Essay on Othello by William Shakespeare

Othello essay

Audience members will perceive a work differently and be drawn to different aspects of a work in accordance with their educational, societal and cultural backgrounds. The revenge tragedy, ‘Othello’, by William Shakespeare reflects the Elizabethan context and values including the role of fate, the importance of honour and the ability to have an ordered state. It is Shakespeare’s depiction of a tragedy instigated by jealousy and the downfall of a tragic hero, which is pivotal to the drama and action of the play. One way this work may be valued is from a psychoanalytical perspective, by an exploration of Othello’s psyche through the shifting patterns of imagery and Iago’s psyche through the irony in his soliloquies. Another way of perceiving this work is from a feminist perspective explored through the ambiguous presentation of women who are depicted through the eyes of male characters and Emilia’s cynical attitude towards the hypocritical nature of men.

An understanding of the psyche of both Othello and Iago is central to a responders understanding and appreciation of the play as a whole. This is evident in Othello’s final speech at the denouement of the play where he endeavours to restore his nobility. He refers to himself as “One not easily jealous, but being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme” Othello does not want to be regarded as an individual who killed Desdemona over jealousy, he ironically says he was “perplexed”. He wishes to abrogate some of the responsibility to Iago and is not prepared to admit jealousy consumed him thus only allowing partial restoration of his reputation. Othello finds it demeaning that his base trait has consumed him by allowing it to dominate the bestial side of his personality and is not prepared to destroy his reputation by admitting his fatal flaw. From a feminist perspective it is ironic that Desdemona displays the honourable traits of loyalty and trustworthiness. She is prepared to remain loyal to Othello until the end and does not struggle when Othello murders her, instead she says “Commend me to my kind lord. O farewell!”. On one level this demonstrates her true nobility and ironically also demonstrates her honour is at a higher level than the patriarchal figures. On another level this demonstrates women’s submissive nature in Elizabethan times towards men and how Desdemona reduces herself to merely a pawn. Emilia is clearly the antithesis to Desdemona; she represents the typical Elizabethan woman who understands the hardships of life. She says “But I do think it is their husband’s faults If wives do fall” She is shown to be far more pragmatic in her viewing of the world, unlike Desdemona who was born into a world of privilege.

An exploration of the psyche of Iago is equally as compelling for a responder as Iago’s motives in destroying Othello are unclear. He is a Machiavellian character who suffers from self-contempt. He attempts to deal with his emotions by injecting poison into others whilst working to destroy them by presenting a façade of trust and loyalty for his own advantage. This is evident when he is referred to ironically as “honest Iago”. He uses a metaphor to describe jealousy “the green-eyed monster”. The irony is that he is jealous of Cassio’s position of lieutenant and is referring to himself as a monster. We gain insight into the base and duplicit nature of Iago’s psyche in his third soliloquy where it is evident he gains pleasure from peoples suffering and is proud to use the issue of trust as a weapon. Shakespeare uses poison imagery such as “pestilence” and the “enmesh” which creates a deleterious image to convey how Iago releases the poison of “dangerous conceits” into the minds of Othello. Iago is a man of warfare, driven by his emotions and presented as the poison that will strip away and destroy the metaphysical issues of order and will cause chaos and disorder. He sees women as manipulative, adulteress and frivolous. He says women “rise to play and go to bed to work” suggesting an instinctive individual. He possesses a bestial nature which is first evident when he tells Othello “Even now, now very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe.”

Iago reduces Othello to an “old black ram” and Desdemona to a “white ewe”. While “white ewe” is linked to an Italian heritage, “old black ram” links to Othello’s age and race. Iago has a primitive view of the world; he views women as satisfying mens sexual appetites. What a feminist may find interesting is how Emilia accepts the "abuse" of women from men because she feels that it is the husband's flaws that provoke women to cheat. She explains that the reason women cheat is because their husbands "slack their duties" and "break out into peevish jealousies”. We see Desdemona however is willing to challenge the patriarchal dominance of men in Elizabethan times. In the opening she is as a confident and articulate character who remains firm in asserting her love for the Moor “by his dear absence. Let me go with him.”She becomes a representation of how women can fight and involve themselves in the masculine world.

From a psychoanalytical perspective it is Othello’s transformation from a confident and secure individual to a base and instinctive individual, which intrigues the responder. Othello is not a primal individual; he describes Desdemona as “gentle” though ironically he is viewed by Venetian society as an instinctive “creature” who uses witchcraft to seduce Desdemona. Othello delivers his explanation for marrying Brabantio’s daughter with a tone of great diplomacy with long sentences and no agitation. “In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience, I will round unvarnished tale deliver”
Othello articulates his motives remaining humble and honest. However due to Iago’s poison the audience witnesses the emergence of a character full of vengeance and insecurity based on his race. The prevalent use of oxymoron’s describing Desdemona as an “excellent wretch” and “delicate creature” is a direct reference to Othello’s change in character reflecting two sides of his psyche. He describes Desdemona as “snow” and “smooth” suggesting she is beautiful but equally cold reflecting Othello’s view of the duplicit qualities within Desdemona. The use of proleptic irony in “But I do love thee; and when I love thee not, Chaos is come again.” allows the audience to experience Othello’s wrath, demonstrating his ability to cause destruction and chaos. It becomes evident that the confidence Othello possesses at the beginning of the play is a façade, along with his ability to suppress the distinctive character trait of jealousy within him. One may argue that this poisonous side of his character is part of his nature, which in earlier scenes he has been able to control. Othello’s psychological breakdown is complete when he falls into a trance where he is totally consumed by the “green-eyed monster”. He says “pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is’t possible? – Confess? Handkerchief? O devil!”

This nightmarish imagery conveys the final destruction of Othello’s mind which demonstrates his psychological collapse.
Othello’s transformation becomes most obvious when he strikes Desdemona. A Feminist may view this act as the result of a repressive society that feigns compassion for women. The irony is that women should be treasured and protected. Desdemona is too naïve to realise Othello’s state of mind “but my noble Moor is true of mind”. This suggests that young women of Venetian society believe that patriarchal figures are without fault.

For literature to endure it must be open to various interpretations. These will be determined by the concerns of the society at the time and the background and cultural influences of the responder. A director who chooses to interpret ‘Othello’ from a psychoanalytical or a feminist perspective makes it directly relevant for a contemporary audience. It is Shakespeare’s use of descriptive language particularly his colourful metaphors, use of irony to portray the duplicit nature of some characters and the juxtaposition of good and evil that make Othello such a powerful, timeless play.