Plot Summary – Othello is a black Moor who has converted to Christianity and fought for Venice against the Ottoman Turks for well over thirty years. At the beginning of the play, he has eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello’s ensign, is at the same time angry that he has been passed over for promotion by Othello for the young and less experienced Cassio and plots to destroy Othello. Manipulated by Iago, Othello ends by suffocating Desdemona, believing her to be unfaithful to him.
Generally, when I have heard or read “Othello” discussed, professors and critics are primarily fascinated with the character of Iago, the villain who manipulates and destroys Othello. He often becomes, for these people, the main character, the one who drives the plot and possesses the most modern sensibilities with his cynicism, wit and amorality. The other characters are obsessed with virtue, personal honor, loyalty and military glory.
However, one of the aspects of the play that fascinated me is not so much Iago’s great genius – something that gets covered a lot – but Iago’s hypocrisy. Iago, a deeply twisted soul, has acquired the reputation of a good and honest man who tells it like it is. The kind of man everyone trusts and confides in. Even strangers confide in him and trust him.
Othello: “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty, And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit of human dealings.”
We tend to think of hypocrites as being like Tartuffe or Elmer Gantry. Often religious hypocrites, often gratuitous. Tartuffe is so obviously a hypocrite that nearly every character – except the one who matters – sees through him. But Iago is so successful and subtle a hypocrite that it is almost never remarked on, even by critics.
Iago: “In following him, I follow but myself. Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so, for my peculiar end; For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart In complement extern, tis not long after But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at; I am not what I am.”
But his chief weapon is not his genius for understanding character’s weaknesses and exploiting them (though he does have a genius for this), but for being believed by those characters. It wouldn’t have mattered how well he understood their weaknesses if no one trusted him. He is able to plant little poisonous seeds into so many characters precisely because everyone expects him to speak the truth, no matter how painful it supposedly is for him to do so. As Othello says after Iago begins his campaign by implying that Cassio and Desdemona are in love:
“This honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.”
Half Iago’s proof is his own word. The further “proofs” that Iago contrives are pretty flimsy, but he only needs a little something to seem to concur with his own word. Thus his scheme of stealing Desdemona’s handkerchief and planting it with Cassio. Not overwhelming proof. As the Doge of Venice says at the beginning of the play when Desdemona’s father asserts that Othello must have used dark arts to captivate her, “To vouch this is no proof.”
Interestingly, it has been pointed out that there is a dichotomy in the play between Venice (law and order) and the Turks (uncivilized barbarians). Most of the play is set on Cyprus, an outpost for Venice, somewhat far away from the reassuring law of Venice. In Venice, everyone, including Desdemona, is allowed to state their case when her father complains to the Doge. In Cyprus, Othello does not investigate the matter, but merely believes.
Emilia, Desdemona’s maid and Iago’s wife, speaks in defense of Desdemona and shrewdly divines that someone must be playing on Othello’s jealousy, but is discounted by Othello as “a simple bawd.” He does not believe Desdemona, either. He only trusts Iago, his ensign.
In some ways, Othello shares some parallels with General Ulysses S. Grant. Both great generals, saviors of the country they serve, but both indiscriminately trusting. Iago knows that “The Moor is of a free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.” This can serve one well as a general, who must trust his men, but is deadly in politics and relationships. Grant’s presidency was wracked with corruption and he lost his fortune near the end of his life because he trusted the wrong people. This trust in his soldiers, however, leads Othello to mistrust the words of others, especially those of the women.
The racial aspect of the play was less prominent than I expected. Othello is indeed an outsider, which makes him vulnerable, but although Iago makes a number of gross racial comments, most characters hold him in esteem and admire him. Desdemona says that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, And to his honors and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” In fact, Desdemona goes so far as to say – after hearing his stories of all that he had suffered and done – that she wished she could have been “such a man.” His reputation is one of greatness and dignity and his fall is mourned. He’s a bit like a colossus from Greek times – a man known for thirty years of upright implacability and honor, brought low by petty human jealousy.