On a recent episode of House, a popular television show, a competitive bicyclist was admitted to the hospital after having a close encounter with death. The doctors completed examination after examination until they concluded that the patient?s illness was the result of his use of illegal paraphernalia. At this point, the doctors had to make a moral decision as to whether or not to report their patient on the basis of his cheating. On one hand, the patient was worshiped by children and his reputation would be ruined if he were to be turned in. Dr. Allison Cameron believed that the patient deserved to be turned in and that the children who worshiped him deserved to know the truth about the patient. She said that the patient ?isn?t who he says he is.? However, Dr. James Wilson questioned, ?Who cares who he says he is?? In today?s society, just as there was in the House episode, there is a disconnect between appearance and reality. A person?s appearance, how an individual is described from what can be seen on the outside, may be far from reality, or what is on the inside. The theme of appearance versus reality, however, is far from being something that has just appeared in recent years. In fact, this theme is present in many of William Shakespeare?s works, specifically Othello, which date back to the late 1500?s and the early 1600?s.
The first instance in which the theme of appearance versus reality appears is with Othello. Othello appears to be loved and respected by his peers. And even though most of his peers describe him as the ?valiant Moor?, ?valiant Othello? or the ?brave Moor?, some characters do not truly see Othello as described (Shakespeare I,iii,47-48; I,iii,288). For instance, Iago?s statement of ?I hate the Moor? clearly demonstrates how some characters show abhorrence toward Othello (Shakespeare I,iii,350). Also, during the initial acts of the play, Othello is portrayed as a strong and confident character. However, all of the allegations that Iago makes about Desdemona being unfaithful to Othello quickly breaks Othello down and he becomes easily ?driven to jealousy? (McCulloch 77). Othello is also socially insecure, which may be attributed to him being a black man in a white man?s world. Not to mention, he is a black man in a high ranking position that requires him to give orders to white men. Additionally, Othello appears to be one who is calm and has self control, even under the most difficult of circumstances. But, Othello turns to rage and revenge in the final acts of the play. In fact, Othello, who had never struck Desdemona before, strikes her during one of their conversations and, on many other occasions, raises his voice at Desdemona. These actions, which are far from the actions of a calm and collected man, surprises other characters, including Lodovicio who makes the following comment:
Is this the noble Moor, whom our fill senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake, whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce? (Shakespeare IV,i,249-253)
Othello is not the character that others thought he was.
Another instance in which the theme of appearance versus reality appears is within Othello and Desdemona?s relationship. According to Cahn, the love between Othello and Desdemona, the foundation of the story, is itself based on illusion (17). When Othello is describing to Brabantio how Desdemona fell in love with Othello, he makes the following comment:
My story being done,
She gave my story for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ?twas strange, ?twas passing strange,
?Twas pitiful, ?twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That Heaven made her such a man. (Shakespeare I,iii,157-162)
Desdemona, being wooed by the ?hero at the core of this story? and the story of his life, is not in love with, but is infatuated with Othello (Cahn 17). ?She does not know Othello as a man, but only as a fantasy figure? (Cahn 17). In essence, Desdemona is in love with the heroic actions and noble deeds of Othello rather than his inner being, his character, and his personality. Similarly, Othello is not in love with Desdemona as a person, but is in love with Desdemona because of an attitude that Desdemona has shown toward Othello and the respect that she gives him. Othello says that ?She loved me for the dangers I had passed,/And I loved her that she did pity them? (Shakespeare I,iii,166-167). He ?is in love with Desdemona because she has shown him such passion? (Cahn 17).
Although Othello as a character and the relationship he had with Desdemona are both good examples of how the theme of appearance versus reality appears in Othello, the prime example of this theme is Iago. All characters in Othello believe that Iago is a sincere, honest and trustworthy character. Othello, when talking about Iago, says, ?A man he is of honesty and trust? and again Othello says, ?I know, Iago, thy honesty and love? (Shakespeare I,iii,281; II,iii,225). Cassio refers to Iago as ?honest Iago? and, when speaking of Iago, states, ?I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest? (Shakespeare II,iii,300; III,i,38). Even Desdemona says ?O, that?s an honest fellow? when referring to Iago (Shakespeare III,iii,5). Roderigo is under the impression that Iago simply wants to help him in his pursuit of Desdemona and, therefore, entrusts his money in the hands of Iago. Perhaps these characters hold these views of Iago because that is how he projects himself. Or perhaps these characters hold these views of Iago because of his good reputation. ?How can anyone set up a reputation of honesty except by being consistently honest over a long period of time?? (McCulloch 78) They have no reason to distrust a man that declares that ?I am an honest man? (Shakespeare II,iii,244).
However, this fa?ade of honesty, trustworthiness and sincerity masks Iago?s evil intentions and his manipulative and deceitful ways (Appearance). In one of his soliloquies Iago proclaims that ?I am not who I am? and on another occasion asks, ?What?s he then that says I play the villain?? (Shakespeare I,i,65; II,ii,301) Iago believes in cheating and lying for gain and is concerned only about himself (McCulloch 78). The one who others thought was trustworthy mocks those, specifically Othello, who are willing to trust anybody that appears trustworthy, which is demonstrated by the following comment:
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are. (Shakespeare I,iii,379-383)
Additionally, Iago openly tells the audience that he will create a plan that will cause Desdemona to ?make the net that will enmesh them all? (Shakespeare II,iii,326). He even tells Roderigo that he ?hates the Moor? (Shakespeare I,iii,366). Instead of using Roderigo?s money in order to assist him in his pursuit of Desdemona as Iago told him he would, Iago hoards Roderigo?s money. Othello is tricked into believing that Desdemona is having an affair without having any concrete evidence. Even still, Iago runs Cassio out of his position by claiming that Cassio was involved with Desdemona and is the mastermind behind the plot of Roderigo stabbing Cassio. These are not things that a sincere, honest, and trustworthy man would say or do. And it is because of this, that when Iago?s peers find out the truth of his plot and thus his character, his peers no longer associate Iago with ?honest? and ?kind?, but with a ?Spartan dog?, an ?inhuman dog!? and even a ?viper? (Shakespeare V,ii,360;V,I,62; V,ii,284).
Niccolo Machiavelli once said that ?For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearance, as though they were realities and are more often influenced by things that seem than by those that are? This quote sums up the recurring theme that can be found throughout Shakespeare?s play Othello- appearance versus reality. The theme can be found with Othello the character, within Othello and Desdemona?s relationship, and with Iago. The disconnect between appearance and reality causes a discrepancy between what seems to be and what actually is. It is appearances that often disguise reality and just as Aesop once said, ?Appearances are often deceiving.?
“Appearance and Reality in Othello.” Term Papers Lab. 30 Dec 2008
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McCulloch, Helen, and Gary K. Carey. Cliff Notes Shakespeare’s Othello. Foster City, CA: IDG
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