Friday, 16 May 2014

An Overview of Othello's Character

How stupid must Othello be to be drawn in by Iago's lies?
Iago is the archetypal villain, so the poor sap who is taken in by him must be incredibly naïve. Or is there something more complex about the relationship between Othello and Iago? What is it about Othello that makes him easy for the dastardly Iago to manipulate. 

There's no doubt about it, Othello was an incredibly daring play for its time.

During a period of history that was rife with racism, Shakespeare presents his audience with not only a black protagonist, but a black hero; a successful and honourable leader of men.

In addition, of course, Shakespeare’s audience is presented with a case of interracial marriage, something that is not brought into the mainstream again until 1967 in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

With a modern viewing, it is easy to forget that the play was so controversial, but in order to examine the character of Othello, it is important to consider the era in which he exists, because one of the reasons it might be so easy for Othello to be fooled by Iago is that he's an 'outsider'. 

Although, having said that, despite the disadvantage of being a black man in fiercely racist climate, he is respected by many. And this is something worth keeping in mind.

Othello as a Man of Honour

Othello won Desdemona over with tales of bravery on
the high seas
It is interesting to note that Othello’s Venice is a world in which men are defined by their military prowess and honour. 

So, even in a racist climate, Othello’s skills as an officer, and his morals as a gentlemen are enough to win over the vast majority of the Venetians.

In fact, if it weren’t for his marriage to Desdemona, Brabantio would perhaps recognize these qualities, too.

One thing is for certain, it is Othello’s reputation which protects him from Brabantio’s wrath. 

It is also fair to suggest that the bravery and honour displayed by Othello on the battlefield is what has attracted Desdemona to him. She says, "I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/And to his honour and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate."(I.iii) In other words, it is his character that she adores. His race, meanwhile, is completely inconsequential to her.

 Is Othello Stupid to Believe Iago?

It's easy for us to see through Iago, because we see
and hear things that Othello doesn't
This is a complicated question, in part because Othello is a complicated character. 

Like almost all Shakespearean characters, Othello is a well-rounded human with flaws and inconsistencies to his character.

Of course, it is possible to argue that he is very naïve in terms of friendship, or as Iago says, "The Moor…will tenderly be led by the nose as asses are."(I.iii) 

But let's face it, anyone who trusts someone can be ‘led by the nose’ and, of course, as an honourable man, Othello may just assume that those around him are equally honourable. Oh, how wrong he is! 

This could be said to be naïve, but it is perhaps more accurate to label it as innocence, because, unlike us, Othello has no cause to doubt Iago.

Othello's Innocence About Love

For a man who's always in control, the madness
of love must come as a shock to Othello
One of the most interesting aspects of Othello's character, especially considering his great leadership qualities is this innocence he seems to possess.

And it's not just about friendship, Othello seems to have an equally innocent view of romantic love.

For instance, it becomes clear that the relationship between Othello and Desdemona is a bit of a whirlwind, and whereas he attracted her by telling stories of his adventures, she shared very little of herself. He doesn't know much about her, but then infatuation makes 'knowing' someone irrelevant!

What Othello does know for sure about Desdemona is she betrayed her father to be with him. And as Brabantio says, “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see:/She has deceived her father, and may thee”(I.iii)

Othello's innocence is coupled with an overwhelming passion, which he has possibly never experienced before. After all, elsewhere in the play, Othello seems in possession of great restraint. However, as a man in love, he has absolutely no control, and this provides Iago with a perfect opportunity to abuse his position of trust.

It could be said that it is a simple mixture of naivety, innocence and passion that causes Othello’s downfall. 

And arguably, it is the innocence of love that makes the tragedy of the play all the more profound.

For more on Othello, you might want to check out 'Is Othello a Tragic Hero?' and '10 Interesting Facts About Shakespeare's Othello'


  1. This is a really great article. Thanks!

    1. Pleasure! I'm glad you enjoyed it or that it was useful to you.