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The Enduring Appeal of Othello Lies in Its Powerful Depiction of Human Frailty

Billy Zhang loves to share his wealth of knowledge spanning numerous disciplines, including literature!

'Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we: For such as we remade of, such we be'

— William Shakespeare

‘Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we: For such as we are made of, such we be,’ – William Shakespeare. The enduring appeal of Othello lies with its ability to shed light on the imperfection of humanity, as well as explore the extreme possibilities if our human frailty were to overcome our better judgment. Othello is the tragedy of the undoing of the noble Moor by the devilish cunning of Iago. The audience witnesses Othello, a complex character, whose strengths and virtues are turned against him. Through Iago’s intricate manipulation of Othello’s propensity towards jealousy, his pride and self-absorption, and his circumstances, we gain an understanding of the devastating consequences of the exploitation of human frailty.

Othello demonstrates weaknesses in his character through his pride and self-absorption, which suggest his insecurity and thus makes him vulnerable to Iago’s malice. At the beginning of the play, the audience is presented with Othello, a noble character, who is calm, eloquent and loving. However, the audience soon becomes aware of the imperfections within his character. Signs of his egotistical nature are seen in his recount to the Senate of how he wooed Desdemona. Othello mentions heavily about himself and his exotic stories, ‘the battles, sieges, fortunes/ That I have passed,’ but rather little about Desdemona. Additionally, he can be seen as extremely arrogant of his accomplishments as he knows his importance to Venice: ‘My services which I have done the Signory shall out-tongue’ his (Brabantio’s) complaints. Also, he is proud that it was Desdemona who took the initiative in their relationship: it was her ‘hint’ that she loved him that started the affair. This pride will make him vulnerable to Iago’s manipulations as it provides Iago opportunities to plant doubts in Othello’s mind. Othello’s next weakness is his inability to handle doubt: ‘To be once in doubt is once to be resolved.’ This combined with his habit of masking his insecurities behind his confidence, ‘let him (Brabantio) do his spite,’ displays the vulnerable nature of Othello which Iago will prey upon. Furthermore, Desdemona can be seen as Othello’s trophy, a symbol of his acceptance into the Venetian society, therefore giving Iago another weakness to exploit.

Othello’s circumstances as an older black man, inexperienced in matters of the heart and married recently to an attractive young Venetian, enhance his feeling of insecurity. Iago raises the issues of Othello’s cultural differences with Desdemona, and then the audience witnesses Othello pondering his colour, degree of sophistication and age, ‘haply for I am black, /and have not those soft parts of conversation /that chamberers have, or for I am declined / into the vale of years,’ this demonstrates the doubts Iago has planted in Othello’s mind and the growing control of Iago as Othello adapts his language. Othello is a Moor, making him a pariah in Venice, and during the Elizabethan era, Moors were frequently singled out for their unusual dress, behavior and customs. Furthermore, they were commonly stereotyped as sexually overactive, prone to jealousy and generally wicked. The strong contrast between the black and white imagery of Othello and Desdemona emphasizes to Othello of their unnatural relationship and thus is a source of insecurity for him, as well as leaving him more open to jealousy. Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Unwin states that the play ‘is about the end of a marriage and a husband’s murder of his wife. It is intimately concerned with the details of sexual jealousy: how it is sparked, how the flames are fueled and how it brings down catastrophe on the protagonist’s shoulder. Through the metaphor ‘that whiter skin of hers than snow / And smooth as monumental alabaster,’ the audience witnesses an image of the whiteness of Desdemona’s skin which starkly contrasts to references to Othello’s blackness. Moreover, Iago frequently reinforces the unnaturalness of their relationship, stating Desdemona rejected ‘many proposed matches / Of her own clime, complexion, and degree.’ This is Iago’s attempt to drive a wedge between Othello and his love, leading to Othello becoming dependent on Iago as there is no one else to whom he can turn to.

Othello’s principal relationships have, before his marriage, been forged on the battlefield as he has been in the army since the age of seven and this has consequently led to his flaw of naivety. He is naïve about romantic matters and ignorant of Venetian society and specifically Venetian women as he has only recently transitioned to settled life. His unfamiliarity with the sophisticated ways of Venice can be seen when he is listening intently when Iago is carefully marginalizing Othello from his new wife, ‘observe her well with Cassio’… ‘I know our country disposition well: / In Venice they do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands.’ All of Othello’s circumstances exacerbate his feeling of insecurity and enables Iago to exploit him.

Iago’s role in the play is to bring the ‘green-eyed monster’, a creature of Othello’s mind out, and by doing so reveal the consequences of the exploitation of human frailty. Iago insinuates that Cassio and Desdemona are in a relationship, however never stating this fact; he lets Othello first articulate the idea that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Therefore, Iago is tempting Othello with the thought of losing Desdemona. Through the skillful Machiavellian Iago, who is a supreme opportunist, Iago lets Othello persuade himself that Desdemona is guilty. Iago uses the handkerchief as both a prop and a symbol for evidence of Desdemona’s guilt. Othello’s perception that the handkerchief represents his wife’s guilt is supported by Frances Teague statement that ‘Othello and Desdemona both understand something different by the piece of cloth, a difference in understanding that helps precipitate their tragedy.’ Moreover, the dramatic irony of the eavesdropping Othello, who overhears Iago’s exchange with Cassio and believes it is evidence towards Desdemona’s infidelity only because Othello persuades himself that it is. Once Othello has come to doubt Desdemona, he must resolve this suspicion quickly due to his inability to bear doubt. Due to his entire life being in the military, Othello is not particularly reflective but rather he is a man of action. As a military man he is accustomed to quick decisions for survival, however this behavior is most inappropriate in the civilian life. Murdering Desdemona provides Othello a quick resolution as well as demonstrates the extent his frailties has led him.

Hence Iago, who acts as a dramatic mechanism to represent the weaknesses and insecurities within Othello, let alone all humans, precipitates Othello’s downfall. Thus Othello falls victim to not the noble dupe of a devilishly complex Iago but rather to the temperamental flaws in his own make-up. Therefore, the enduring appeal of Othello is how the play excites both pity and fear in the modern-day reader through their identification of Othello’s frailty and the speculation that those unpreventable forces, which cause detrimental consequences, are produced by the fears and ignorance in society.

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