When looking at this question, we need to evaluate Othello’s character throughout the events of the play and consider the different settings and ordeals to which he is subjected. In the opinion of A C Bradley, Othello is ‘…not naturally jealous but trusting in Iago’ whereas F R Leavis considers ‘the tragedy’ to be ‘ …Othello’s character in action’. That Iago uses and manipulates the Moor during the play is obvious and Iago himself proclaims this ‘…in following him, I follow but myself.’ ACT I.1.59. One must consider whether the radical change displayed by Othello is a result of Iago’s manipulations and incitements. The natural trust in his ensign may have resulted in Othello’s downfall or it may be possible that Othello truly was hiding his savage nature.
By considering Othello a ‘Noble Moor’, he is then, a man with high ideals whose courage and selflessness are impressive to those around him. The reference to ‘Moor’ could be taken as a description of his origins (Moroccan) or a racial insinuation. For him to be labelled a ‘Dangerous Savage’, he would have to display primitive, violent and cruel actions. He would also have to be considered by others as a man who is ‘comparatively primitive in social and cultural development’. On close reading, it is arguable that Othello’s character displays the former, the latter or both of these traits, depending on one’s own personal view and the consideration of whether or not one finds Iago to be consequential to the outcome of the play.
Othello was written in about 1604 and deals with the issues of race, jealousy, hatred and murder through a compelling love story. To polite Elizabethan society, the acceptance of Moors was not always agreeable. It is quite likely that the race was misunderstood and even feared, attitudes which are reflected by some of the characters in the play. Othello, a Moor and the highly respected leader of the army, has fallen in love with a Venetian senator’s daughter, Desdemona. The two secretly marry, much to her father’s disapproval. When a war breaks in Cyprus, Othello is called away taking his new bride with him. It is there that the plot unfolds. Iago, Othello’s chief ensign, convinces the Moor that Desdemona has committed adultery with Cassio, his lieutenant, which ultimately leads to her demise and Othello’s own downfall. It is this deceit and Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’ * that shows us Othello’s degeneration from nobility to savagery.
At the beginning of the play, Othello is shown to be a noble man and highly respected leader. He is well regarded by the senate, shown by the fact that they wish him to command in Cyprus. Othello also shows his eloquence himself, through his use of courtly language. Indeed, throughout the play, Othello’s character makes use of that which is often termed ‘the Othello music’ suffice to say, he speaks with an articulate quality matched by no other;
‘Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors…’ ACT I.3.76
Only Othello is truly given this use of language and his eloquent speeches and richness of imagery help to lead the audience in beginning to regard him differently to the other characters of the play. At this point, Othello can justly be seen to be a ‘Noble Moor’. Othello’s leadership qualities, which have given rise to such an esteemed reputation, are also shown in Act I. Having only just married Desdemona, he shows no resistance in being posted abroad simply telling her ‘We must obey the time’ ACT I. 3.296. By this, Othello shows his ability to co-ordinate and assume priorities between his professional and personal lives.
Desdemona is truly in love with her husband and her willingness to elope and marry in secret shows her bravery and true commitment to Othello. She speaks highly of him from her first speech in the play;’…Due to the Moor my lord’ ACT I. 3. 187 until her last ‘Commend me to my kind lord. O farewell!’ ACT V. 2. 126 in which she defends Othello for murdering her. It is possible that Desdemona has been deceived by Othello’s courtly romancing, but surely, she could not be so naï¿½ve that she did not recognise concealment of a truly savage nature. It is arguable that of all the characters, Desdemona, his wife, should know Othello’s true temperament and feelings since these must be considered her reasons for becoming his bride.
There are characters in the play that speak to belittle Othello, but it must be considered that each of these has a reason for prejudice towards him. The main disparager is Iago, who declares to Roderigo in the first act; ‘…I hate the Moor’ ACT I. 3. 350. Iago gives the reasons for this hatred himself in his soliloquy at the end of Act I – he feels he should have been promoted to the position which Cassio has received and even suspects Othello of adultery with his wife, Emilia;
‘…it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/He’s done my office’ ACT I. 3. 369-70
That Iago obviously dislikes Othello and his crude use of speech; ‘…an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe’ ACT I. 1. 89-90 immediately leads the audience to be wary of him and therefore mistrust his opinions.
Brabantio is of the opinion that Othello has bewitched his daughter and has used magic to do so; ‘Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her,’ ACT I. 2. 63. His views are unquestionably prejudiced; Brabantio has lost a daughter without his consent and he clearly views Othello’s colour with intolerance. This intolerance is also expressed by Roderigo who labels Othello ‘thick-lips’ ACT I. 1. 66, which is an obvious racial slur. Although Roderigo is a rejected suitor of Desdemona and an ally of Iago and as such can be dismissed as a reliable source, his and Brabantio’s views of Othello’s race do give insight into the underlying racial prejudice in Venice at the time. This underlying tension will inevitably serve to increase Othello’s feelings of insecurity about himself as a worthy husband for Desdemona.
Up until the end of Act 3 scene two, Othello has displayed no real characteristics of that which we could term savage. Even his dismissal of Cassio in Act 2 scene three, a difficult and emotional task, was handled calmly and eloquently;
‘My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
And passion having my best judgement collied
Assays to lead the way.’ ACT II. 3.186-8
It is not until Iago begins his insinuations of Desdemona’s betrayal, that a change is seen in Othello’s character. This change becomes apparent through Othello’s alteration in language use and actions from Act three scene three onwards. Although he retains the poetical devices used earlier in the play, Othello’s imagery now becomes darker and obsessive about the imagined affair;
‘…I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses.’ ACT III. 3. 272-4
Othello now changes from a man whose calm and composed manners have won him great acclaim, to that of a jealous, obsessive one who is so hurt by his wife’s adultery that his only solution is to murder her. This gives rise to the violence and brutality expected of someone termed a savage.
Othello’s change in personality seems to occur within one scene of the play – Act Three scene three. This is the point where Iago suggests Desdemona’s adultery by insinuation and subliminal suggestion;
‘O beware, my lord, of jealousy:
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on…’ ACT III. 3.167-9
This swift change in Othello’s nature could be viewed to be that of a naturally very suspicious and jealous man, his quick belief in Iago’s suggestions is absolute before he even talks to Desdemona. However, Othello’s willingness to believe Iago is supported by the fact that everybody in the play believes him to be honest so much so that it is often referred to;
‘I know, Iago,/ Thy honesty and love does mince this matter..’ ACT II. 3. 227-8
It can be argued that Iago did suspect in part that Cassio and Desdemona were capable of adultery;
‘That Cassio loves her, I do well believe’t;
That she loves him, ’tis apt and of great credit.’ ACT II. 1.267-8
Due to his own experience of being made to feel a cuckold by Emilia’s supposed adultery, he may feel deep in his confused heart that by warning Othello, he is indeed acting in his master’s best interests. This view is unlikely given that Iago is shown to be truly evil by his refusal to speak in Act five. However, the view of Leavis does in part support this in that he deems Othello ‘far too quick to respond’ to Iago’s machinations and points to the fact that it is Othello’s weaknesses rather that Iago’s strengths which lead to disaster.
Othello and Desdemona have been married for a very short period that fact and considering Othello is more used to the ways of his soldiers than that of courtly Venetian women, shows how his relationship with his wife can be seen as inherently weak. Othello begins to regard himself as an unworthy husband to Desdemona. As shown in many theatre productions, we are led to understand that he is her senior by many years and Othello’s own insecurities regarding his race and other suitors, which she had the opportunity to marry become apparent;
‘…haply for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have…’ ACT III. 3.265-267
By the penultimate act of the play, Othello’s use of courtly speech and verse virtually disappears and begins instead to reflect that of Iago; ‘You are most welcome, sir, to Cyprus. Goats and Monkeys!’ ACT IV. 1 254 . Othello’s inner turmoil is now continually on his mind and begins to interfere with his duties regarding the visiting Venetians – a situation that the previously calm Othello would never have permitted. His obsession is so consuming that he even strikes Desdemona in the company of Lodovico. That the Venetians’ surprise at this event is so great, does testify that this side of Othello is previously unknown, if it ever existed before;
‘…this would not be believed in Venice,/Though I should swear I saw’t’ ACT IV. 1. 232-3 but his actions can now be termed brutal and violent so indeed he does seem to have become a ‘Dangerous Savage’.
Once Iago is apprehended and removed from the focus of the play, it as if his spell (or perhaps curse) is broken. Othello reverts to his former eloquence and redeems himself in his final speech by accounting himself as a man who ‘loved not wisely but too well’ ACT V.2. 340 this shows how Iago manipulated Othello’s own self-confessed weaknesses. Othello’s final speech can however, be viewed with in less forgiving light as in that of Leavis, there seems to be ‘no learning through suffering’. Othello does not express regret at killing his wife but he does in fact forgive himself and justify his actions. Rather than admitting to his mistakes and learning from them, Othello considers himself the victim and for a man who wishes to be seen as courageous, is permitted the ideal suicide;
‘Set you down this…And smote him thus.’ ACT V. 2 347-52
I personally feel that Othello is not entirely ‘primitive in social and cultural development’ but a man whose exchange for a life of brave leadership in warfare to that of inexperience in courtly love, led to the realisation of his own weaknesses. His inability to deal with a situation in which he did not command absolute control gave sway to his inherent feelings of insecurity resulting in actions the like of which he could not have foreseen. His eloquence and calm commands show his natural nobility. However, his violent fits of rage convey the inner savage that his insecurities have created but do not reflect his character in its entirety. There is no question that some savage qualities exist, however they only become apparent because of the astonishing nature of Iago’s manipulations and his ultimate desire for Othello’s destruction.