Othello, the hero

The central protagonist?

Othello is supposedly the hero of the play:
  • The drama is centred around him
  • He has a position of power and is respected as having attained it by merit
  • Shakespeare presents him as having deep passions expressed in memorable poetry
  • The Venetian state relies upon him for his courage and intelligence
  • Good people (Desdemona, Cassio) are drawn to him.
Yet Othello speaks fewer lines than Iago, and in many ways he is his ensign’s fool. He believes every lie or insinuation that Iago tells him and during the course of only one scene (Act 3 Scene 3) he changes from a man head-over-heels in love with his wife to a man driven to madness by the certain conviction that his wife is committing adultery on a regular basis. 

Background and status

Othello is a well-liked and successful soldier but is naïve in the ways of the world, which is why he falls easy prey to Iago’s tricks and deceit. Although he has made his way successfully up the ranks, his colour and origins immediately delineate him as an outsider. The fact that he has been away from civilian and domestic life since childhood also means that he is not familiar with the nuances of how a sophisticated society functions, or the expectations of social and sexual relationships. As a man who operates in a world of rigid structure and certainty (an order is given, either victory or defeat is declared), he hates ambiguity and uncertainty, an unease which Iago is skilful at exploiting. 

A passionate man

Othello begins as a rock-like, professional soldier, who has learnt to contain the chaotic currents of warfare and skirmish. Unexpectedly, love comes his way, in the shape of the governor’s daughter, Desdemona, love he hardly dares to believe he deserves. His new wife wakes up passions that have previously only found an outlet in action and violence (Othello’s learnt ‘comfort zone’). Having achieved military success, he wants that success in love, ardently trying to combine civic responsibilities with his duty to – and need for – Desdemona. That he should invite her to join him on operational duty indicates the overwhelming strength of his new feelings.
The strength of Othello’s certainty is transformed by Iago into an all-consuming passion of destructive jealousy. Othello sees that Cassio is all that he is not and so it is not hard for the general to believe that Desdemona would naturally be attracted to his lieutenant. The desire for action re-surfaces and he chooses violence to resolve his torment, determined to end Cassio’s life to gain revenge, and re-establish ‘justice’ and order through Desdemona’s death. 

Nobility overthrown

In the end Othello becomes a pathetic figure, misguided, misled and unable to think or act rationally. His seizure and loss of coherent discourse place him back in the ranks of the ‘uncivilised’. His valour is diminished to the point at which he can be disarmed before he realises. Lodovico comments on his transition: ‘Othello! that wert once so good / Fall’n ..’
The only way he can escape the consequences of his failures and gain some measure of self-control once more, is to kill himself. His story is truly a tragedy, a hero ruthlessly transformed into a puny travesty of the attractive character he once was.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.