Las veins.
In addition to being a man of action, Iago also seems to be something of an artist who takes delight in undertakings complicated task in a meticulous manner. The action he initiates and sees through is intricate and in the conception and execution of it be experiences the tension and the joy of artistic creation. ‘He is,’ says Hazlitt, ‘an amateur of tragedy in real life ; and, instead of employing his invention on imaginary characters or long-forgotten incidents, he takes the bolder and more dangerous course of getting up his plot at home, casts the principal parts among his nearest friends and connexions, and rehearses it in ‘downright earnest, with steady nerves and unabated resolution.’ Swinburne lays even greater stress on this aspect of Iago’s character, and even declares that ‘the very subtlest and strongest component of his complex nature’ is ‘the instinct of what Carlyle would call an inarticulate poet.’ And those to whom this idea is unfamiliar, and who may suspect it at first sight of being fanciful, will find, if they examine the play in the light of Swinburne’s exposition, that it rests on a true and deep perception, will stand scrutiny, and might easily be illustrated. They may observe, to take only one point, the curious analogy between the early stages of dramatic composition and those soliloquies in which Iago broods over his plot, drawing at first only an outline, puzzled how to fix more than the main idea, and gradually seeing it develop and clarify as he works upon it or lets it work. Here at any rate Shakespeare put a good deal of himself into Iago ; but the tragedian in real life was not the equal of the tragic poet. His psychology, as we see, was at fault, at a critical point, as Shakespeare’s never was. And so his catastrophe came out wrong, and his piece was. ruined.
We get an impression that at some stage, the action Iago initiates remains no longer within his power but rather becomes, his master. It is as though he were fated to do what he does. It is like the passion with which a tragic hero wholly identifies himself and which bears him on to his doom. It is true that, once embarked on this course, Iago could not turn back, even if this passion did abate ; and it is also true that he is compelled, by his success in convincing Othello, to advance to conclusions of which: at the outset he did not dream. He is thus caught in his own web, and could not liberate himself if he would. But, in fact, he never shows a trace of wishing to do so, not a trace of hesitation, of looking back, or of fear, any more than of remorse ; there is no ebb in the tide. As the crisis approaches there passes through his mind a fleeting doubt whether the deaths of Cassio and Roderigo are indispensable; but that uncertainty, which does not concern the again issue, is dismissed, and he goes forward with undiminished west. Not even in his sleep––as in Richard’s before his final battle––does any rebellion of outraged conscience or pity, or any foreboding of despair, force itself into clear consciousness. His fate has completely mastered him : so that, in the later scenes, where the improbability of the entire success of a design bunt on so many different falsehoods forces itself on the reader, Iago appears for moments not as a consummate schemer, but as a man absolutely infatuated and delivered over to certain destruction.
William Empson takes up Bradley’s analysis of Iago’s motivations and offers his own views. After summarising Bradley’s position, Empson remarks that some critics have objected to the sort of analysis Bradley undertakes and adds that Bradley is justified ,because coherence of character is as much ; necessary in poetic drama as coherence of metaphor etc. An objection that may be fairly raised against Bradley’s approach is that the character of Iago must have been intended to seem coherent to the first-night audience ; therefore the solution cannot be reached by learned deductions from hints in the text about his previous biography, for instance ; if the character is puzzling nowadays, the answer must be a matter of recalling the assumptions of the audience and the way the character was put across.
False Conception of Independence
An analysis of the play would tell us that whatever opinions Iago has are shared by those around him and that he makes so secret of them. It is true that his opinions are confused but the characters that surround him seem to be no less confused. When Iago expounds his egotism to Roderigo, in the first scene of the play, be is not so much admitting a weak criminal to his secrets as making his usual claim to ‘Sturdy Independence’ in a rather coarser form. He is not subservient to the interests of the men in power who employ him be says ; he can stand up for himself, as they do. This may be a shocking sentiment ; but it does not involve ‘Pure. Egotism’ and it does not involve Machiavelli. It has the air of a spontaneous line of sentiment among the lower classes, whereas Machiavelli was interested in the deceptions necessary for a ruler. Certainly it does not imply-that the Independent Man will betray his friends (as apart from his employer), because if it did be would not boast about it to them. This of course is the answer to the critics who have said that Roderigo could not have gone on handing all his money to a self-confessed knave. And, in the same way, when it turns out that Iago does mean to betray Roderigo, he has only to tell the audience that this fool is not one of his real friends ; indeed he goes on to claim that it would be, wrong to treat him as one. But the paradox was already floating in, the minds of the audience. No doubt Shakespeare thought that the conception was a false one, and gave a resounding demonstration. of it, but one need not suppose that he did this by inventing a unique psychology for Iago, or even by making Iago unusually conscious of the problem at issue.
Innocence and Sweetness
Desdemona is the embodiment of sweetness and innocence. She is whole-hearted in her love and even Iago says that when she once promises to do something, she thinks it dishonourable not to do more than what is expected of bet. Desdemona’s character is hinted at by her father when he describes her before the, Duke as
A maiden never bold
Of spirit so still and quiet, that bet motion
Blushed at itself.
Her Pleading For Cash
Desdemona betrays considerable tactlessness and something of childish obstinacy and persistence in her pleading for Cassio. The clever Iago seems to have foreseen this and cautioned Othello that over-insistent pleading for Cassio, on his wife’s behalf, would mean that sheds really pleading the case of her lover. She does not realise the change in bar husband when he demands the handkerchief and she again and again tries to remind him that he must giant as interview to Cassio. She is even more tactless when she expresses hat happiness over Cassio’s appointment s governor with the result that Othello strikes her in the Presence’ of Lodovico. If the play requires a hero as unreflecting as Othello, it also requires a victim as unrealistic as Desdemona.
Mrs. Jameson’s Tribute
In bar adulatory book on the heroines of Shakespeare, Mrs. Jameson devotes considerable space to Desdemona and showers lavish tributes on bar. She compares her with Miranda in respect of the perfect simplicity and unity of the delineation. She finds the sum modesty, tenderness, grace, artless devotion, predisposition to wonder, pity and admire sad the sane ethereal refinement in delicacy in both these character.
Desdemona is the most pathetic of the heroines of Shakespeare. She shows the greatest boldness and initiative in secretly marrying the black warrior whose visage she has seen in his mind. She displays still, greater courage when she insists on accompanying her husband to the ways However, her courage and devotion are not valued by, Othello when he is roused to the pitch of jealousy and suspicion by the crafty villain Iago. It is hard for Desdemona to believe that her husband should think her unchaste and, therefore, it is only after sometime that his insinuations are understood by Desdemona. Her behaviour is full of a pathetic childlikeness when Othello, tells her that he must kill her. She begs him to give her the reprieve of a day, a few hours, a few minutes, if only to say her prayers. When she regains consciousness for a moment, her last breath is spent on trying to protect her murder and her very last words are that Emilia may commend her to her lord. It seems that a premonition of impending death comes to Desdemona much before Othello tells her that he is going to hill her. It is this foreboding which makes her recall the willow song sung by the dejected maid on the eve of her death. After Desdemona’s death, the pathos in her situation, and the tragic waste of her undeserved early death, is underlined in Othello’s laments as well as in his tribute to her as a pearl richer than all his tribe, which he foolishly threw away in his ignorance. Emilia’s staunch loyalty and Cassio’s warm admiration are also tributes to the worth and attractiveness of Desdemona’s personality.
Cassio is one of the most likeable characters in this play. Shakespeare has considerably, improved upon the portrait of the Captain in Cinthio who is a profligate man in love with Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Cassio is a sincere friend and admirer of Othello and has honestly helped hint in wooing Desdemona. His attitude towards Desdemona is one that falls little short of adoration, as we see in the dialogue where Iago tries his best to make Cassio say something indiscreet by suggesting that Desdemona’s eyes arouse desire and give the beholder an invitation to love-making. Cassio is also an honest min, somewhat resembling Othello in his inability to control himself when he is moved––in his case by the effect of wine. It is unfortunate that Cassio lets Iago know this weak point of his.
Cassio belongs to the category of characters who may be termed pivotal figures, in the sense that they are of great importance for the plot but not so much in themselves. That is why be remains a somewhat indeterminate figure, though there is no doubt that Shakespeare makes him pleasing and easily likeable. We have an interesting view of Cassio when he is under the influence of drink. We find that he is lavish in his praise of Iago’s drinking songs, but when Iago asks him whether he would like to hear it again, Cassio’s religious conscience is aroused and he firmly declines the invitation ; “No, for I hold him unworthy of his place, that does those things well, God’s above all, and there be souls that must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved.” Cassio adds that he means no offence to the General or to other men of quality, but so far as he is concerned, he hopes to be saved. When Iago remarks that be also hopes to be saved, Cassio, amusingly enough, reminds him of the order of precedence––the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient. Just then it seems to strike Cassio that his behaviour is odd and that he might be taken for a drunken man It is highly amusing to see him at great pains to prove that be is not drunk, although his efforts only establish that be is drunk and self-conscious, and that he is a simple man at bottom. He observes :
Gentlemen, let’s look’ to our business. Do not think, gentlemen, I am drunk, this is my ancient, this my right band, and this is my left hand : I am not drunk now, I can stand well enough, and speak well enough.
It is strange that we see more of, Cassio with Iago and Desdemona rather than Othello whose close friend he is supposed to be.
Although Iago dismisses Cassio as a mere theorist and no, a practical warrior, this seems to be a prejudiced opinion. It is highly unlikely that Othello would appoint as, his second in command any one who has not proved his mettle on the battlefield. It is clear that when Othello is obliged to dismiss Cassio, he does so with a heavy heart, for Emilia tells us that Othello and Desdemona have been talking about Cassio and that he is likely to be reinstated at the first opportunity. Moreover, the Venetian senate seems to have an extremely ‘high estimation of Cassio because it appoints him as governor of Cyprus after Othello, ignoring the claims of Montano, the previous governor. We must believe that Cassio really has ‘shar’d dangers’ with Othello and that he is deeply attached to him in a personal way. Iago pays the greatest tribute to Cassio when he tells himself that he must do away with him because ‘the daily beauty’ of Cassio’s life makes Iago look all the more ugly.
One function of Cassio is that of providing a parallel with Othello. Like the general, Cassio is also deceived by the seeming virtue of Iago and actually believes that the ensign is a kind-hearted man the like of whom he has, not seen even in Florence, at the very time when he is making wicked plots against the lieutenant. Cassio may also be regarded as a symbol of true friendship which is rejected by Othello. There is a parallel as well as a contrast between Cassio and Iago. As Ribner observes, Cassio’s genuine honesty is contrasted to the seeming honesty of Iago ; his conviviality and good fellowship stem, as opposed to Iago’s, from a real trust and love of his fellow-men. In spite of his deception by Iago, Cassio does not allow himself to be deeply tainted by evil as Othello does. He maintains to the end his faith in Desdemona, symbolically a hope that true love and virtue will restore him to the felicity which his weakness has lost him.
Stupid But Manly
Roderigo, the unsuccessful lover of Desdemona, is presented as foolish, tenacious and somewhat laughable, but also as a man whose gullibility and patience have definite limits it is interesting that after the Senate has dismissed Brabantio’s complaint against; Othello, be thinks that it would have been better if Roderigo bad married his daughter. Roderigo is for the most part Iago’s accomplice in evil but’ we may say in his defence that the impulse to wicked deeds is not native in him. He skillfully manipulated by Iago and his being an unsuccessful excuses to a certain extent his conspiracies against the successful competitor Othello and, the strong rival, as Iago tells him, namely, Cassio.
It is true that Iago cheats “Roderigo out of most of his fortunes but a frustrated lover may be excused for making a fool of himself when better men like Cassio and Othello are also unable to withstand Iago’s clever villainy. We see a spark of courage in Roderigo when he tells Iago plainly that he must either return to him the gold and precious stones which he has taken as present for Desdemona or produce tangible evidence of the lady’s being favourably inclined towards him. Unfortunately, this display of courage only ensures his death because Iago regards him as a troublesome man who is so longer of any use to him.
Roderigo may be stupid and gullible but he is still depicted as a gentleman in contrast with the brutality and vulgarity of Iago. The best proof of this is the fad that he refuses to believe logo when he tells him that Desdemona has illicit relations with Cassio. Roderigo’s reply is worthy of a romantic knight : “I cannot believe that in her ; she is full of the most blessed condition.” He also has qualms of conscience after he his attempted to murder Cassio and his dying words are an expression of self-blame : “O villain that I am !” One of his functions in the play is that of providing comic relief and also to be a medium between Iago and the audience so that the former does not have to be given too many soliloquies.
Realism and Commonsense
Emilia is in the tradition of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet––a character who is coarse-minded, earthy but devotedly attached to her mistress. Her being a companion to Desdemona enables her to reveal not only her own wide experience of the world but also to highlight Desdemona’s innocence and idealism. For example, even when Desdemona knows that she is going to be murdered on the false charge of adultery, she still believes that no woman can ever be unfaithful to her husband. The commonsensical realism of Emilia provides a refreshing contrast to this unpractical idealism. Desdemona remarks with charming innocence that she believes that Emilia would not do such a thing for the whole world. Emilia replies that the world is a huge thing and a big reward for such a small vice. When Desdemona insists that she believes Emilia would not do any such thing, she becomes more explicit :
By my troth, I think I should, and undo’t when I had done it ; marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint ring ; or for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, or petticoats, nor caps, nor any such exhibition ; but, for the whole world ? ‘ud’s pity, who would not make her husband a cuckold, to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for it.
Emilia’s stout defence of Desdemona proves futile because Othello decides to regard her as Desdemona’s bawd. However, Emilia has other functions in the play. In the first place, it is she who provides Iago with the handkerchief which he puts to such a terrible use. Emilia makes matters more complicated when she professes ignorance as Desdemona asks her whether she knows where she could have dropped her handkerchief. In both these instances, Emilia is culpable, but it may be said in her defence that she is quite unaware of committing anything more than a minor violation of truth. When she once realises that her husband used the handkerchief to implicate her mistress, she condemns and exposes him without fear although she loses her life in doing so. She is equally forthright in condemning Othello for suspecting and murdering Desdemona. She seems to express the feelings of the audience at that point when she abuses the Moor and says that he was unworthy of Desdemona. In her dying moments she tells Othello that his wife really and deeply loved him and although she herself thinks that her mistress made a poor bargain in marrying him, she has scrupulously kept that bargain. She identifies herself with her mistress by singing the same song which she sang on the eve of her death. Emilia may be said to represent the ordinary people who commonly figure in Shakespeare, people who are not extraordinarily virtuous in daily life, but who are gifted with a reasonable perceptiveness and commonsense and are capable of heroism in times of crisis.