Shampoo Planet Essay, Research Paper
Shakespeare’s Othello is not simply a play which embodies the conflict between
insider and outsider. The paradigm of otherness presented in this play is more
complicated than the conclusion, “Othello is different; therefore, he is bad.” Othello’s
character is to be revered. He is a champion among warriors; an advisor among
councilmen; a Moor among Venetians. Yes, Othello is a Moor, but within the initial
configuration of the play, this fact is almost irrelevant. His difference is not
constructed as otherness. Othello, by his nature, is not an otherized character.
Besides being the dark-skinned Moor, Othello varies in no real way from the other
characters in the play. Further, Othello and Iago can be seen as two sides of the same
destructive coin. With Iago as a foil and subversive adversary, Othello is not faulted
for the indiscretions he commits. It is the invention and projection of otherness by
various characters in the play, especially Iago, which set the stage for the tragedy of
dissimilarity which is to ensue.
Continually confronted with his difference, and apparently associated inferiority,
Othello eventually ingests and manifests this difference in a violent rage against the
symbol and defining emblem of his otherness, Desdemona. Yet, who is to blame?
Which character is redeemed through our sympathy so that another can be
condemned? Othello, the dark-skinned murdering Moor, himself. The separation of his
otherness from explicit and innate evil contrasted with Iago’s free-flowing and early-
established taste for revenge and punishment, alleviates Othello from responsibility.
Surely, Othello has wronged and is to be held reprehensible–with his death–but even
this is a self-inflicted injury rather than a punishment which is judicially meted out,
unlike what we are led to believe Iago will suffer.
In Shakespeare s tragedy of Othello, we see Othello move through a character
progression as he becomes consumed with Iago s connivings and fabrications. He is
introduced as a tragic hero whose stories of hardships endeared him not only to his
new bride but his new father-in-law as well. Even Brabantio who throws many
slanderous insinuations of Othello s use of witchcraft and drugs to seduce
Desdemona into his cunning hell, (1.3.102) was once charmed and by this simple
man who bows to his reputation in the face of a character challenge. Her father
loved me; oft invited me . . ./Still questioned me the story of my life/From year to year,
the battle, sieges, fortune/That I have passed. (I.iii.127-30)
The affliction of Othello s character is furthered by Iago s emphasis upon Othello s
simplicity and honesty which is sharply contrasted with Iago s skillfully-crafted
towers of lies and bejeweled misrepresentations. Othello may be a simple man with
rude speech and strong arms, but he has been engaged in redeemable pursuits for
Venice for the past seven years. Despite the rumblings of animalism and witchcraft
that may be connected to his black skin, these are no more than rumors and hearsay.
Those in power, like the Duke of Venice, know and attest to Othello’s true nature, as
he comments, If virtue no delighted beauty lack,/Your son-in-law is far more fair
than black. (I.iii.284). Othello’s character is spotless although his skin is not. Even
Iago, Othello’s nemesis, acknowledges that the work of deception ahead of him will be
lessened and facilitated by Othello’s honest and trusting inclinations. The Moor is of
a free and open nature/ That thinks men honest that seem to be so/And will as tenderly
be led by the nose/As asses are. (I.iii.390-4) This, then, is Othello s fault–he trusts
those who protest love for him, which indeed would not be a fault if those advancing
such claims were as honest and true. He is naive and eager to trust those who have
given him no real reason to do otherwise. In his childlike simplicity, Othello falls
victim to Iago, who is–in fact–despite all of Brabantio s worries and suppositions,
the real conjurer. It is Iago, after all, who uses smoke and mirrors to lure and convince
Othello into his own cunning hell.
Surely Othello possesses base characteristics–jealously, self-pity, murderous intent–
but they are not presented as central or inherent to his character. They are not symbols
of his otherness. “Othello’s belief is not caused by jealousy; it is forced upon him by
Iago, and is such as any man would and must feel who had believed in Iago as Othello
did. His great mistake is that we know Iago for a villain from the first moment.” This
is the crux of the issue of sympathy for Othello’s other status. In his own words, Iago
presents the secret which becomes the crucial issue and redeeming factor for
Othello s character: Iago is evil, and admittedly so. Others there are/Who, trimmed
in form and visages of duty, /Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,/And,
throwing but shows of services on their lords,/Do well thrive by them, and when they
have lined their coats,/Do themselves homage . . ./As such I do profess myself.
(I.i.46-53) Somehow, portrayed as the innocent other who is duped by the conniving
ways of an envious compatriot, Othello’s character is relieved of responsibility. It
seems that no matter how lunatic he may become, and murderous even, he will not be
blamed for the murk of Iago’s manipulations will overshadow all of Othello’s
A metaphysical transformation takes place within Othello so that he becomes the
exact antithesis of what he had been, and Iago is the facilitator. It is Iago’s goal,
seemingly, to transform the perception of almost every character in the play–from
Cassio to Roderigo–to the opposite of what it had been. Even Desdemona shall not
escape his injury, “If [Desdemona] be black, and thereto have a wit,/She’ll find a white
that shall her blackness fit.” (II.i.130-1) Desdemona acknowledges the paradoxes in
Iago’s words, yet still she is unable to prevent these from becoming the paradox of her
life. The universal effect of Iago’s actions furthers the level of sympathy Othello
receives in the text. He is not the only one; they are all victims. In this way, Othello’s
decline cannot be held up to him because they have all made wine of Iago’s dishonest
juices. Iago’s lures Othello beyond judgment, “I [will] put the Moor/At least into a
jealousy so strong/That judgment cannot cure . . . /[And m]ake the Moor thank me,
love me, and reward me/For making him egregiously an ass/. . .practicing upon his
peace and quiet/ Even to madness.” (II.i.300-310) This is Iago’s formula. In the face of
such, there can only be sympathy for the simple, good ‘other’ Othello is in the process
Iago is able to play so well on Othello’s insecurities for they are his own. Again, we
return to the idea that Othello and Iago are indeed different sides of the same
destructive coin. Iago knows just what to feed Othello because their hungers are the
same. As Robert B. Heilman asserts in his “Wit and Witchcraft,” the two characters
share ” . . . an inadequate selfhood that crops up in self-pity and an eye for slights and
injuries, an . . . instinct to soothe one’s own feelings by punishing others (with an air of
moral propriety)–Othello warns, “Perdition catch my soul/But I do love thee! And
when I love thee not,/Chaos is come again.” (III.iii.90-2)–, [and] the need to possess
on one’s own terms or destroy.” Acknowledging this, Iago knows precisely how a
misplaced sigh or a particular batting of an eye will propel Othello from the dutiful
husband–”I will deny thee nothing.” (III.iii.76)–to the self-doubting ‘other’ who feels
unworthy of Desdemona’s love, and thus decides that he could have never had it:
Haply for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have . . . I am abused, my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites!
Othello’s breakdown into self-questioning mirrors that of Richard III who became
entangled in the oppositions of his character: what to believe about others and himself
as well. Finally, Othello becomes the enraged other who seeks to destroy those who
have made him feel as such–himself included–”Arise, black vengeance, from the
hollow hell . . .O, blood, blood, blood!” (III.iii.444; 448) In the course of one scene,
the calm, gentle Othello has moved beyond demands for ocular proof to those for
blood and vengeance alone.
Othello’s unfortunate psychological movement coincides with his actual journey to
Cyprus, which becomes a metaphorical representation of the transformation Othello
endures, leaving what he always was to become who he should never be. “Iago’s
poison does not work more powerfully through his images than through a corrosive
habit of abstraction applied in those unique relations of love and faith where
abstraction is most irrelevant and most destructive.” This is just how Othello is lured
in. Iago appears to be honest in such a way that his words are no longer the key. To
Othello, even the spaces between the words of his loyal Iago, are proof enough, ” . . .
[T]hese stops of thine fright me more;/For such things in a false disloyal knave/Are
tricks of custom; but in a man that’s just/They’re close dilations, working from the
heart/That passion cannot rule.” (III.iii.120-4) The character of our patient, slow -
moving and -thinking hero becomes an accelerated persona whose anger, jealousy, and
activity strike his two-sided coin of destruction into motion. Here a madness envelops
Othello so that is judgment is not his own, but Iago s and his ocular proof is nothing
more than the finely-painted dramas Iago creates for him.
Where is our hero s insight? His inability to recognize that the trap by which Cassio
has been consumed is only the precursor to his own destruction, foreshadows
Othello s eventual consumption by Iago s maneuverings. Here Othello is the mad
other–not only embodying the opposite of what is the norm for his Venetian society,
but also what is obviously the opposite of his own person and nature. Othello is
undoubtedly otherized–not reprehensibly by transgressing society s mores, but–
tragically as his subjugation makes him a stranger–an other–even to himself.
The final step in Othello s character transformation and eventual movement into our
solidified sympathy is his backward–which is actually progressive–inclination toward
the recovery of what he had been. The recapturing of a lost faith and an attempt to
right his own wrongs is what characterizes this stage in Othello s development.
Othello himself is aware that in his madness, he was not himself. When Lodovico
inquires about Desdemona’s murderer, Othello replies, “That’s he that was Othello;
Here I am.” (V.ii.280; emphasis mine) There is a definite distinction set up betwen the
Othello of the past and the I that is speaking. It is precisely this sort of self-
examination–however after-the-fact it may be–that disallows Othello’s
characterization as the wild ‘other’ deserving of no one’s sympathy, especially when he
is foiled by Iago the only character in the play lacking any sort of constructive
introspection. Here–in stead of blood, blood, blood–Othello chants, “O fool! Fool!
Fool!” (V.ii.319) Knowing he has not been himself, Othello asks to be remembered as
he was: humble, loving, true, and naive. These are his redeeming qualities. These are
the foundation for his sympathy:
I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am . . .
Then you must speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of none not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme . . .
[T]hrew a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe
This sentiment is sharply contrasted by Iago, who is not only unwilling to right his
own wrongs but is also reluctant to aid the righting of others’: “Demand me nothing.
What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” At this
moment Iago is truly villianized, speaking in the prose Shakespeare reserves only for
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