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Iago – flaws & virtues?



Iago’s evil nature is immediately evident – he is a liar and a cheat who delights in inflicting pain and suffering on others. He is also (in no particular order) selfish, disloyal, jealous, vengeful, paranoid, cynical, over-confident and unrepentant.

Liar: our first impression of Othello comes from Iago, who claims he is arrogant and selfish “loving his own pride and purposes”. Yet it soon becomes clear that this view of Othello is an outright lie. Iago later admits as much when he acknowledges that Othello “is of a constant loving noble nature“. Nothing he says can be trusted, for as Iago admits himself “I am not what I am“. He even swears “by Janus“, the God of liars.

Cheat: Iago has cheated the gullible Roderigo out of his wealth (“put money in thy purse“) and delights in making him look like an idiot (“thus do I ever make my fool my purse“).

Disloyal: he pretends to help every character in the play at one point or another but at all times he is merely loving his own pride and purposes / suiting himself. As he admits to Roderigo “I follow him to serve my turn upon him”. He tries to convince Othello to hide from Brabantio’s search party “you were best go in” knowing full well that this would just make Othello seem guilty and as though he has something to hide. Having engineered Cassio’s downfall, he comforts him and manipulates Cassio into trusting his advice to confide in Desdemona promising “she’ll put you in your place again“. He destroys Othello’s peace of mind yet still manages to make Othello feel that he owes Iago a great debt for his loyalty. Othello at one point proclaims “I am bound to thee forever“. Even Desdemona eventually turns to Iago in distress after Othello calls her a whore, asking pitifully “Oh good Iago, what shall I do to win my lord again?” and he immediately pretends to comfort her “Do not weep, do not weep. Alas the day!” reassuring her that it is just some business of the state that troubles her husband. Despite causing nothing but misery and suffering for Roderigo, Iago manages to convince him to attack Cassio. So, as I said already, every character is manipulated and hurt by Iago’s schemes but all the time he’s pretending to help them.

Jealous: Iago is jealous of the promotion Cassio received commenting bitterly “mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership“. He is also quite possibly jealous of the power and influence Othello has in Venice; of the loving relationship which exists between Desdemona & Othello, which is in stark contrast to his own marriage and of the seductive effect Othello and Cassio both seem to have on women.

Paranoid: he suspects Othello of sleeping with his wife Emilia, even though he has absolutely no proof “it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets he has done my office“. Later he admits “I fear Cassio with my night cap too“. Either his wife is a total slut or Iago is completely paranoid…

Amoral sadist: Iago delights in the suffering of others. Of Brabantio he says “rouse him, make after him, poison his delight…plague him with flies“. Of Othello he says “if thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport“. He gets a sick thrill at the thought of using people’s virtues against them, commenting of Othello “the Moor is of a free and open nature and will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are“. He relishes the thought of using Cassio’s good looks and courteous manner against him, thus destroying both his reputation and Othello’s marriage “with as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio“. Even though he has no reason to dislike or hurt Desdemona, he is excited by the prospect of destroying someone so pure of heart “so will I turn her virtue into pitch and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all“. He freely admits that his plan is evil and twisted proclaiming “hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” and the thought of wrecking the happiness of those who he feels have wronged him (Othello & Cassio) fills him with glee “oh you are well tuned now, but I’ll set down the pegs that make this music“. When Othello decides to kill Desdemona for her ‘betrayal’, Iago relishes being the one to choose the method of execution “do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated“. He revels in the power and control he now exerts over his boss. He never loses his thirst for inflicting pain on others, commenting snidely when he sees Bianca with the handkerchief “see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! she gave it him and he hath given it his whore“. He enjoys twisting the knife in further and observing Othello’s torment. The thought that both Roderigo and Cassio may die fills him with satisfaction and when the plan backfires he wounds Cassio and kills Roderigo without the slightest hesitation. Nor does he feel any guilt about casting suspicion on poor Bianca, whom he claims is angry with Cassio for having jilted her.

Cynical: Iago values intellect above emotion, prizing the fact that “we have reason to cool our raging motions” and viewing love as nothing more than “a lust of the blood and a permission of the will“.

Selfish: Iago believes that free will gives us the power to decide how we behave “Virtue! A fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus“. He puts himself first at all times and mocks those who behave otherwise “I never found a man who knew how to love himself“.

Vengeful: Iago obsesses over the idea that his wife Emilia has slept with Othello “I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leap’d into my seat” and is intent on revenge (despite the lack of proof that this ever occurred) “nothing can or will content my soul until I am evened with him wife for wife“.

Over-confident: Iago seriously underestimates his wife and treats her with contempt commenting dismissively “you are a fool, go to” when she suggests that some “eternal villain” has been slandering Desdemona and spreading rumours to hurt Othello “Fie! There is no such man; it is impossible“. Iago’s not-quite-fatal flaw is that he fails to see the threat she represents, even though she is the first person (following Othello’s outburst) to figure out what’s really going on. At the beginning of Act 5, Iago kills Roderigo but he fails to dispose of the one man who can expose his plot as a mountain of lies: Cassio! In the final scene of the play when Emilia discovers Iago’s evil plot, he is once again over-confident that he can quieten his wife. When she refuses to be silenced he effectively exposes his guilt by stabbing her to shut her up and running away.

Unrepentant: Iago shows no remorse and refuses to offer any explanation for his behaviour. When Othello fumes “demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul” Iago replies arrogantly “demand me nothing; what you know you know. From this time forth I never will speak word“.

Even though he will be punished for his crimes, Iago’s plan to destroy Othello and Desdemona was ultimately successful – they both lie dead, alongside Iago’s wife Emilia – and no punishment can equal the wrongdoing of this “hellish villain“.


Iago is essentially an evil man. Yet he is also charming, witty and extremely intelligent and the audience finds it hard to resist this mysterious villain.

Charming: Iago manages to convince Roderigo that there is still hope when all hope seems lost “no more of drowning, do you hear?“. Yet moments later he manages to convince Othello that he could barely contain himself when he heard Roderigo speak rudely about his master “nine or ten times I had thought to have jerked him her under the ribs“. Iago delights in the irony of the situation and at times the audience (who unlike the characters on stage know exactly what Iago is up to) almost expect him to wink at them! For example, at the end of the temptation scene, with a completely straight face, Iago proclaims “witness you ever burning lights above… that here Iago doth give up the execution of his wit, heads, heart to wronged Othello’s service“. The sheer brazen cheek of this villain seduces us and we are unwittingly drawn into his despicable schemes because he confides in us throughout in his many soliloquies and asides. He makes us feel intelligent, unlike those who are duped on stage, because we know what’s really going on, and this makes us like him despite ourselves.

Witty: Iago is a master of sexual innuendo. His outrageous explicit descriptions of Desdemona and Othello’s sexual exploits are completely inappropriate but also quite funny: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe!” “you’ll have your daughter covered with a barbary horse” “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs“. Few people would have the nerve to talk to a man about his daughter in such explicitly sexual terms. Iago is also openly misogynistic in front of his wife and Desdemona, describing women in colourful terms: “you are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlours, wild cats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery and housewives in your beds“. His happy-go-lucky demeanour allows him to get away with being extremely cheeky in his comments, slagging them off for seeing sex as a chore: “you rise to play and go to bed to work“. He tries to make everything about sex once again when on night duty with Cassio, trying to draw him into a lecherous conversation about how good Desdemona must be in bed “she is sport for love” “I’ll warrant her full of game“. “What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley to provocation“.

Lucky: All the cleverness in the world couldn’t guarantee success for Iago’s Machiavellian plan; he also needed a dose of pure old-fashioned good luck! This occurs in the temptation scene when Emilia picks up the handkerchief Desdemona dropped and gives it to her husband. He also gets a lucky break which helps his plan along after Othello overhears Cassio speaking about his lover (Iago designs this so Othello mistakenly thinks Cassio is talking about Desdemona when he’s actually referring to Bianca) and then Bianca enters and waves it about, scolding Cassio for gifting her some other woman’s love token.

Popular: perhaps one of the most confusing things about Iago’s character is his immense popularity. Perhaps up to this moment he was actually a nice guy! He has an excel end reputation and is repeatedly referred to as “honest Iago” by all of the other characters. Nobody seems to realise until the very end of the play that he is in fact a “demo-devil”. When Othello has to leave his new wife Desdemona, he entrusts her to Iago offering high praise (“a man he is of honesty and trust“) and when he is forced to choose between trusting Iago and trusting Desdemona, he chooses his ‘friend’ above his wife.

Unhappy: Perhaps we feel sorry for Iago on some level because his life is so miserable. He is stuck in a job he hates, filled with resentment because he missed out on a promotion and now has to watch a young lad take what he considers to be his rightful place. He is stuck in a marriage to a wife he despises and has an utterly cynical view of life and of love. Yet he must once have been ambitious, or else why is he so disappointed when he doesn’t get the promotion? And we can assume he once loved his wife; after all, the thought of her with another man drives him crazy (“the thought whereof doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw at my innards“) although this may have more to do with wounded pride than genuine love and affection! Perhaps he simply resents having a black man as his boss and dislikes the thought of his wife sleeping with his boss because it makes him look like a fool.

Thrill seeker: Iago’s plan is risky from the very beginning. All it would take for his entire scheme to unravel is some honest communication between the main characters. Furthermore, he has little to gain, other than revenge for some ill-proven wrongs, if he succeeds. So why does he do it? Iago seems fearless, seems to thrive on danger, on testing himself to the limits of his manipulative skill, quite consciously proclaiming “this is the night that either makes me or for does me quite” yet nonetheless proceeding, despite the very real possibility that he might get caught and punished.

Intelligent: signs of Iago’s intelligence are almost too numerous to document. Having informed Brabantio of Desdemona’s elopement, he cleverly disappears so that he cannot be accused of disloyalty to Othello. We also quickly discover that Iago is an opportunist who is resourceful at turning any situation to his advantage. For example, he challenges his secret ally Roderigo to a duel when the search party arrives looking for Othello, ensuring that neither he nor his ‘purse’ will be injured if a brawl ensues. His plan to use Cassio’s courteous manners to imply that Desdemona is being unfaithful is ingenious and simultaneously takes advantage of Othello’s outsider status, insecurity and desire for certainty and decisive action when he feels he has been wronged. He cleverly convinces Roderigo that his main love rival is Cassio, then uses Roderigo as a puppet in his schemes (Roderigo is the one who provokes the brawl that leads to Cassio’s dismissal) to ensure that no-one suspects him, Iago, of any wrongdoing. In fact he gets others to do his dirty work whenever possible thus keeping his hands clean and his reputation unsullied. He pretends that the valiant soldiers of Cyprus will be insulted if Cassio will not drink with them, then feigns loyalty to Cassio when Othello demands an explanation “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offence to Michael Cassio“. Yet he still gets his way. Cassio is fired and Othello begins to doubt his own judgement of character.

However, Iago’s true genius is most vividly evident in the temptation scene. He preys upon each character’s weaknesses to manipulate and bamboozle them. He uses Cassio’s shame and reluctance to face his former employer to his advantage, using reverse psychology to slyly suggest that Cassio has something more to hide “I cannot think that he would steal away so guilty like“. He subtly implies that both Cassio and Othello’s reputations may be in jeopardy “good name in man and woman… is the immediate jewel of their souls” and then uses the derogatory term cuckold, warning Othello dramatically “O! beware my lord of jealousy“. Here Iago shows remarkable psycholological insight, cleverly manipulating key facets of Othello’s personality. Firstly, he senses that Othello is insecure and subtly suggests that it is strange that Desdemona chose Othello as a husband, rejecting marriage proposals from those of “her own clime, complexion and degree“. Secondly, he exploits the fact that Othello is an outsider to Venetian society and is thus socially inexperienced. Iago insinuates that Venetian women frequently cheat on their husbands yet are experts at hiding their deception. After all, Desdemona “did deceive her father” in marrying Othello. Thirdly, Iago knows that Othello is very trusting so he implies that unfortunately not all men are like this: “men should be what they seem“. Fourthly, he knows that Othello has a vivid imagination (after all, his storytelling skills are what won Desdemona’s heart) and thus claims that Cassio has been talking explicitly about Desdemona in his sleep. Iago knows that Othello won’t be able to cope with the intense jealousy and anguish which floods over him when presented with vivid images of how Cassio “laid his leg over my thigh, and sighed and kissed” even going so far as to describe Cassio as “with her, on her, what you will” to further provoke Othello’s rage. Iago knows that Othello’s pride will not let him allow such betrayal to go unpunished. Fifthly, he knows Othello’s handkerchief was given to him by his mother and is thus of great sentimental value. In claiming that Desdemona has callously given away this symbol of love “such a handkerchief did I today see Cassio wipe his beard with” Iago is indirectly suggesting that she has not just disrespected him, their love and their marriage, but also his mother, his family, his past and his culture and traditions. Finally, Iago uses the fact that Othello is a man of action who is used to making decisions quickly and acting on them immediately (“would I were satisfied“) to provoke him into rushing to judgement without too much investigation. He even uses reverse psychology, pleading with Othello to “let her live” knowing full well that Othello’s anger and inner turmoil are too powerful in this moment (“damn her lewd minx“) for him to be capable of mercy. Thus Iago corrupts Othello’s feelings for Desdemona and transforms him into a jealous monster hell-bent on revenge.

Iago turns subsequent events to his advantage, confirming Othello’s suspicions. He claims that Cassio has been bragging about his conquest of Desdemona. He convinces Othello to hide behind a curtain and spy on him and Cassio – this shows how deeply Othello is now under Iago’s control, for at the beginning of the play he refused to hide! Iago then proceeds to talk in lewd and disrespectful terms about Bianca, all the while pretending to Othello that they are talking about Desdemona. He convinces Roderigo to attack Cassio, which allows him to keep his hands clean and gives him the opportunity to dispose of Roderigo, who has started to demand his money back now that’s he’s broke. He cleverly casts suspicion on Bianca for the attack on Cassio; after all, who’s going to believe a prostitiute when she professes her innocence? Iago’s main failure is over-confidence and under-estimating his own wife. Ultimately, despite his ingenious scheme, he does get caught, but not before he has achieved the destruction he set out to achieve.




Othello – virtues & flaws



Othello is essentially a good man. From early in the play we learn that he is a trusted soldier and a loving husband who remains calm under pressure and is held in high regard in Venice.

  1. Trusted soldier – he is asked to lead the army against the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. He is described as “valiant” by the Duke, and “brave” by Montano. He has led many successful campaigns in the past “My services which I have outdone the signiory shall out-tongue his complaints

  2. Loving husband – he defends his actions in eloping, maintaining that their relationship is sincere “I love the gentle Desdemona”. He treats her as an equal, and respects her right to offer her own opinions “let her speak of me before her father”. His first concern is for her when he agrees to go to Cyprus “I crave fit disposition for my wife”. He trusts her implicitly “My life upon her faith” despite Brabantio’s warning and his love for her gives his life meaning “But I do love thee! And when I love thee not chaos is come again

  3. Calm under pressure – he honourably & confidently refuses to hide from Brabantio, as he knows his conscience is clear “I must be found: my parts, my title and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly”. He refuses to use violence unnecessarily “Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them” and skilfully quietens a dangerous situation. When Brabantio accuses him of drugging his daughter, Othello agrees to answer the charges laid against him “where will you that I go?”

  4. Respected – the Duke admires Othello so much that he tries to convince Brabantio to lay aside his racism and accept his new son-in-law: “I think this tale would win my daughter too your son-in-law is far more fair than black

Despite having many suitors, Desdemona chose Othello as her husband “to his honours and his valiant parts did I my soul and fortunes consecrate”

Even Iago, who claims to “hate the Moor” admits that he is a good man “The Moor…is of a constant loving noble nature and I dare think that he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband


Othello is not without flaws however. He is too proud, too trusting, too impulsive and extremely insecure despite his outward show of arrogance.

  1. Pride & vanity – Othello is the first to suggest that Othello is self-centered and arrogant “loving his own pride and purposes”. This impression is strengthened when Othello boasts “I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege”. Even his love for Desdemona could be interpreted as extremely vain “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them”. Is it possible that he loves her simply because she flatters his ego? {OR is their love deeper – does she understand him and accept him in a way that no other woman ever has?} His later behaviour towards Cassio & Desdemona is partially motivated by wounded pride: “I’d rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner in the thing I love for other’s uses”

  1. Trusting – Iago uses Othello’s blind faith in other human beings to his advantage “The Moor is of a free and open nature, that thinks men honest that but seem to be so, & will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are”. Othello frequently mistakes appearance for reality, never delving beneath the surface to seek a deeper, more complex truth. He only briefly suspects Iago (“If thou dost slander her and torture me, never pray more, abandon all remorse, on horror’s head horrors accumulate”) and when Iago pretends to be offended Othello immediately back-pedals. Once he decides that he was wrong to trust Cassio and Desdemona, he is filled with a desire for revenge because they have taken away his faith in the essential goodness and integrity of human nature.

  2. Impulsive – As a soldier, Othello must be decisive. He must establish the facts on the battlefield and quickly decide on his next course of action. This trait works against him here. Although he insisted on being given the opportunity to defend himself against Brabantio’s accusations, he does not give Cassio the same fair trial: “Cassio I love thee; but never more be officer of mine”. {Does this make Othello a hypocrite? Or simply a man who values his reputation/cannot be seen to condone this behaviour?} Othello’s impatience to know the truth and act on it is also evident when he begins to doubt Desdemona “To be once in doubt is once to be resolved…” “I’ll have some proof”. Yet he accepts Iago’s insinuations about Cassio and Desdemona (asking “Why did I marry?”) even before Iago offers his ‘proofs’ of the handkerchief & Cassio’s sleep talking. Othello cannot bear uncertainty, and has a very simplistic view of human emotions – either he loves her with all his heart or he hates her with an equally passionate intensity “She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief must be to loathe her”

  1. Insecure – despite seeming confident, even arrogant on the outside, Othello is actually quite insecure. He accepts Iago’s suggestion that Desdemona was somehow abnormal or strange when she chose him as a husband: “Not to affect many proposed matches of her own clime, complexion and degree…one may smell in such a will most rank” Bizarrely, Othello behaves in a racist manner against himself when he accepts this as proof of Desdemona’s degeneracy, and instructs Iago “set on thy wife to observe”. He is also insecure because he is an outsider in Venetian society. He lacks experience and local knowledge when it comes to Venetian women and so believes Iago’s assertion that they secretly cheat on their husbands: “In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks they dare not show their husbands”. Othello’s greatest insecurity is a fear that his rich, white, beautiful, aristocratic wife doesn’t truly love him. Perhaps he all too quickly believes the lies Iago tells him about his wife because he secretly believes that the racist majority in Venice are right: maybe a black man is an unattractive creature, not quite human, unworthy of love.


Unforgivable behaviour:

  1. He asks Iago to have Emilia spy on Desdemona “set on thy wife to observe”

  2. He knows that either Iago is lying, or Desdemona is. Yet he never offers his wife the benefit of the doubt, even though he claims to love & trust her “my life upon her faith”

  3. Othello does not demand justice. A fair hearing for the accused (which he himself got after eloping with Desdemona) is never considered. He craves revenge (“arise black vengeance from the hollow hell”), a less noble, more volatile emotion.

  4. Othello tests his wife’s loyalty secretly (“fetch me the handkerchief, my mind misgives”) instead of openly confronting her and attempting real communication.

  5. He spies on Cassio (prompted by Iago) instead of openly confronting him.

  6. Othello publicly insults & strikes his wife “subtle whore” “impudent strumpet” “devil”

  7. He refuses to accept Emilia’s reassurances that nothing is going on “if she be not honest, chaste and true, there’s no man happy”. He has already closed his mind to the possibility of her innocence.

  8. When he finally accuses his wife “are you not a strumpet?” he ignores her genuine protestations “no as I am a Christian”. He won’t tell her what it is exactly she’s supposed to have done (it would be too humiliating to repeat) and as a result she never gets the opportunity to prove her innocence.

  9. He orders the murder of a trusted loyal general (Cassio) and fools himself into believing that he is the instrument of divine justice when he kills Desdemona.

  10. Othello absolves himself of blame, describing himself as an “honourable murderer”. He is full of self-pity “demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body” rather than self-loathing.

Othello’s suicide? For Cassio & a Shakespearean audience, this was a brave noble deed (“this did I fear for he was great of heart”) because he will writhe in the torments of hell forever paying for his crime. However a modern audience may feel suicide is the easy way out. It allows him to escape the consequences of his actions. As Othello says to Iago “I’d have thee live, for in my sense tis happiness to die”.


A tragic hero?

There are many reasons why an audience might feel great sympathy for Othello:

  1. Othello is essentially a good man – see list above.

  2. For no good reason and through no fault of his own, Othello has made an enemy whose mission in life is to destroy Othello and everything he holds dear: “O! you are well tuned now, but I’ll set down the pegs that make this music”. This enemy is highly intelligent, extremely manipulative, a master of deception, a skilled opportunist and worst of all, a trusted friend. It is extremely perverse that Othello should confide in this traitor every step of the way, and turn to him for advice. Each time he defends Iago (“an honest man he is, and hates the slime that sticks on filthy deeds” “O brave Iago, honest and just! That hast such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong”) we feel sick to our stomachs. Yet every character in the play is taken in by Iago (even his wife) and it is fair to say that without Iago, this tragedy would not have occurred. For some people, however, it is Othello’s very trusting nature that makes them dislike him. Perhaps some audiences like to (probably unfairly) view Othello as a fool, because the thought that we could be so taken in and corrupted by another human being is too much to bear.

  3. Othello’s behaviour makes sense psychologically:

(a)When he fires Cassio, although this is a rash decision, it is understandable. After all, Cassio has injured one of Cyprus’ greatest generals; has caused a brawl whilst on guard duty in a city just recovering from war; has interrupted Othello’s first night with his new bride; and does not deny the charges made against him – because they are true. Othello cannot be seen to condone this behaviour & must protect both his reputation & Cyprus’ fragile peace.

(b) At the beginning of the temptation scene, Othello is a devoted husband: “Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee! And when I love thee not, chaos is come again”. By the end of the scene, he is consumed by a desire for revenge “Arise black vengeance from the hollow hell”. Yet at many points during this scene we feel sorry for him. He is filled with confusion, torn between grief (“she’s gone, I am abused”), anger (“…and my relief must be to loathe her”) and disbelief (“if she be false, O! then heaven mocks itself. I’ll not believe it”)

After all, the more you love and trust someone, the more it will hurt if they betray you. Furthermore, Iago is cleverly manipulating key facets of Othello’s personality. Firstly, he is insecure. He has begun to doubt his own judgement of character – after all, it seems he was wrong about Cassio (drunken lout!). He finds it hard to understand why Desdemona chose him, rejecting those of “her own clime, complexion and degree”. Deep down he feels unworthy of her love, & Iago seems to sense this. Secondly, he is an outsider to Venetian society. He feels socially (and possibly sexually) inexperienced & therefore accepts Iago’s insinuations that Venetian women frequently cheat on their husbands yet are experts at hiding their deception. After all “she did deceive her father” in marrying Othello. Thirdly, he is very trusting. He places great sentimental value on his mother’s handkerchief & thus sees it as the ultimate betrayal to give it away. Fourthly, he has a vivid imagination, and cannot cope with the intense jealousy and anguish which floods over him when Iago presents him with vivid images of his wife with another man “then laid his leg over my thigh, and sighed and kissed” “with her, on her, what you will”. Fifthly, he is proud of his achievements on the battlefield & of the fact that Desdemona married him “for she had eyes and she chose me”. His wounded pride (understandably) cannot accept the idea of sharing her “I’d rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon than keep a corner in the thing I love for other’s uses”. Finally, he is a man of action who is used to making decisions quickly & acting on them. He craves certainty “would I were satisfied” which partially explains why he rushes to judgement without investigating further.

  1. Once Iago corrupts Othello’s feelings for Desdemona and transforms him into a jealous monster hell-bent on revenge, Othello suffers terribly. He is desperate to prove Iago wrong and is tormented when Desdemona cannot produce it “fetch me the handkerchief, my mind misgives”. He is so distraught by the thought of Cassio and Desdemona together “Lie with her! Lie on her!…Is it possible? – Confess – Handkerchief – O devil!” that he has an epileptic fit. When he thinks he overhears Cassio speaking disrespectfully about Desdemona (he was actually talking about Bianca) and sees Bianca giving Cassio the handkerchief, any remaining doubt about their guilt is washed away. Yet he still loves Desdemona, and is torn between these tender feelings “a fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman! …”the pity of it Iago” and a deep inner pain, manifested as rage, at her betrayal “let her rot, and perish, and be damned tonight; for she shall not live”. When he strikes Desdemona our sympathy is at it’s lowest ebb yet, but we can still understand his actions: he overheard and misinterpreted her when she said “I would do much to atone them for the love I bear to Cassio”. He lists all of the hardships he would have been willing to endure for his beloved wife – sores, shames, poverty, captivity, scorn – but the one thing he cannot endure is having his heart so cruelly broken, his love so cruelly discarded (Act 4, scene 2). When the time comes to kill Desdemona, Othello almost changes his mind. It is heartbreaking to watch him kissing her “O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade justice to break her sword!” because we the audience know that all of this suffering is in vain. His desire to save her immortal soul is touching “have you prayed tonight?” Although we despise him for killing an innocent, he is in the grip of passionate, uncontrollable emotions: Desdemona describes how his whole body shakes as he gnaws his lip and rolls his eyes. He feels no satisfaction once the deed is done “O insupportable! O heavy hour”. When the truth finally emerges, Othello is filled with horror and shame: “this look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, and fiends will snatch at it” “wash me down in steep down gulfs of liquid fire! O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!”.

Our final assessment of Othello’s character is largely coloured by the final scene:

  • We despise him for killing Desdemona, and for glorifying his vigilante behaviour as some kind of divine justice YET we admire his efforts to save her eternal soul & the anguish he feels whilst carrying out this gruesome task.

  • We disapprove of his arrogance in describing himself as an “honourable murderer” as this suggests that he doesn’t fully accept responsibility for his actions YET we empathise with his overwhelming grief “cold, cold, my girl

  • We understand his rage at Iago “demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soulYET this strengthens our impression that he is looking to lay the blame entirely at someone else’s feet.

  • His final speech is self-indulgent and self-pitying in the extreme “one that loved not wisely but too well, of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme” YET his grief (his subdued eyes “drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees”) and awareness of what he has lost “threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe” are truly tragic to behold.

  • Othello’s suicide: A brave noble deed (“this did I fear for he was great of heart”) or the easy way out? (“I’d have thee live, for in my sense tis happiness to die”). You decide.