In Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice (1603), the issue of whether Othello’s weakness lies only in himself, and not in the xenophobia or malice of others, is one that is enmeshed in a great deal of complexities due to the extenuating circumstances which can be seen to deeply impact the protagonist’s sense of self throughout the course of the plot. Furthermore, these extenuating circumstances do indeed involve the xenophobia and the malice of others to a large extent. For example, there is racial prejudice that Othello is subjected to within the play’s chronotope – a Venetian setting at a time where foreign ethnicities are very much seen as the inferior ‘other’. Thus, with Othello being a Moor of African origin, he is seen as an ‘outsider’, and his ‘blackness’ often generates negative connotations, such as the association of ‘blackness’ with ‘evil’ (Cohen 2091). This can then be seen as causing Othello’s alienation in society and consequently instills in him an underlying insecure disposition, despite his self-assured veneer at the start of the play. Moreover, the deliberate malice of others against him, such as with Iago’s diabolic manipulations, can be argued to contaminate Othello’s judgments and exploit his weakness. However, Othello’s responsibility should not be overlooked, as the protagonist is a character who is nevertheless flawed. Perhaps then, it is better to argue that Othello’s weakness certainly lies in himself to a great degree, whilst it is also being facilitated by the xenophobia and malice of others.
In the play, Othello is portrayed as holding contradicting traits, with many flaws undermining his noble qualities. For example, at the start of the play, Othello is seen as dignified, assured and assertive. He states that, “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly” (1.2.31-32) when faced with accusations by Brabanzio of stealing and ‘enchanting’ his daughter (1.2.63-64). However, though Othello is viewed by some such as the Duke as “far more fair than black” (1.3.289), most others see his racial colouring as representative of his inferiority. For example, Othello is described as an “old black ram” that is “tupping [a] white ewe” (1.1.88-89). This imagery is connoted to be obscene and implies the xenophobic fear of miscegenation, with Othello being conveyed as unworthy of Desdemona because of his status as a black man. Greenblatt contends:
Othello’s blackness; the sign of all that the society finds frightening and dangerous; is the indelible witness to Othello’s permanent status as an outsider, no matter how highly the state may value his services or how sincerely he has embraced its values (cited Schapiro 489).
Hence, Othello’s initial confidence is shadowed by an insecurity which is aided by the xenophobic society in which he resides. Consequently, this insecurity opens him up to be susceptible to Iago’s guile. As Porter explains, “Othello’s story is a tragedy… because it is the story of the destruction of a noble, deeply admirable man brought about through his own weaknesses, systematically exploited by a malicious enemy” (27). Thus, as the play progresses Othello begins to doubt Desdemona with the assistance of Iago’s deceitful plotting. This is evidenced when Othello says to himself: “Why did I marry? This honest creature doubtless / Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds” (3.3.247-248) as a response to Iago’s implications of her infidelity. Hence, this case shows that both Othello’s own weakness of insecurity and Iago’s malice contribute to the doubt which eventually leads to the hero’s downfall.
Othello is also shown to be capable of being impassioned and unreasonable, despite being set up at the start of the play as being rational and tactical. For instance, Othello “does not respond emotionally” (Macaulay 261) to Brabanzio’s attacks in Act 1. Instead, he judiciously crafts a narrative to explain the “witchcraft” he was accused...
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