Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Psychology of A Soldier - Culpability in Othello

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Culpability in Othello

In the tragedy of Othello, the actions that lead to the conclusion are a series of triggered events are all masterminded by Iago. Too quickly, however, do people lay blame on Iago, and assume complete innocence on the part of Othello himself. However, through careful analysis of the text and psychologies of the characters we can see that Othello was not without guilt in his own downfall.

To understand the characters in their positions, you must understand not only their personalities, but their motivations as well. Iago is a model for the ultimate villain because he operates on a self-styled level of morality, such that he never doubts his actions, however diabolical the actions seem to the audience. The rational person is capable of this emulation, for rationality is the ability to reason out a new and yet coherent order a new order of values and beliefs that constitute his own system of morals. However, the question lies in what creates a villain like Iago; what turned Iago into a creature so bent on the destruction of Othello. When Othello promoted Cassio instead of Iago, Othello inadvertently destroyed his pride and ambitions by passing over Iago so easily, especially for a soldier like Cassio, whom Iago feels is inferior to him. Iago is a person known as a “Machiavel”; someone who, adhering all too literally to the teachings of the political philosopher Machiavelli, lets nothing stand in his way in his quest for power. Iago’s talent for understanding and manipulating the desires of those around him makes him both a powerful and a compelling figure. Iago is able to take the handkerchief from Emilia and know that he can deflect her questions; he is able to tell Othello of the handkerchief and know that Othello will not doubt him; he is able to tell the audience, And whats he then that says I play the villain, and know that it will laugh as though he were a clown. Though the most inveterate liar, Iago inspires all of the plays characters the trait that is most lethal to Othello trust.

Othello is not without his flaws. Being a black man in a predominantly white environment, he is invariably filled with a pressure to do better than anyone else is, and to have all that he desires. By achieving all he sets out to do, he feels like he can gain acceptance in the eyes of not only Desdemona’s father, but also all of the soldiers he commands. To protect himself, he erects a barrier of pride, and positions around those things that he feels grants him acceptance; Desdemona and his rank are two such examples. Herein lies why Othello loves Desdemona so blindly not merely for her virtues and beauty, but as a symbol of his accomplishments and a sign to the Venetians of his status. However, as Iago threatens Othello’s symbols of status and pride, his barriers are broken, and, as they fall, he must assume a defensive position to save that pride above all else, at the sacrifice of the very symbols themselves. When he is merely told of Desdemona’s infidelity, he immediately suspects it of being true, despite his “blind love”. Here we can see that if he truly loved her as a woman, and a person, as people should love their spouses, then he would not immediately turn his back on her when his pride surrounding her was in jeopardy. This is the mentality of a general. In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the most basic lesson in siege warfare is a tactical retreat; a fortress will have many walls, surrounding fortresses. As the enemy overtakes an exterior wall or fortress, you fall back to the next wall, and so on until you stand in the last bastion, where you fight like a cornered animal. That berserk methodology is how Othello becomes so jealous, and quickly abandons Desdemona; he sees her as “overtaken”, and must back into his last bastion of rank, and viciously defend it, because now the his Id Fortress of Desdemona is inhabited by the enemy, and cannot be trusted.

Granted, one could argue that Desdemona had a share of guilt, as her denial of her father’s wishes, and the marriage of Othello created a great deal of social pressure which may have had peripheral effects on Othello’s psyche, but it’s clear that she loved Othello, and never meant him any harm. She was honestly defending Cassio, as he had never done her any wrong, and was, in general, a kind, virtuous woman.

Holding close in mind the psychologies of the characters, one must then take the next step in ascertaining the guilt of Othello by analyzing their actions. Iago is considered to be the quintessential villain in Othello, and, without a doubt, he is. His declaration of villainy comes as early as Act I, scene ii where he declares “I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

Iago, through his villainy, resembles a parasite. Never attacking directly, he instead leeches away at, in Othello’s case, the faith and trust of those around him. He is the demon that sits on everyman’s shoulder and orders them to commit malevolent acts. When Iago warns Othello of jealousy, he is surreptitiously egging him on, by description of the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on. Iago’s guilt lies in trust. By telling Othello that Desdemona was being unfaithful, he reinforced his own bond with Othello by being the “honest, responsible ensign”, and, at the same time, decaying the trust Othello had for Desdemona. In addition, since Iago knew that Othello thought on the lines of a military man in all aspects, he could trust Othello to immediately suspect Desdemona as if she had cheated on him in front of his own eyes. However, Iago would not have succeeded if not for Othello’s faults, thus resting an almost equal portion on Othello’s shoulders.

Othello’s problem, as we saw before, lies primarily in his state of mind as a general, and career military man. Normal men do not abandon their faith in their spouses when another man tells them that their wives have been unfaithful; it requires some degree of concrete proof. However, for Othello, there is an incompatibility between a military lifestyle and love. Before and above all else, Othello is a soldier. From the earliest moments in the play, his career affects his married life. Asking fit disposition for his wife after being ordered to Cyprus, Othello notes that the tyrant custom … / Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war / My thrice-driven bed of down. For Othello, the most inarguable form of his own success is victory in battle; it was even the method he used to woo his wife. When the Turks were all drowned, defeated by nature versus through a military victory, Othello was left without anything to do as a general. No longer having a means of proving his manhood or honor in a public setting such as the court or the battlefield, Othello begins to feel uneasy with his footing in a private setting, the bedroom. Iago capitalizes on this uneasiness, calling Othellos epileptic fit in Act IV, scene I, [a] passion most unsuiting such a man. In other words, Iago is calling Othello unsoldierly. Iago also takes care to mention that Cassio, whom Othello believes to be his competitor, saw him in his emasculating trance.

Because of all this, Othello was weakened, and was forced to retreat to his mind’s last bastion. There, he lashed out like a cornered animal and struck at the closest thing he could find his wife.

In conclusion, it is apparent that the blame falls between Othello and Iago, although the question lies in this Iago propagated the majority of Othello’s distrust, although Iago would have failed if not for Othello’s weakness caused by extenuating circumstances, such as the drowning of the Turks, so if Iago had not coaxed Othello at all, would the emasculation of the lack of battle, not to mention his uneasiness in the bedroom, still caused him to summon the green-eyed monster of jealousy.

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