An Insidious Web of Deceit:

An Analysis of "Othello"

An insidious web of deceit...that is the essentiality of an well-wrought act of treachery, is it not? The traitor must be clever, careful, planting his seeds of discord in innocuous guises of honesty and good will, until his victim is hopelessly ensnared in his lies. That game, that conflict between traitor and betrayed, is the essence, the central theme of William Shakespeare's Othello: not race, not 'elements of wonder and spectacle,' not 'linguistic subversion' [2], but betrayal. The entirety of the play explored the many layers of the treacheries of Othello and Iago, from vague insinuations of their dark origins to their bloody ends.

On a rudimentary level, the plot is actually rather simple. The ensign Iago, through his adroit manipulation of the action of the play's other characters, destroys the Moorish general Othello, driving him mad by convincing him that his wife is unfaithful and eventually pushing him to kill her. The villain's purported motivation is jealousy: the green soldier Michael Cassio was promoted by the general to the position of lieutenant in lieu of a more experienced candidate, Iago himself. He therefore resents both Cassio and Othello, and believes that bringing about their destruction is apt retribution.

There exist many factors that made his ultimate perfidy so successful, the most puissant being Othello's noble nature and Iago's skill in deception. This aspect of the Moor's character has been observed and analyzed by many a critic. Almost, however, agree to some extent that he 'lacks the full capacity for self-knowledge and moral wisdom necessary to avert tragedy' [2].In other words, he is unable to contemplate any sort of 'subtlety of mind' [1], because he possesses none himself. He is straightforward, honest, and blunt...and he expects the same of others. The idea that someone could be so false as to emulate those qualities, when in reality they serve some selfish, arcane end, is inconceivable to him...and Iago knows this. He has painted a picture of himself as a good, moral man, a trusted adviser and friend...'honest Iago,' as he is so often called. He mounts the entirety of his deception on the assumption that Othello will take everything he says at face value, that no one will read deeply enough into his advice to suspect him of any deleterious subterfuge. Even the gull Roderigo, who is the only character to truly know of Iago's hatred for Othello, and is his biggest pawn, does not think to reveal the nature of his master's plot.

His master...now that is a topic worth breaching. The literary critic K.M. Newton offers an arresting interpretation of the play and its treacherous conflict, one that deals explicitly with the contrasting dynamic of master and slave. Newton suggests Othello to be the master, and Iago to be the slave; thus, his motivation for the Moor's destruction is 'the slave's resentment of the master's superiority' [1].This view most definitely has its merits; after all, Othello's command over others is obvious in his status as general, and Iago, already angered at the usurping of what he thinks ought to be his position as lieutenant, does not need much provocation to give Othello a taste of his own medicine, as it were. The idea of master and slave is again apparent in the interactions between Iago and Roderigo, who is, as was previously stated, Iago's biggest pawn. He is so impassioned, so essentially moonstruck in his love for Othello's wife Desdemona, that he is willing to do anything to have her...a small price to pay for doing the bidding of a heinous villain.

Desdemona is, for lack of a better word, the prize. She is- unwittingly, of course- the greatest weapon in this bitter tragedy. She is loved by all, and as a consequence she causes them all to fall...and finally falls victim to her own oblivious betrayal, dying at the hands of the one to whom she gave her heart. It is prudent to mention that many critics take into consideration the duality of Desdemona's character: she is innocent and jejune, but possesses an uncanny strength of will and wit that allows her to both charm and defy the men in her life. It is therefore not surprising that she is loved in many ways, for different facets of her being. Othello's love for her is spiritual: he does not hunger for her flesh, but instead wishes to broaden her mind, and expresses total happiness in their nearly celibate love [1].In contrast, Iago lusts for her, and is not particularly concerned with masking that lust. Roderigo longs for her as a starving man yearns for food; he is Tantalus, forever trying to grasp what lies just out of reach, driven to desperation to get it. Her father Brabantio loves her as that: a father, protective and unwilling to let her go. Cassio holds no romantic notions at all, merely loving her as a friend that will pledge her life (quite literally) to help him.

Even so...it is Cassio that catalyzes Desdemona's aforementioned 'oblivious betrayal.' It is pellucid that the union of Othello and Desdemona is viewed askance; Othello, after all, is foreign, brutish, much older than she. He knows nothing but war, and possesses no physical charms with which to woo the girl. He is aware of this; that is not what he seeks in this relationship. Still, there is, as Iago so helpfully points out, a definite danger of Desdemona's impatience with those unfortunate deficits. She may, as he suggests, yearn for company 'like in years:' someone young, gentle, and handsome to take her pleasure with...someone like Cassio.

And therein lies Iago's opportunity. He plays astutely on Othello's unconscious fears of his wife's infidelity, causing him to view the familiar interactions between them with growing suspicion. Othello begins to believe that Desdemona's valiant efforts to get Cassio back in his good graces (after a street fight orchestrated by Iago led to his demotion) are signs of her love for him, that she is disguising as innocent concern. When Iago later plants Desdemona's handkerchief- Othello's first gift to her- in Cassio's home, and offers it as proof of their affair, the Moor is driven to jealous rage, calling perfervidly for the deaths of the 'lovers.' He charges his 'honest ensign' with killing the lieutenant, and swears to kill his adulterous wife himself.

A tangled web indeed. But who is really at fault? Who can take the blame for the madness, the paralyzing suspicion and fear? Who can take the blame for all the death wrought by this intricate plot? Is it Othello, the hapless victim? Or is it Iago, the malevolent puppeteer? Can the pawns, perhaps, be considered culpable, despite the manipulation they were subjected to? Are they all at fault...or none?

To answer this question, one must look beyond the evidence Shakespeare provides, and delve deep into those aforementioned origins of such a violent intrigue. Many make jealousy the focus of this scrutiny. Indeed, it proves to be a powerful impetus for the progression (or rather, regression) of the play's emotions and events: Iago, and later Othello, are jealous of Cassio, Roderigo is jealous of Othello, and so on. Some, like Newton, focus on resentment, and the need to prove one's superiority by bending that of another into insubstantiality. Still others focus on desire: for revenge, for power, for love. These factors, however, cannot be viewed in isolation; they all contribute to the tragedy of the play.

Newton offers another insightful perspective in saying that the intrinsic qualities of the two central characters are what drive their destruction: that Othello's nobility led him to kill Desdemona, and Iago's cleverness brought him down with everyone else. He points out that Othello thought he was, in killing his wife, preventing her betrayal of other men: an honorable act, in his eyes...and one of complete atrocity to any sane observer [1]. His noble nature ends up destroying him, and he expresses his profound remorse by killing himself over Desdemona's corpse. Similarly, Iago's calculating wit and silver tongue fail him in the end as his treachery is revealed, abandoning him to an existence of torment at Cassio's hands. The tragedy, Newton surmises, lies in his complete isolation; apparently, he takes no pleasure from Othello's destruction, which was the inevitable product of the utter lack of reconciliation and human mastery in both: Othello can never become more self-consciously clever, Iago can never be noble [1].

As well-founded as this theory is, however, it is immanently fragmentary. It fails entirely to explain the extremes of emotion exposed in the play: love and hate. This assumption is made in spite of the fact that it was this particular critic that explored the significance of Othello's and Iago's shared love for Desdemona. Might it not stand to reason that this shared love created a root of the intense hatred it couples? After all, both men wanted her...and when men compete for a woman, one will beat the other to the punch, essentially, and the 'loser' will feel slighted...resentful, in accordance with Newton's observation. This sentiment could be said to be corroborated by the differing forms of their love. To reiterate, Othello wanted her out of true love, Iago out of lust. Perhaps he recognizes his inability to possess such affection and devotion, and resents Othello that he can.

On the other hand...one could argue that he does possess that sort of devotion. They say that hate cannot exist without love...who can say that that statement is not true? Furthermore, who can truly prove that the ensign's constant declarations of his love for Othello (despite his vocalizations of the contrary) are incontestably false? No one can. The beauty of the character lies in the audience's inability to take him at his word. Iago might mean exactly what he says, or the opposite. He could profess his hatred in confidentiality, claim his love in public, and hide the truth of that love's existence in others' ignorance. No one would know.

It is, therefore, entirely possible that Iago loved Othello, and some betrayal of that love caused a desperate resentment that was so strong, it moved him to...drastic vengeance. Most noteworthy is the promotion of Cassio. To be essentially passed over, overlooked in favor of one with considerably less experience, would be a crushing blow to any man. To Iago, who may have interpreted that slight as scorn, betrayal...would that not incite some bitter gall? Similarly, the rumored affair between Othello and Emilia- Iago's wife- would warrant considerable animosity, be it true or not. Consider it. If this interpretation is to be believed, Othello is held in Iago's highest regard, and he serves him to the utmost out of respect and affection; Orestes and Pylades, in a sense. Emilia has, through her own volition or otherwise, bound herself to Iago in turn. That they would go behind his back and dally with each other might be considered the ultimate violation of his devotion and trust.

Ergo, Iago's own feelings of resentment and betrayal are what push him to act. In his twisted way, he views inflicting similar pain on Othello, betraying him in the same dastardly way, is a rational method of retribution: an eye for an eye, essentially...and in a way, such a conclusion might support Newton's claim that he takes no pleasure from his destruction of Othello. He is not seeking that sort of gratification; rather, he is determined to make Othello suffer, and more importantly, empathize...know. Following this train of thought, such actions might unearth his own immured anguish, and, being the rational creature that he is, he would therefore attempt to distance himself from the passionate emotions, unwilling to be manipulated by them.

Are these deductions valid? Perhaps not; to be sure, many critics would disagree most heartily with the rather aberrant depth of the ruminations. However, the fact remains that Othello is a tragedy laced with betrayal on many levels, instigated with many warring motives. The machinations of desire, jealousy, suspicion, love, hatred, resentment, trust, deception, reason, and madness arose, enthralled, and foundered, creating characters both intriguing and painfully fallible...characters that, despite their complexity of purpose, were naught but puppets in the end, manipulated by these potent forces and drawn to their untimely demises.