In no other Shakespearian play has one characters tragic downfall been created so singularly by another character’s manipulation as we see in Othello. The protagonists, Othello and Iago are juxtaposed as opposites, one being a devilishly calculated manipulator, and one an easily lead, noble romantic.
The question of whether, or even if, one character is created in order to ‘make’ the play has been examined by Bradley and Leavis, with contrasting outcomes, however I would suggest that whilst Iago is the manipulator of the action, both characters are needed in order that there be any action at all: Without Iago or Othello, there would be no play. In recognizing whether this is ‘Othello in action’ or ‘Iago in action,’ it is important to consider the context in which it is set.
From a 21st century perspective, we constantly want to gain a psychological reality and reason from characters. Yet when the play was created in Elizabethan times, the play was created primarily as a form of entertainment to be performed rather than analyzed, any meanings the play may have are secondary. When an Elizabethan went to ‘hear’ a play, it was an experience, the imagery, poetic verse and in particular the action all created a source of entertainment. The play was just that: a play.
Yet when we now read the play, we are conditioned to consider the characters backgrounds, psychological reality and their personal flaws; we know this is not reality yet we find that in order to fully engage ourselves in the action we have to accept that these characters are ‘real. ‘ Perhaps the difference comes in what we consider to be reality: the Elizabethans found reality in fairies, and hence a midsummer nights dream would be taken at face value and not be a fairy tale.
For this reason, it becomes difficult to define whether Bradley or Leavis’s criticisms are more fitting, for it depends upon which context we see Othello in: a dramatic ‘Elizabethan entertainment,’ or as a story which can be studied as though it were reality. If we are to see this purely as an Elizabethan entertainment, then it could be suggested that Leavis’s criticisms are more fitting. He suggests that the play is primarily the language used. The situations are merely constructed here to create dramatic affect. For example, situations which we may find coincidental are, on further examination, mechanisms to a well crafted plot.
The storm, Leavis would say, occurs as a strategic dramatic device and ‘serves to bring out the reality of the heroic Othello and what he represents. ‘ The storm creates a perfect scenario for the plot to move forward: as a result of this device, we have the characters in Cyprus, now with an abundance of spare time in order that the action can unfold accordingly. It could be suggested that the choice of Cyprus is a device in itself, creating a climate which is passionate, relaxed and exotic. Consider whether the same events would have occurred had the action stayed in Venice.
Here we find that the play is pure stagecraft, relying on a manipulation of the audience. Of course, this is true, since all plays are stage craft: the events which take place in drama are never going to be a coincidence. The imagery used is also fundamental to Leavis’s Othello because if the Elizabethans ‘heard’ a play, then of course the imagery would construct the surroundings. Whilst today if we watch a play, imagery used only enhances the setting, here, the imagery used is the setting.
We are constantly delivered images, comparing Othello to ‘a horned man’s monster. The nature of these images serve to intensify what we can already see on stage, and gives the audience an overwhelming sense that things are worse than they might actually be by creating an exaggerated picture, for example likening Roderigo’s possession of his handkerchief to ‘ a raven o’er the infectious house. ‘ In this sense, the imagery is a dramatic device. In keeping with his criticism, Leavis would say that the characters themselves are of no importance since they are there only to deliver the language in order that the drama can unfold.
The characters may seem realistic, but this is irrelevant; they are only there in order that the plot functions as a result of the drama they cause. Consequently, the play is ‘Othello’s character in Action’ because he is not a ‘tool of the plot,’ he is the character affected by the tools. If Othello is a well oiled engine, then Iago is the spanner that unscrews the bolts in order to create a conflict. In Bradley’s criticism of the play, Othello is a ‘noble moor’, a ‘nearly faultless hero’ undone by Iago’s ‘intellectual superiority’.
Taking this approach, we see the characters analyzed as though they have a psychological reality; they do not exist purely for the sake of the play, but are people in their own right. The play form becomes irrelevant because here we focus on who the characters are, what they are motivated by, and why they behave in the way they do. Events are only focused on in relation to character, for example Leavis would see Othello’s Killing of Desdemona as a calculated and artificial dramatic device to end the play, whereas Bradley would consider it in the context of character, as the undoing of Othello’s tragic persona.
Characters here are suggested by Shakespeare, but are created more fully in the minds of the spectator. In real life, we intend characters for people, and so do the same, intending dispositions and situations for the characters in a play. We treat the play form as though it were a novel, perhaps wondering what kind of a childhood the character had, and speculating over their motives; if we read with empathy, we feel as though we know the characters and in effect feel as though we have been there with them.
To Bradley Othello is merely a victim at the hands of Iago’s ‘intellectual superiority’ To Bradley, Iago’s plot is reliant upon his own nature, and his knowledge of Othello’s character, and his ‘ undoing of the noble Moor by the devilish cunning of Iago’. This approach is perhaps more fitting with modern contexts and our analytical approach to characters within literature. However, this approach is reliant upon the characters being realistic, for if we cannot deem the characters to be true then we cannot psycho-analyze them.
In the case of Othello, we could assume him a reasonable, if not slightly flawed character. It is not unreasonable for him to go from in Act One, a noble and respected moor, tactfully winning Brabantio over with his courtesy and charm, to an insecure and pitifully tragic character, because he has been placed in an extreme and intense situation. If we are to view the play as a psychological thriller, than yes these characters take us to the extremes of human nature.
Given his context, that Othello is in a male dominated world and has fought with Iago, it is not unrealistic that he should believe Iago, particularly given his trusting disposition, and Iago’s subtly persuasive dialogues. What we really need to analyze is whether we see Iago as a device, or whether we see him as a well rounded character. Let us take Act III scene iii, Iago’s persuasive scene. Primarily here, he shows great intelligence, skillfully reading character and responses. He neither says too much that it is unbelievable, or too little that Othello thinks nothing of it.
He is particularly calculated, allowing others to believe he has their interests at heart, telling Othello ‘what is spoke comes from my love,’ which could be considered a very ‘human quality,’ although perhaps more associated with females. His actions and words are preplanned and since he is such a good judge of character, his intentions are always realized. Of course, Leavis would counteract this, arguing that of course his words and actions are preplanned – this is a play. From my own point of view it is extremely doubtful that anyone would behave in the same way as Iago for their own gain, and with such little motivation.
We could call him ‘the epitome of evil,’ but could someone so purely evil show such good personal skills as are demonstrated here? If he was totally inhumane, then he would not be able to show a humane side, however false it may be, to the other characters. Perhaps he simply knows these skills in order that he achieves his intentions. To be a well rounded character, you must express a full range of emotions, yet here we never see Iago express anything other than motivation and hatred. These, we know, are his true emotions because they are the only ones expressed in his soliloquies.
Hence, I am inclined to conclude that it is more realistic that Iago was created as a means to progress the plot, so we see his inhumanity as acceptable, since he was never meant to be seen as a realistic human, more as a dramatization, or caricature of evil created for effect. The very fact that his motivations are inadequate only further proves this, that a character who behaves like this without motivation can only have been created as drama: he cannot be ‘real’ without motivation. In spite of this agreement with Leavis’s criticisms, it is not entirely convincing that the play is ‘Othello in Action.
Iago still manipulates almost single handedly the actions of the play, and although the plot follows the downfall of Othello, this demise happens purely as a result of Iago. Iago’s presence within the play is far more powerful, and completely essential to the plot. Othello here could be any insecure character, whereas for the play to function, Iago has to be Iago. What’s more, the audience feels far more insightful into Iago’s character, perhaps due to his soliloquies, understanding him when the other characters do not.
He tells Roderigo, ‘I am what I am not,’ and the audience gain a shared understanding of the irony here. To the audience, Iago will appear to be more involved in the action, because they are more involved with him, and far more fascinated by him. Although he is clearly a dramatic device, this does not mean that the play cannot be Iago’s ‘character in action,’ for he creates the action and he is the action. Without Iago, Othello and Desdemona would stay happily married, and there would be no action in the play, and since Othello is created to entertain, without action there would be no entertainment.