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THE CHARACTERS

OTHELLO

Shakespeare's tragic hero is a strong, powerful, dignified Moor. He has come to Venice as a soldier-of-fortune, hired by the state to help Venice win their war against the Turks. He spends nine months in Venice, where his leadership and kindness have made him a popular general. Although born a pagan (a non-Christian) he has converted to Christianity.

While in Venice, he spends many evenings in the home of Brabantio, a Venetian Senator. He entertains Brabantio and his guests with stories of his travels around the world. He tells marvelous and exotic tales of strange people with fantastic customs and unusual appearances.

His stories attract the attention of Brabantio's beautiful daughter, Desdemona, who listens to his words with such eagerness and sympathy that he falls in love with her. She returns his love, and they elope, knowing that Brabantio would disapprove of his daughter marrying an older man of another race, class, and country.

To hear Othello's story up until the elopement with Desdemona is almost to hear a fairy tale-the story of a handsome warrior sweeping a beautiful young princess off her feet, away from the clutches of her possessive father, and on to happiness. One reader has said that it's almost as if Othello has appeared from wonderland; his stories of his past are that rich and magical. Shakespeare, however, has made Othello a human being, not a character from a fairy tale.

Unlike other Shakespearean tragic heroes, Othello is not a prince or a king, although he is descended from "men of royal siege" (rank). In Venice he is seen as a professional soldier, a fine and courageous one, but still a hired general. By placing him closer to the common man, Shakespeare makes Othello easier to identify with, more sympathetic. His story could be our story, and his faults our faults.

Othello's good qualities easily outweigh the bad. We know he's powerful, brave, and authoritative; the respect given to him by the Venetian Senate tells us that. He's also gentle and romantic. The story he tells of courting Desdemona is rich and poetic, and his early scenes with his wife show him full of love and devotion. Cassio's loyalty to him shows that Othello is well-liked by his soldiers. When Cassio feels he has lost Othello's respect, he is broken-hearted.


There are also qualities about Othello that have a good side and a bad side. One of these is his open and trusting nature. Othello believes that others are honest and sincere until he has proof that they're not. This open-hearted love of his fellow man makes Othello an attractive and generous friend. But it also leaves him susceptible to Iago's scheming; Iago knows his plan will work because Othello trusts him and has no reason to suspect that his loyal ensign would scheme against him.

Othello is also naive, particularly about women. He says:

For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith Tiff now some nine moons wasted, they have used Their dearest action in the tented field; Act I, Scene iii, lines 83-86

Having spent most of his life in army camps, Othello knows little of women and love. This naivete has charm in the first act, where the strong and powerful general admits to being a shy and cautious lover. In the third act, however, Othello's inexperience allows Iago to convince him that he doesn't understand Venetian women, that they are known for cheating on their husbands.

As a professional soldier, Othello has gained a strong reputation. The discipline he has learned has earned him the respect of the Venetians, who badly need his help. When he fires Cassio, it's to make an example of him to the rest of the soldiers. And he refuses to reinstate him as a matter of principle. Sadly, it is this strict code of honor-both military and private-that forces Othello to kill Desdemona. When a man's honor is lost, according to this code, he must win it back. For Othello, this means Desdemona's death, which he sees as an act of justice, not of revenge. As painful as it is for him, he doesn't see that he has a choice. He is a soldier, trained to live by the rules.

The last of these "double-edged" virtues is Othello's powerful poetic imagination. The stories he weaves for Desdemona are rich and impressive. As Othello retells the story of his courtship in the Senate office, the Duke is so struck that he understands how his daughter was won by such stories. Othello can weave magic with his tales and transform the truth into poetry. Yet this rich imagination has a handicap: it makes Othello vulnerable to Iago's stories of Desdemona's infidelities. Othello's imagination runs wild with Iago's invented details and "proofs."

The most common view of Othello's "tragic flaw" is that he's a jealous person who allows jealousy to prevail over good sense. But is jealousy Othello's problem? Or is he, as he says, a man who is not easily made jealous? Is this the tragedy of a man not jealous by nature, who is made jealous by the cruel manipulations of Iago? Read Act III, Scene iii carefully, and judge for yourself whether Othello is by nature jealous.

Othello is also a passionate man, and this makes him exciting. But he admits that he has a fiery temper (Act II, Scene iii, lines 207-212). Iago capitalizes on Othello's excitability. Once Iago has convinced the Moor that Desdemona's having an affair with Cassio, Othello moves to his deadly revenge quickly and single-mindedly.

Always remember that Othello is a stranger. Despite his strength and pride, he is never completely at home, and is constantly aware that others consider him a foreigner.

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