Othello is the hero of this tragedy. However, the action of the play centers more around Iago than Othello. From the very beginning, Othello is an outsider in society. He is a Moor, a foreigner and a black man from North Africa, and is automatically discriminated against in an all-white society. However, his skill as a leader and a military general make him valuable to the Venetian government. In the beginning, he is generally popular and well liked among his soldiers and the people of Venice. He is sought after by the Duke and the Senate for his ability as a fighter. There are three characters in particular that despise him: Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio. Each has his own reasons for disliking Othello and each will play a role in his downfall.
As is necessary in every tragic hero, Othello has a fundamental flaw. In his case, he has more than one flaw. The first is his hot-headed and passionate nature. “My blood begins my safer guides to rule, / And passion, having my best judgment collied, / Assays to lead the way” (II.iii.164-166). When angered or emotionally riled, he stops thinking and starts feeling. He makes rash decisions that he regrets afterwards when he does stop to think about it. For example, he fires Cassio for fighting while drunk in the middle of the night without knowing the full story of the matter. That then leads us to his next flaw, which is excessive pride and a preoccupation with reputation. When he makes a mistake in the heat of the moment, he is too proud to rectify it and admit that he did the wrong thing. Iago takes advantage of Othello’s flaws and uses them to destroy all that Othello holds dear. He stokes Othello’s pride by flattering him and convinces him that his decisions are always right and should be upheld.
Othello, as an outcast, is extremely insecure. “Haply for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have, or for I am declined / Into the vale of years” (III.iii.298-300). He fears that he is unworthy of Desdemona and is predisposed to believe that she would be unfaithful to him. Iago uses this knowledge and subtly changes Othello. Othello becomes deranged under Iago’s influence. He slaps Desdemona in the presence of the Venetian delegation. He has been so thoroughly convinced be Iago that Desdemona is false that he is completely blind to the evidence to the contrary. He sinks further and further into Iago complicated plot and by Act IV, Othello’s speech becomes very much like Iago’s. Instead of iambic pentameter, he uses a great deal of prose and suggests sadistic ways of killing his wife.
When Desdemona pleads for her life, he will not listen to her dying wish and is not in the least remorseful or guilty. He does not realize the full implications of his actions until Emilia accuses Iago of treachery and by then, it is far too late. Ironically, his character returns to its original state at the beginning of the novel just as he is about to die. He begs the gentlemen to “Speak of me as I am… Of one who loved not wisely, but too well / Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, / perplex’d in the extreme” (V.ii.398,400-402). He once again speaks eloquently and convincingly. He speaks the truth somewhat for there is not doubt that he was manipulated. However, he still must bear some of the consequences for his actions. He kills himself to escape the burden of shame that he must carry when he returns to Venice. In the end, he learns too late and succumbs to his flaws.
Iago is an extremely complex character and one of the most horrifying villains in literature. Iago is cruel but brilliant. Throughout the play, every character calls him honest but indeed, he is probably the most dishonest person in the story. However, it must be said that Iago is remarkable honest with himself. While people like Othello deny their own flaws, Iago realizes what they are and uses them to his advantage. Iago knows he is not a leader, “We cannot all be masters,” yet he is able to use that to help himself (I.i.46). “Others there are / Who trimm’d in forms and visages of duty, / Keep yet their hears attending on themselves, / And throwing but shows of service on their lords / Do well thrive by them, and when they have lined their coats / Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul, / And such a one do I profess myself” (I.i.52-58). He uses his servitude as a means to an end. While Othello has power, wealth, and prestige, Iago will maintain the façade of obedience in order to leech of Othello’s fortunate circumstances. When it is no longer advantageous to him to do so, he will move on.
The most frightening characteristic of Iago is that he has no discernible motive for what he does. Part of the reason is that he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant. However, he is given that post midway through the play and he continues to ensnare Othello in his plot to destruction. Another reason that Iago himself states is that he thinks Othello may have committed adultery with his wife, Emilia. There is no proof behind this theory. The main motive, it seems, is Iago’s pure evil and need for sadistic pleasure. He manipulates everyone around him, knowing full well how things will end. He has no compunction in planning the death of five innocent people and stabbing two of them with his own sword He lives for himself and personal advancement. He kills Emilia because she is in the way and because she learned too much and refused to hold her tongue.
Iago’s brilliance lies in his ability to twist his words. He proves that one who masters language can do anything and control anyone. The words he says, in and of themselves are perfectly innocuous. Taken in context and delivered in a certain tone of voice, they are infused with connotations and subtext. He allows other people to do the work for him. All he does is talk and convince others to do his bidding. He is responsible for almost all of the action in the play, but he only draws his sword twice. Both occurrences are towards the end, and by then, the situation is getting out of hand. He takes action only when he is desperate. Despite his brilliance, Iago does not pull off his feat and is sentenced to death.
Cassio is newly promoted to lieutenant at the beginning of the play. He is an excellent tactician but has little experience in the field. Iago resents him and plans to bring him down. Cassio truly loves and esteems Othello. The two men have been friends for a long time and Cassio acted as Othello’s go between when he courted Desdemona. When, the storm hits as the Venetian fleet sails for Cyprus, Cassio fears for Othello’s welfare. “Great Jove, Othello guard, / And swell his sail with thine own powerful breath, / That he may bless this bay with his tall ship, / Make love’s quick pants in Desdemona’s arms, / Give renew’d fire to our extincted spirits, / And bring all Cyprus comfort.” (II.i.90-95). This comment on Cassio’s part shows how important he thinks Othello is. He implies that Othello will make life better for everyone as the governor. His worry for the general’s safety, he automatically translates to worry on the part of all Cyprus. Their spirits are extinct because they are preoccupied by concern for Othello. Only when he arrives, will the people be able to live again. Cassio’s devotion to Othello is strong and unquestionable. Considering that Othello and Cassio should know each other very well, it is ironic that the upstart young man Iago is able to drive a wedge so deeply between these two old friends.
Cassio also holds reputation and honor in high esteem. However, in his case, it is not a flaw because he holds honesty above all. He will not sacrifice his integrity to maintain a good reputation. The night that Cassio gets drunk on the watch and is fired, Cassio takes full responsibility for his actions. He does not seek to lay the blame on others, even though Iago is partly responsible for his demise. He laments that his reputation is destroyed but says that, “I will rather sue to be despised, than to deceive so good a commander with so slight, so drunken, so indiscreet an officer.” (II.iii.224-225). His loyalty to Othello is absolute. He agrees with Othello’s decision because he feels that he is unworthy due to his indiscreet actions. Cassio is smooth, polished, elegant, handsome, and cultured. Many of these traits are direct opposites of the foreign Othello. Innately, Othello admires Cassio’s character, but that subconscious admiration translates to jealousy when Iago nudges him in that direction. Cassio is fairly static throughout the play. He is an honest and upstanding character.
Desdemona is the beautiful wife of Othello and daughter to the influential senator Brabantio. In the beginning of the novel, she shows her independent spirit and her willingness to take risks. She defies her father in marrying Othello and then is unafraid to speak for herself before the senate. She is in love with Othello and completely devoted to him. The circumstances of their love, however, are peculiar. Desdemona was enthralled by Othello’s stories of his childhood and his many adventures. She pitied him and thus their relationship began.
Desdemona is a sweet and kind girl who does her best to help her friends. She promises Cassio to, “talk him out of patience; His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift; / I’ll intermingle everything he does / With Cassio’s suit” (III.iii.27-30). Though in most cases, her persistence for a cause would be a virtue, she makes the situation unspeakable worse by nagging Othello about Cassio. This also gives the reader a hint of how deep the relationship that exists between Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona is. Othello, already tortured by Iago’s insinuations, will perceive Desdemona’s persistence not as a friend doing a favor but as a woman using connections to advance her lover.
Desdemona changes as the play progresses. She loses her confidence in the face of Othello’s strange behavior. However, she clings to the belief that Othello is a good man. When he starts to act in a jealous and suspicious way, she fools herself into believing that he is preoccupied with affairs of state. Once she was honest with herself and knew exactly what she wanted; now she is afraid of losing what she has. When faced with circumstances she does not understand, she becomes weak. She weeps because Othello is angry, and she does not know what she did to make him so. When Othello questions Desdemona about the handkerchief, she, frightened by the Othello’s story of its origins and the overt threat that he made, is unable to speak the truth. She instead changes the subject and accuses him of avoiding the issue with Cassio. That of course was not the best decision but Desdemona is unaware of that. In the end, this sagacious young woman is reduced to begging for her life.
Roderigo is a very weak and easily manipulated character. From the very first speech of the play, Roderigo says, “I take it much unkindly / That thou Iago, who has had my purse / As if the string were thine, shouldst know of this” (I.i.1-3). He allows Iago to control his money and from his tone of voice, it seems that he resents it. However, he does nothing to change the situation. He complains but never takes decisive action to make any changes. He is unable to accomplish anything substantial. Roderigo is in love with Desdemona. He has courted her for some time now, but his efforts have availed him of nothing. Othello manages to meet her in person and immediately elope and marry her with the greatest of ease. It is understandable that he resents Othello. However, Roderigo never has any intention to break the law and do dishonorable deeds. After he discovers that Othello and Desdemona truly love each other, he feels that, “it is silliness to live when to live is torment; I confess it is my shame to be so fond; but it is not in my virtue to amend it” (I.iii.328,333). He knows what he wants but has not the ability or the wit to get it. He would rather drown himself that make an effort, exert himself to make changes and take action.
Roderigo relies on Iago, who takes advantage of his situation. Roderigo is willing to provide money and turn a blind shoulder to Iago’s unlawful actions as long as Iago gets him what he wants. Roderigo, because of his weakness, provides the perfect opportunity for Iago to perpetrate his plot. There is only one moment in the play when Roderigo exhibits some independence. Some time has passed and Iago is not delivering results; Roderigo has not made any progress with Desdemona. Finally, he plucks up the courage to confront Iago about the fact that his money has been spent but no results have come from it. This momentary aberration from his normal personality is short-lived indeed. When Iago reassures him and compliments him for his mettle, he immediately falls back to the old pattern. Ironically, he is murdered by the man that he trusts, but he manages to denounce Iago in a letter found on his person after his death.
Emilia is the most straightforward and honest character in the play. She has no obligations to other people, no secret intrigues and alliances, and nothing to hide. She takes everything at face value and speaks her mind. She is a faithful wife to Iago because she believes him to be an honorable man. For example, when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief, she says, “I’m glad I have found this napkin: / I nothing but to please his fantasy” (III.iii.329,338). She is obedient but not meek. She, also, is remarkable farsighted and wise. She is uneducated and does not have eloquent speech, but she shows her worldliness and her understanding of the world around her. “Marry, I would not do such a thing for… any petty exhibition; but for the whole world, -- why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?” (IV.iii.68-69).
In many ways, she has an advantage over Desdemona. Desdemona has been sheltered and coddled for her entire life, and suddenly she is thrown into the world of trickery and deceit. She is very naïve and is unwilling to face the situation when Othello begins to act strangely. Emilia immediately recognizes Othello’s behavior for jealousy and counsels her mistress accordingly. She sees very clearly the roles of men and women and protests the injustice of the way men treat their wives. It is Emilia that first realizes the truth behind Iago. It was her only flaw, the assumption that her husband was honest and upstanding. She did not know her husband at all and assumed him to be who he was surface and delved no deeper. Emilia, throughout most of the play, is a bystander and an island of sanity in the midst of foolishness, stupidity, evil, and chaos. In the end, she finally comes forth with the truth and amazes them all with her tenacity and courage.