Othello is not usually a character that pops up in lists of Shakespeare’s villains, but it is possible to make the argument that Othello was a villain. In this article we’ll explore this idea in some detail.
Othello is one of the more complicated characters in Shakespeare’s plays. This is due to his waning loyalty to Desdemona, his role as a soldier, the ease with which he’s convinced of Desdemona’s deceit, and overall eloquence. He exhibits several contrasting features that make him incredibly interesting to analyze. Othello is generally considered to be the protagonist of the play Othello, but throughout the story, he doesn’t always play the role of “hero.” His life, just like his characterization, is far more complicated than that.
Who is Othello?
Othello is the main character in Shakespeare’s play Othello. He’s a Christian Moor and the general of the armies of Venice. He’s in a position of power, but his racial background is something that consistently sets him apart from those around him. Additionally, Shakespeare imbued Othello with contrasting features. He’s a strong and skilled fighter, and an eloquent speaker, and a loving partner (at least for a time).
His characteristics, role in society, and relationships with those around him, unfortunately, make it easy for Iago (generally considered to be the true villain of Othello) to manipulate him. Othello eases away from his role as “hero” as Iago poisons his mind against his true love, Desdemona. His eloquence and thoughtfulness fall away, and his jealousy and rage take over. The heart of the play revolves around Iago’s deceit and his manipulation of Othello.
Othello and Iago
Iago is a true villain in the most obvious of terms. He lacks a reasonable motivation for his actions. The only one being that he was passed over for the role of lieutenant. He chooses to take his rage out on his general, Othello. Whether he believes it or not, Iago also suspects that Othello slept with his wife (who Iago kills at the end of the play). He uses both of these things as an excuse to go after Othello, seeking Desdemona for his own bed and the destruction of Othello’s life as recompense. By the end of the story, Iago is firmly entrenched in the reader’s mind as an unredeemable villain.
Othello as an Outsider
When considering Othello’s role in Othello, it is important to consider how Shakespeare sets the story up. As mentioned previously, Othello was an outsider in Venice. He was a Black man in a mostly all-white society, something that would alone have set him apart. His skill and knowledge allowed him to rise to the point of extraordinary power, something that was undoubtedly unusual at the time. Shakespeare had this in mind when he wrote the play and chose to have Othello elope with Desdemona. In some eyes, this act alone is one of villainy. Although today interracial marriages are common, in Iago’s eyes, this feature of Othello’s life set him apart even more than he already was.
It’s impossible to read this piece and not understand Iago as a villain in the story. But, when one digs deeper, it’s impossible to ignore the villainous role Othello plays. When confronted with the lie that Desdemona slept with someone else, Othello cannot control his rage, temper his emotions, or take the time to find out the truth. He is willing to believe that she’s been unfaithful, and he starts his fall from grace.
The Danger of Pride in Othello
Othello is an incredibly conceited character. He’s well aware of his power and prowess on the battlefield and does not take insult well. His lofty status is of the utmost importance to him. Othello is confident in every aspect of his life, to a fault. Additionally, he doesn’t display many of the characteristics associated with heroes, such as temperance, patience, and critical thinking skills.
Othello spends the first parts of the play thinking that he’s infallible, that there are nothing and no one that can come between him, his career, and power. This, of course, proves not to be the case, and the reader is exposed to the truth of his nature. He has natural insecurities regarding his role in Venetian society, and Iago is cunning enough to utilize that to his advantage. Any likability he may have had for the reader or viewer is destroyed when he turns on Desdemona. While one hopes that Othello might not believe the lies, he’s being fed, that doesn’t last for long. It becomes clear that Othello’s mind was ripe for manipulation. As a middle-aged Black man, his belief that he is unloveable becomes the primary driver in his life in white society.
In the end, although Othello has moments of villainy, it is Iago who is remembered as the primary villain of the story. Without his cunning, pointless destruction, Othello could’ve continued with his life as it was. Iago preyed on his weakness, controlling and changing him for the worse. This is solidified in the reader’s mind when Iago kills his own wife at the end of the story, and Othello kills himself after it is revealed that Desdemona was faithful all along and that he’d been tricked. The reader, or viewer, if the play is being performed live, should feel sorrow over Othello’s death. This would certainly not be the case if Shakespeare meant for Othello to be the play’s primary villain.
What do you think of this take of Othello as a villain? Do you have any opinions on whether Othello can rightly be described as a villain? Let us know in the comments below!