Examine Shakespeare’s presentation of the changes of Othello’s character in Othello
Othello is a tragic play based on a foreign yet eloquent man being manipulated into changing his perceptions of others. One of the most noticeable changes in the play is the apparent transformation of Othello’s character; from a “noble Moor” to a “blacker devil”. Shakespeare presents this change through a number of means, such as how other characters portray him, the words used to describe his character and his actions, and the jealous situations he involves himself in.
Othello is absent in the first scene of the play, allowing Shakespeare to present his character through the words of others: specifically Iago and Roderigo. They use racist terms, and mock his military acumen to degrade him,
“The Moor…But he, loving his own pride and purposes”
They also often refer to him using animalistic terms, such as “old black ram…Barbary horse…devil”, presenting a negative view of Othello to the audience. Shakespeare purposely absents Othello from the first scene, to allow a character profile to be immediately conjured into the heads of the audience, thus creating an image of Othello’s character, before we meet him, to emphasise how different he appears in person later, and to pave a way for his later acts of violence.
Contradictory to earlier views presented to the audience, Shakespeare first introduces Othello on to the stage in Scene 2, as a man of standing and self-belief. The manner in which he speaks and the language he uses shows his education and ability to speak assertively. His confidence is exposed by his ability to stand up to his elders, by stating his point in respectful words, which is shown through the language he uses,
“you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons.”
By addressing his elders with “Good signor”, Othello shows respect to his elders, therefore, Shakespeare allows the audience to gather impressions that Othello is a respectful man.
Othello’s status and poise is shown through his military acumen and his ability and confidence to relate beautiful imagery to himself,
“These arms of mine…till now some nine moons wasted…have used their dearest action in the tented field”
Despite this egoistic variance, he is also shown as a modest man when it comes to his ability in speech,
“Rude am I in my speech
and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace”
showing that although he is eloquent, he is ill-at-ease in Venetian society,
and has ‘doubts’ about his ability in speech. Shakespeare allows us to change our perception of him, from an ‘animalistic’ Moor to a modest confident man by effectively allowing others to portray him, initially, and then introducing him after to show the distinction, as well as the way he is able to control his situation and contradict his supposed characteristics.
Act 1 Scene 3 shows Othello as an outstanding soldier and inspiring leader, but also a compassionate figure. Shakespeare presents these traits to show Othello’s balanced character, which is however, later shown to be vulnerable to change. He is portrayed as a character who has control in the situations he involves himself with. This is shown in his soliloquy about how he won over Desdemona, through his military ventures,
“Of moving accidents by flood and field…
Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,
It was my hint to speak – such was the process;”
Descriptive language, “moving floods… rough quarries…” is used to create detailed imagery in the soliloquy, to describe these events, showing the passion in Othello, as well as his military prowess. The use of the phrase “heads touch heaven” to describe tall hills, also shows his passion for Desdemona is as tall as the hills, and that Desdemona herself is heavenly. Shakespeare expertly presents the imaginative, and vivid images Othello creates through his speech, through the expressive language used in the form of a long speech to exemplify Othello’s noble way of speaking, and his ability to express himself.
Beginning in Act 3 Scene 3, Shakespeare noticeably shows that Othello is a victim, easily stirred by Iago’s manipulation of planting seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind about Desdemona’s faithfulness to him. Iago thickens the lies, feeding off Othello’s naivety about women and lack of understanding, suggesting that Cassio is sleeping with Desdemona,
“Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?”
and by responding to Othello’s questions with suggestive questions about Desdemona’s ‘affair’, “Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio”.
Othello’s strong feelings for Desdemona and his belief in “Desdemona’s honest” personality is quickly transformed to feelings of hate and distrust, purely because he believes Iago’s words about women being deceptive and is gullible and naï¿½ve enough to not know any better. During this process, his behaviour changes from reasonable and calm to irrational and gullible, which is mirrored in his inability to speak coherently and express himself,
“[Strikes her]…O devil, devil!”
This presents his loss of control over situations, and how he can be controlled and easily manipulated. Iago directly influences Othello’s behaviour, which leads to his whole change as a character. Shakespeare demonstrates this by the simplistic language Othello uses when losing his temper, to show his primitive side. The way that Othello’s gullibility leads to this is shown throughout the play,
“Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?”
by Iago’s simple yet effective way of manipulating the one thing that Othello cares for, Desdemona.
Shakespeare presents these doubts by gradually introducing them as the acts proceeds, and Iago manipulates Othello even further. This builds up tension, whilst Othello’s gullibility is unraveled through his confusion and naivety, which is presented through his gradual increase in doubtful phrases. Shakespeare uses this idea to show Othello’s quick misjudgments in other characters, as well as himself. His perception of other’s characters and motives is very poor, and is accentuated by the fact that Shakespeare presents the phrase “Honest Iago” very often, to show his incapability to understand others, which in the end, leads to his unfortunate change to a “blacker devil”. He is also inept at analyzing his own character, shown by his numerous doubts of himself throughout the play.
Shakespeare slowly builds up Othello’s anger throughout the play, until the climax where he is consumed with anger about Desdemona’s supposed unfaithful activities. Our perception of his whole character suddenly changes, as his civilized nature is unmasked to reveal a primitive man following basic instincts,
“How shall I murder him, Iago?”
Shakespeare presents this vast change by changing the language used by Othello, from polite phrases such as “most potent, grave signor” to expletives, such as “Zounds! Devil”, and gradually introduces this change as the play progresses. Shakespeare also portrays this through how Othello first talks to Desdemona in a gentle, loving manner, “sweet Desdemona”, and then changes his tone to a more accusative and disrespectful manner, “strumpet…cunning whore of Venice”, exemplifying his anger as he does so. This demonstrates how paced he is to expel his anger, changing his whole idealistic nature as he does so. Here, Shakespeare reveals that Othello is actually a temperamental character, and does not have so much control over himself as we are led to believe earlier. Shakespeare effectively shows that this is because Othello is emotionally unstable and cannot cope with the stress in his social life, furthering the truth that his naivety about women and inability to perceive other characters motives play a part in his change in character.
Throughout the play, Othello is also shown as a very contradictory character. Whilst being manipulated by Iago, he fights with his thoughts of jealousy, love for Desdemona, and doubts,
“I think my wife be honest, and think she is not.
I think that thou art just, and think thou art not”
Othello uses conflicting language, “she is not…thou art not” to try and justify his reasoning, but continuously contradicts himself, which Shakespeare shows as to be one of his many flaws.
Othello’s contradicting statements and anger are also influenced by his increase in jealousy as Iago’s manipulation leads up to the climax of the play. Desdemona describes his lack of jealousy to the audience, by answering Emilia’s question, “Is he not jealous” by exclaiming Othello is incapable of such a thing,
“Who? He? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humours from him.”
The jealousy, however unnoticeable by Desdemona, gradually increases as the play goes on, until Othello unleashes a rage of jealousy upon Desdemona,
“as summer flies are in the shambles…
By heaven I saw my handkerchief in’s hand
O perjured woman, thou dost stone my heart”
This behaviour is contradictory to his earlier notions of exclaiming he is not a jealous man,
“‘Tis not to make me jealous to say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company”
It is also in contrast to Desdemona’s beliefs that Othello is not a jealous man, but is vulnerable to these feelings,
“Heaven keep that monster from Othello’s mind”
Shakespeare shows that even though Othello is known not to be the jealous type, by Desdemona, he is still susceptible to it and has little control over it. Shakespeare represents Othello’s jealous feelings through his language,
“That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee,
Thou gay’st to Cassio”
which contrast his earlier views of himself as not being one to have jealous feelings,
“‘Tis not to make me jealous
To say my wife is fair, feeds wall, loves company…”
This provides an effective structure for change in the audience’s perception of Othello, and to show how jealousy manipulates his anger; a trait that is slowly unraveled as the play progresses.
All of these changes in Othello’s character lead up to the most important and significant change of in our perception of him being a caring husband to a vicious murderer to a devastated, heartbroken lover. His commitment and affection towards “beautiful Desdemona” is most potent at the start of the play, but with the ‘help’ of Iago, Othello’s views about her change almost drastically to calling her a “whore” and murdering her. His reluctance to listen to reason,
“He hath confessed/That he hath used thee”
shows how his ability to reason is easily clouded over by jealousy. He also fulfills the negative image portrayed of him by Iago and Roderigo in the beginning of the play, by showing his primitive, animalistic instincts in the brutal killing of his beloved wife,
“thou art rash as fire…O gull, O dirt!
As ignorant as dirt”
and anger towards Iago, once he learns the truth about his manipulation,
“Are there no stones in heaven?
But what serve for thunder? Precious villain!”
The final, and most drastic change then occurs, when Othello’s hatred and anger is quick to evaporate, and leave a regretful, heartbroken man. Once he has realized that Desdemona was not unfaithful, and he unforgivingly murdered his lover, Othello becomes not his former rational, caring self, but further adopts another change to a man full of regret, sadness, empathy and devastation,
“O cursed, cursed slave!…
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire.
O Desdemona! Desdemona! Dead!”
Othello uses hellish language to describe how he now feels, and Shakespeare plays on the terms “devils…roast me in sulphur…blow me about in winds” to suggest that Othello deserved these punishments, had he not realized the wrong he done in killing his wife, whilst Othello wishes these upon himself. This drastic change at the end of the play provides an insight into a new, sorrowful phase that Othello is in. This scene, being very dramatic in events, contrasts the beginning of the play where the Othello is shown as a eloquent, well-mannered man. The similar language used to describe Othello in an animalistic, racist way in Scene 1 is again put to use, but to show his true instinctive nature.
Methodically throughout the play, Othello falls victim to many changes. Our perception of a “noble Moor”, brilliant army strategist and rational, caring, level headed man is transformed into perceptions of an irrational, unstable, emotionally volatile “blacker devil”. These changes occur due to his gullibility and naivety about women, his inability to self-analyse and perceive others’ motives, and his vulnerability to Iago’s simplistic, yet deceptive manipulation. Through the use of Othello’s change in extensive vocabulary and eloquence in speech to basic language presented in a primitive manner, Shakespeare perceives Othello’s effortless behaviour to become simplistic, incapable of expression and susceptible to manipulation.
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