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Points to Ponder

The critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw Iago's explanations for his actions as the "motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity." That is, while Iago gives causes for his hatred of Othello - Iago feels that Othello denied him a military position he deserved, and thinks that Othello may have slept with his wife, Emilia - his invocations of these reasons never seem clear or whole-hearted. What is clear is that Iago enjoys destroying Othello. Thus, many readers have suggested that Iago, who by the end of the play is referred to largely as "villain," is descendent of the Vice character in medieval morality plays, an inhuman figure of pure evil. In fact, many agree with Othello's judgment in the play's last scene - that Iago is literally a devil. How do you account for the relatively thin and understated motives that Shakespeare gives Iago? Is Iago a man with a misshapen but nonetheless human and even sympathetic psychology, or is he, at least figuratively, evil incarnate?

Throughout this play, all the characters, Othello most of all, are acutely aware that Othello is an outsider. This is manifested, of course, in his dark skin, but it runs far deeper: born as a foreigner and a Muslim, Othello is not at home with Venetian manners or with Christian ritual. Some readers have suggested that this accounts for his somewhat obsessive embrace of these customs: of vows, the confession, and of patriotism. And the play has suggested to some readers that, disturbingly, the Venetian prejudice that Othello could only pretend to be a civilized Christian is confirmed; in the end, it seems to some readers, Othello acts like a fool and a beast. How ought we understand Othello's tangled relationship to the institutions of Christian Europe? How does Othello's "gullibility" enhance or deflect our sympathy for a status as an outsider?

For all its richness of character and drama, Othello is also a play about language. Othello wins Desdemona not by his military successes per se, but rather by the stories he tells about them. And throughout the play it is not Othello's rank but the grand poetry of his speech that lets him tower above the other characters. Iago, too, is a linguistic genius, but of a very different kind. He is a master of dialogue, dialectic, wit, insinuation, and persuasion. How is Iago's psychological triumph over Othello played out in the more subtle victories that his nimble words win against Othello's majestical verses? More generally, how do the conflicts and collusions of the play's characters also take place in words that they speak?

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Scenes 1.1 and 1.2
Scene 1.3
Scenes 2.1 and 2.2
Scene 2.3
Scenes 3.1 and 3.2
Scene 3.3
Scene 3.4
Scene 4.1
Scenes 4.2 and 4.3
Scene 5.1
Scene 5.2


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