The tragedy of Othello is directly related to the extreme conflict between the public and private sides of the hero’s nature, brought about by the corrupting influence of Iago. The success of Iago’s plot, motivated by private hatred, depends entirely upon his ability to maintain a convincing public façade of honesty and loyalty.
The public and private worlds of Othello come into conflict with each other when he sacrifices the ‘unhoused free condition’ of his soldier’s life for the ‘circumscription and confine’ (I,2) of domesticity. Primarily, Othello is a soldier, and his character manifests all the noble and heroic qualities of leadership: dignity, courage, command, and self-reliance. The openness and simplicity of his mind enables him to act spontaneously and with confidence, but also render him vulnerable to intrigue in emotional matters, of which he claims to have had little experience. His final description of himself as ‘one not easily jealous, but being wrought,/Perplexed in the extreme’ (V.2) describes this vulnerability. Privately he is passionate and romantically idealistic. When his imagination is inflamed by emotion, his intellect becomes confused and his capacity for cool judgement, upon which he prides himself as a general, deserts him.
Iago has a close and complex relationship with Othello, but one based on deception. He sees Othello’s virtues more as personal defects or exploitable naivety: ‘The Moor is of a free and open nature/That thinks men honest that but seem to be so’ (I,3). It is this quality of naïve but thorough trust, so feign to his own nature, that Iago manipulates so successfully; thus ‘trust’ becomes the pivotal word in Othello, and the hero’s assertion that he has ‘loved not wisely, but too well’ (V,2) must surely pertain more to Iago than Desdemona.
There is clearly an element of truth in Iago’s claim to Roderigo that Othello won Desdemona’s heart by ‘bragging and telling fantastical lies’ (II,1), as borne out by Othello’s own admission to the senate, but these are hardly detrimental qualities in a soldier, and there is nothing sham about the love Othello feels for Desdemona. In matters of love and private society, Othello is inexperienced: ‘little of this great world can I speak/More than pertains to broil and battle’ (I,3, but once he allows love into his life, he does so absolutely and finds profound contentment. This is expressed by himself on his reunion with Desdemona in Cyprus, although his recent victory over the Turks must be allowed to account for some of his euphoria:
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate. (II,1).
Such intense emotion cannot be contained in a separate compartment of the human psyche, as Othello mistakenly believed when assuring the senate that he would not allow the ‘disports’ of love to interfere with his duty to the state, should Desdemona be allowed to accompany him to Cyprus.
Once Othello’s mind has been infected by Iago’s poisonous barbs, it becomes clear that he has underestimated both himself and the power of love, which, once acknowledged, pervades his entire being. Othello places absolute faith in his love for Desdemona and when this is undermined, ‘chaos is come again’ (III,3). What Iago has perceived is that in the very intensity of Othello’s passion lies his weakness, and in the cunning manipulation of this weakness, the qualities that make Othello so impressive in public action, can be turned against the private man. Othello confirms this premise: ‘to be one in doubt/Is once to be resolved’ (III,3). An Othello in doubt is incapable of suspending judgement; his nature insists upon certainty and once this has been undermined, the resultant dilemma retards the facility for the quick, unerring decision that has been the virtue of Othello the soldier. His heated emotions prevent any clarity of judgement and, with his absolute trust in Iago, he must demand an instant resolution that is, in its way, an acquiescence to Iago’s will and pernicious insinuations.
As the poison continues to work on his mind, Othello’s hitherto suppressed sensual instincts take command and he becomes a mass of contradictions and uncontrolled impulses, resorting to spying and eavesdropping in his passion for proof, and, in the extremity of his anger, publicly assaulting and degrading his wife. Such conduct is foreign to the nature of the noble and dignified soldier.
Othello was mistaken in his dismissal of, or belief in his mastery over his sensual impulses. The resultant confusion in his mind creates a sense of isolation far greater than any cultural difference, for, by the inner conflict, Othello finds himself alienated from his own integrity. With the destruction of his private happiness goes the dissolution of his public glory:
Farewell, the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumèd troops and big wars
That make ambition virtue (III,3).
Desdemona’s ‘infidelity’ has made him ‘a fixed figure for the time of scorn’ (IV,2) and command cannot be maintained in the face of public ridicule. The intensity of Othello’s anguish is poignantly expressed in his conflicting imagery: ‘O, thou weed, who art so lovely fair, and smell’st so sweet’ (IV,2).
For Othello, love is a deeply private matter, dwelling very much in the mind, which is perhaps why Iago’s lewd imagery works so effectively on his sensual fancy. Iago’s attitude towards love is the antithesis of Othello’s, being merely the gratification of temporary passion, and therefore he has no qualms about using the sexual desires of his victims against them. Iago’s concept of love resides only on the physical plane of sex. Iago’s private thoughts are not fully shared with anyone, not even his wife, and the success of his plot hangs on his ability to control credibility in his public pose of honest and loyal friend to everyone. The side of Iago that Othello sees, is the same as is seen by everyone.
The external force of war has the power to distort reality and compromise the thoughts and actions of all involved in it. War undermines and devalues life and its effects cannot be restricted to the public field of action, but must inevitably extend into the private life of the individual. When, like Othello, the soldier is also the lover, the themes of war and love must fuse and complicate both the public and private lives of all those involved.
Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School. She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction. You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com
Some interesting further reading on Othello can be found by clicking the following links:
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