Shakespeare’s Othello has had a lasting impact on audiences because many devices combine to reveal a hero who commits a terrible crime against innocence, thus demonstrating how even the greatest of soldiers are simply fragile humans. Character is the single most important element of the play. When Othello confesses in his legendary speech that he has “loved not wisely, but too well” he is revealing that despite all which has transpired, he still seeks to somehow justify his actions (Meyer, Othello 5, 2,345). Marriage was probably a doubtful prospect for him because of his career and race.
It was highly unlikely that Othello would marry at all, let alone marry someone of Desdemona’s standing and rectitude. Foreshadow is used throughout the play; the audience is aware that Othello and Desdemona are not well-suited; this is obvious to almost everyone in the cast. The play takes great pains to introduce not only Othello’s character flaws but also the poor judgment of other leaders, namely Brabantio. Brabantio is so irrational that he throws out accusations of magic and magical spells. Brabantio calls Othello a robber and believes Desdemona, whose character is constant and kind, eloped with the Moor because she was “in chains of magic” (1, 2, and 65).
The plot becomes complicated by forces and people who stand in opposition to the marriage of Desdemona and Othello. Forces that work against them include the fact that they have nothing in common. He is black and she white, he was born a slave and she was born to royalty and Othello is older than Desdemona. All of these things combine to create a tragic scenario in which a naive young woman dies at the hands of a serious, military man who should have known better.
In Othello, the action is between Iago and Othello, and it is characterized by tormented conversations, hints, and schemes. Othello’s fatal flaw as a hero is what makes him fair game for Iago’s intrigues. He despite all his victories and having won Desdemona’s hand, is still jealous and insecure of his place in the world. Instead of keeping a level head as he does when he is in battle, he falls to pieces. Even after he strikes her, Desdemona views Othello as a hero (Berger 128). Her naivete and Othello’s raging insecurities are what combine to allow Iago to send everyone spiraling into death and tragedy.
Part of the power of Othello lies in how the author crafted various literary devices to inspire sympathy for a man who is deceived by someone with nothing but evil intent. The dramatic irony of the play is achieved by keeping the audience in the know about Iago’s plots and deceptions. While the full significance of his actions and intentions are obvious to the audience, Othello remains blind to the entire conspiracy. Othello is a hero, but the audience wonders what kind of hero cannot discern that Iago’s machinations are leading him toward tragedy. Othello is as tragic as Desdemona as he fails to thwart the real enemy, and instead punishes an innocent. Greek plays from antiquity onward have employed the device of the flawed hero whose conduct and behavior reveal lapses in judgment so extreme as to be fatal, and Shakespeare uses this device with great skill (Pechter, 228).
The tone of the play is laced with malice as Iago continues to address the audience. As Othello continues to believe Iago’s expressions of false devotion the audience’s anxiety levels rise. Iago taunts the audience with cruel references to all women as whores as well as his delight in the havoc he is causing to the play’s principals. The audience’s unease about Iago is exacerbated because his motivation for hurting Othello and others are so base. Petty jealousy over Othello’s promotion of Cassio and an unfounded suspicion that Othello had sex with Iago’s wife, “It is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He has done my office” (Raatzsch, 12) drive Iago’s motivations. Additionally, it is obvious that Iago lusts after Desdemona, stating as much in Act II to Roderigo, claiming he won’t be satisfied “Till I am evened with him, wife for wife” (2,1,284). Iago has no scruples about manipulating innocent people, particularly Desdemona and Cassio, in order to complete his unjustified revenge.
By setting the play in the prosperous Italian city of Venice, Shakespeare provides a backdrop of prosperity and culture. Because Othello is a Moor, he is automatically suspect. However, he is a leader and a hero, so the fact that he is black is over-looked by some but not by others. Othello’s role as outsider is emphasized by his actions which show him skulking about the perimeter of events. Othello is self-conscious and defensive about his status as a foreigner. He apologizes for his manners and dialect; “Rude am I in my speech, / and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (Adamson 117). However, given that Othello is one of the cast members who lines were written in blank verse the audience knows that he is neither rude nor crude of speech. He is in fact eloquent.
Othello’s feelings of isolation, self-doubt, and worry eventually consume him because he cannot overcome the racism of his detractors. When the setting moves to Cyprus, instead of trying to connect with Desdemona, Othello leaves her alone. On Cypress Desdemona is separated from anyone who could help and casts about for a way to save her marriage and herself. On this island away from the more civilized culture of Venice, Iago is finally able to turn Othello against Desdemona completely. The result is a tragedy of monumental proportions.