Tag Archives: virtues

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.