Othello claims he loved “not wisely, but too well.” Do you find yourself having sympathy for Othello at the end of the play? Explain why/why not.
Whilst the audience empathises with Othello’s plight throughout the play, their stronger sympathy for the character Othello is derived from his final moments in the play. Othello’s speech allows the audience to better understand the factors which contribute to his tragedy. Using language which is lyrical and powerfully symbolic, Othello’s willingness to acknowledge his culpability allows him “to express his nobility and to manifest himself rightly” (Brennan, A).
Much of the sympathy derived for Othello is drawn by our understanding of his position as an outsider in the Venetian world. It is this foreignness that allows Othello to depend upon and trust Iago’s manipulations.
Shakespeare presents Othello as distinctly different from the other characters in the play. The Venetian culture and sense of superiority is implied through the language employed by Brabantio. Othello is represented as different not only in terms of race, but in terms of temperament and language. He is only celebrated for his public status in the Venetian world, rather than his private status. This can be seen in Brabantio’s protests against Othello as he stresses Desdemona’s opposition to “the wealthy curlèd darlings of our nation” which is juxtaposed to “her guardage to the sooty bosom” of Othello. The possibility of a union between Desdemona and the gentry compared to the unnatural nature of Othello’s union with Desdemona offends Brabantio which reflects the prejudicial values of the Venetian world. The fact that Othello, a general in the Venetian army, has to stand trial is dehumanising, positioning the audience to view Othello’s character as notably different from the other Venetians. His otherness can also be attributed to his military-centric life history. Othello knows “little of this great world” and lacks real life experience other than his “feats of broils and battle” (I.iii.89-90). It is Othello’s naivety and innocence that not only reflects a fatal flaw, but is also exploited by Iago who is more worldly and who “knows [his] country disposition well” (III.iii.205). Sympathy is derived by Othello as Shakespeare positions the audience to see a shift in the confidence of this heroic figure. The erosion of his self-assurance is seen when he starts to doubt himself and says: “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation” (III.iii.267). Despite his manifest eloquence, his status as an outsider compels him to justify his anomalous behaviour. Othello’s insecurity and naivety emanate from his status as an outsider which fuels Iago’s plot against Othello as it “is built on his knowledge of Othello’s character, and could not otherwise have succeeded” (Bradley, A.C.). Othello’s innocence and uncertainty about Venetian culture causes him to rely on Iago for information, which ultimately incites Othello’s tragic downfall.
The heroic element of Othello’s descent into chaos incites sympathy, because the audience feels helpless for the tragic protagonist. Othello’s portrayal as a man who “was noble, generous, open-hearted; unsuspicious and unsuspecting” (Coleridge, S) renders his tragic downfall more acute. His heroic nature manifests when he seems to be threatened by Brabantio’s men and he pacifies the situation with gentle sarcasm: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” (I.ii.59). His unspoken authority and nobility come across in these lines as there is a sense of both danger and beauty in his word choice of ‘bright swords’ and ‘dew’. Later in the scene, Othello’s heroic and adventurous past is expressed through vignettes about “the story of [his] life” (I.iii.131). The romantic eloquence of Othello’s rhetoric is achieved through repetition and word choice, expressing the nobility of the tragic hero. Othello upholds this heroic nature throughout the play, in spite of the obloquy and manipulation he faces. At the end of Act V, Othello “becomes at times most terrible, but his grandeur remains almost undiminished” (Bradley, A.C.) and he returns to the majestic language of his earlier speeches. His final speech echoes his first speech to the senate, but he no longer portrays himself as a worthy hero as he describes himself as “the base Indian” (V.ii.365), and compares himself to “the circumcised dog” (V.ii.371). His words and syntax reminisce of former glories “in spite of all the bizarre behaviour Iago has induced in him” (Brennan, A). Othello’s degradation from someone of such noble potential is pitiful and engenders sympathy for the desecrated hero.
Sympathy for Othello stems from the destruction of his world at the hands of Iago. Othello’s sufferings by Iago “are so heart-rending that he stirs…in most readers a passion of mingled love and pity” (Bradley, A.C.). Iago’s malignant plot against Othello causes Othello to lose faith in himself and in the people closest to him. It is this paradigm shift, fuelled by the doubt of his wife’s infidelity, that renders Othello’s fractured sense of self. As he cries “farewell” to “the tranquil mind”, “content” (III.ii.357) and his military occupation, he connects the perceived loss of his wife’s faithfulness with the loss of his identity. Othello is brought down to his lowest point by Iago when the villain convinces him of Desdemona’s infidelity. It is Othello’s fit of jealousy and rage that robs him of the ability to speak and his words come out in a jumble around: “handkerchief” and “confess” (IV.i.41). The syntax of Othello’s disjointed words illustrates the degeneration of his state of mind and self-worth and the severity of Iago’s conspiracy against him. Othello becomes “the green-eyed monster” (III.iii.171) that Iago had intended for him to be.
In Othello’s final speech, he reminds the audience that he was “not easily jealous but, being wrought”, became “perplex’d in the extreme”. His lines force the audience to consider how powerfully perplexed he becomes at the hands of Iago. The audience’s sympathy resides not only in the tragedy of Othello’s degradation, but more darkly, the greater part of the tragedy is derived from Iago’s “motiveless malignity” (Coleridge, S). It is the audience’s inability to justify Iago’s hatred that makes the tragedy so much worse. Shakespeare positions the audience to have sympathy for Othello as they witness Iago’s inordinate plot against Othello bring devastation to the protagonist’s world.
Great sympathy for Othello is not only derived from the abject factors that secure his tragic downfall, but more evocatively, from Othello’s last speech in the play. His readiness to address his flaws give rise to feelings of pity and compassion in the audience. Othello’s final words remind the audience of “all the glory and agony of his life” (Bradley, A.C.).
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