Othello, Shakespeare’s’ Aristotelian tragedy, plays upon a twofold focus to portray the demise of the general to ‘martyrdom’. Initially, the responder is drawn upon the manipulative power of Iago as he exposes not only the fragility of Othello, but also Roderigo, Cassio, Emilia and Desdemona. Then as the play progresses, Othello’s trust in Iago and ultimately himself is questioned almost to the point of gullibility. Shakespeare relies upon on dramatic structure, motifs and manner to convey the deception of Othello.
Ultimately it his exploration of binary opposition in an isolated society (Cyprus), vulnerable to devices of villainy, that allows him to conform to the Aristotelian manifesto. Iago’s orchestrating power over Othello exposes the fragility that engulfs Othello’s mind whilst undermining the trust Othello places in this villain. Shakespeare capitalizes on Iago’s cryptic manner of speaking exemplified by the binary oppositions “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” and “I am not what I am” to highlight his source of power, deception.
The binary oppositions such as black/white, honest/dishonest, light/dark play as underlying notion to exaggerate Othello’s visible and character difference. Deception is evident when Iago notes “she did deceive her father marrying you” placed in an elliptical style. Iago’s insinuations about Desdemona have taken Othello, in a mere 100 lines from belief in his conjugal happiness to belief in his abandonment. These initial feelings of abandonment cascade to eventuate in the general’s downfall as he murders Desdemona.
Othello’s imagery finds Desdemona to be a mere “creature” of “appetite” and imagines himself as a “toad” in a “dungeon”. The recurring motifs of animals and militarism with “dungeon” imparts upon the theme of the incompatibility of military heroism and love. This theme is pursued further as Othello cries out “Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow cell! ” Othello uses images of darkness in order to expel any love he has for Desdemona left inside him. This contrasting to the light connotation of Desdemona’s earlier descriptions “as fresh, as Dian’s visage” shows the binary opposition of light and dark.
Iago’s manipulative power exploits the frailty of Othello’s mind. His anxiety about Desdemona’s fidelity mirrors the shift in dramatic structure from verse to prose. When Iago tells of Desdemona’s suspected fidelity he can only reply “ha” and “Oh misery”. The “green-eyed monster” that grows within Othello represents the theme of hell and bestiality. This reflects upon another binary opposition in the fact Othello is a Christian yet in an Elizabethan period is portrayed as a “Moor” who to Iago has “twixt my sheets” and “done my office”.
The jealousy which surges through Othello and Iago is a crucial aspect in the downfall of the once great general. Iago’s manipulative power influences simply not Othello, but extends towards Roderigo and Cassio, pawns in Othello’s demise. Iago’s manipulation is revealed in his plan of extorting Roderigo’s money with unfulfilled promises in “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse… my sport and profit” with the use of soliloquy and the recurring motif of animals with “sport” conveying the power Iago holds. Iago uses Roderigo, compelling him to provoke and attempt to murder Cassio.
Roderigo is convinced that Cassio and Desdemona “…met so near with their lips, that their breaths embraced together” with the romantic imagery and blank verse to anger the Venetian. The sinister villain then induces Cassio to succumb to his vulnerability, alcohol, by singing a drinking song “… let me the cannikin clink, clink and let me the cannikin clink”. The use of repetition, onomatopoeia and plot structure exemplifies Iago’s trickery, the source of his power. The trust that Cassio places in Iago and the distrust that is returned is yet another binary opposition.
This crucial event allows Iago to progress into Othello’s inner circle and orchestrate the “Moor’s” downfall but also control Cassio, now worried for his “lost reputation”. Iago’s wields his power over men and women alike, placing Emilia and Desdemona under his sphere of Influence resulting in the downfall of Othello. Iago, not satisfied with Cassio’s disgrace, schemes to place him in Othello’s demise. Iago’s cryptic manner again evident as he notes to Cassio “Our general’s wife is now the general” persuading him to go after Desdemona in search of retribution.
The ambiguity serves as a foreshadowing to the audience that Iago will use Desdemona to ruin Othello. Iago brings Othello to Desdemona only to see Cassio run away, adding further to Othello’s fear and suspicions. The jealousy that beseeches the general afterwards makes him “live upon the vapor of a dungeon”. A prime example of how Desdemona unknowingly is yet another “pawn in Iago’s chess set” as A. C. Bradley describes. It also serves as another binary opposition with the contrast of the evil of Iago with the good Desdemona who is “the grace of heaven”.
Emilia, Iago’s wife, is the last to be subject to Iago’s deceptive powers as she professes, “I am glad I have found this napkin… And give’t Iago. What he will do with it, Heaven knows, not I. I nothing, but to please his fantasy. ” To her, the handkerchief is literally a trifle, “light as air,”. The symbolism, simile and motif of the handkerchief throughout the play exaggerate the extent to which Emilia is ruled by Iago’s power, supported by the soliloquy. Emilia’s handing over the handkerchief to Iago is the crucial last part of Othello’s downfall.
It plays as the last piece of crucial evidence as Othello cries “By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand. O perjured women! ”. Shakespeare’s uses Venetian setting to emphasise the marital significance of the “napkin” culminating in Desdemona’s murder and Othello’s self revelation and death. Othello’s ultimate flaw, trust, both in Iago and himself throughout the play and is questioned to the point of gullibility. The irony and repetition of Iago as “most honest” by Othello highlights trust as his most serious flaw which continues to undermine him until his tragic death.
The oxymoron of “to be once in doubt, is once to be resolved” conveys the deep trust that Othello places in himself, a remnant from his days as a general. It reiterates the theme of the incompatibility of military heroism and love preventing Othello from truly ever loving Desdemona. Iago exploits “the Moor’s… free and open nature” who “thinks men honest that but seem to be so” and this unfathomable trust leads to Othello’s demise and his self-revelation.
Othello’s anecdote and metaphor of Iago as “a malignant and a turbaned Turk” who “beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by the throat the circumcised dog” in his final words highlights that he now understands the injustice he has created in trusting not only Iago but himself. The contextual binary opposition of Turk/Venetian evolving from good/evil and trust/mistrust ultimately shows that the various binary oppositions in the play have harmed Othello and resulted in his dramatic demise.
The focus of Othello can be perceived to be twofold with reference to the power that Iago wields over Othello and the other major characters but also the ability of Othello to place unfathomable trust in others. By examining Iago’s cryptic and deceptive manner and Othello’s relationship with him, the responder is able to perceive the descent of the general from hero to murderer. The binary oppositions which constantly underline the play eventuate in Othello’s death, fulfilling the Aristotelian manifesto.