The skill of Iago was extraordinary, but so was his good fortune. Again and again a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting of Othello and Cassio, a question which starts to our lips and which any one but Othello could have asked, would have destroyed Iago’s plot and ended his life. Instead, Desdemona drops her handkerchief at the moment most favorable to him, Cassio blunders into the presence of Othello only to give him a swoon, Bianca arrives precisely when she is wanted to complete Othello’s deception and incense his anger to fury. All this and much more seem to us quite natural, so potent is the art of the dramatist; but it confounds us with a feeling… [that] there is no escape from fate, and even with a feeling absent from that play , that fate has taken sides with villainy.
The Role of Accident: Of all the tragedies of Shakespeare, Othello stands out prominently as the one in which the role of chance and accident is the largest. However, the larger occurrence of chance and accident in this play doesn’t mean that the significance of these in Othello is also greater than in other tragedies of Shakespeare. Bradley has excellently pointed out the importance of chances and accidents.
Distinction: Not all that Bradley mentions can be legitimately regarded as chance or accident. Moreover, the three events which are accidents viz. the dropping of Desdemona’s handkerchief at the moment which suits Iago, Cassio’s coming upon the suspicious Othello when he is in a swoon and Bianca’s arrival at just the right time for Iago, don’t constitute a pattern running through the play such as there is in Romeo and Juliet, but happen so closely as to form a single event. It cannot be granted that the absence of a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting of Cassio, a question which starts to our lips, constitute accidents in the above sense. This is to confuse the events of the play which are critically relevant, with possible events in real life, which are not.
Contrivance: There is large element of contrivance on Iago’s part in the events which are, or seem to be, accidents. For example, Brabantio is summoned, in the beginning, to learn of Desdemona’s deception of him, and this to embarrass Othello with his outcry and provide a principal ground of Othello’s later distrust of her with his.
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
Iago’s contrivance of Cassio’s pleading on part of Desdemona and his success in proving him her lover are very good examples of contrivance which defy accidents. There seems to be only one incident of handkerchief, but after that Iago is master of the situation. He uses handkerchief to poison Othello’s mind. So handkerchief itself has no act of its own until and unless exploited by Iago. What matters are not the circumstances, but Iago’s skillful insinuations for which Othello sees through the eyes of Iago which causes his fall. Othello has no independent power of reasoning; he sees what Iago shows him.
Impact: It is difficult to agree with Bradley that these accidents lessen our sense of the importance of the Character in the tragedy. The accidents do not absolve Othello of his responsibility. We can’t accept this sentimentality. We can’t see reason to be controlled by passion and will. Iago’s deliberate malice infects Othello’s mind, corrupts his reason and renders him ‘Passion’s slave’. Othello is fully responsible for what he does and he accepts this at the end, but the remorse he feels for the wrong he committed, destroys him; that’s why he is fully tragic.
Human Element: The reason why it must be maintained that the role of accidents in Othello is far less important than it seems, is that they are not blows of fate, but situations painstakingly manipulated and exploited by a human agent – Iago. Iago – up to the catastrophic turning-point – plans most of the events, calculates the motives and responses and his victims, and profits with diabolical cleverness from the chances which do occur and which he makes serve his purposes. Thus the tragic effect of Othello turns upon the inevitability inherent in the malice of Iago and the character of Othello which Iago know so well how to influence.
Tragic Circumstances: What gives the play a tragic outcome is primarily the working of character, and not chances, accidents or coincidence. Desdemona is a Venetian and Venice was notorious for its women of loose character. Othello is a man of sudden resolve and vehement feelings. He is unfortunately deeply impressed by Iago’s honesty. Othello has known Desdemona for long. He has little knowledge of women in any case. His military life left him with little time to socialize and study women. But, principally, he was a man in the grip of jealousy, subject to uncontrollable passion. Such a man can easily be put to a tragic end with malicious designs.
Chance and intrigue: To some extent, it can be called that Othello is a tragedy of intrigue. The chance has a dominant role because chance cannot be excluded from tragedy. It is an essential element of human life, it has a right to be a principal force in the dramatic development only in comedy. Othello may be invulnerable in respect of his military expeditions and a man of noble nature, but he has occasioned his tragedy himself.