Othello is a powerful and thought-provoking play because it demands its audience to contemplate the very nature of humanity. The concept of mankind's inherent evil is explored primarily through the character of Othello. The audience is often left confused as to whether Othello's downfall can be blamed on his character or rather the inescapable evil of man. Of course, in Othello, Iago acts as a catalyst for the disastrous chain of events and can hence be credited with initiating Othello's change in nature.
The main theme of Othello is that of mankind’s intrinsic evil. Shakespeare explores the idea that, despite outside influences, within all people lie unavoidable jealousy, mistrust and cruelty. Shakespeare considers this idea largely through Othello, who is originally characterized as loyal, loving and kind. This is demonstrated by the respect he commands in the presence of the Duke and senators and also be the obvious love Desdemona holds for him, refusing, even upon his threatening her with death, to renounce her love. Shakespeare however provides two explanations for Othello’s transformation. The first being is that he is simply overly influenced by Iago’s evil, and the second being that all of mankind possess an inner immorality which cannot be held at bay, and to which Othello unfortunately succumbs. This innate element of humanity is defined throughout the play as a “monster”. Iago describes people as “not ever jealous for the cause. But jealous for they are jealous: ‘tis a monster. Begot upon itself, born on itself”. This use of metaphor highlights the horrific nature of this emotion that, like a monster, can completely consume its maker. Othello accuses Iago of acting “as of there were some monster in his thought. Too hideous to be shown”. This is ironic because Shakespeare is in fact using a premonition, in that he is also referring to the uncontrollable jealousy, or “monstrous thought”, within Othello, although it only later emerges. Othello’s response to Iago’s accusations of Desdemona as adulterous is “O monstrous, monstrous”. Axel Kruse, an academic who writes on Othello, claims this repetition of the word “monster” throughout the play is because of Shakespeare’s understanding of the need for obviousness and repetition of the main themes. However, the repetition of this powerful word also reinforces the concept of this so-called “monster” actually referring to humanity itself. The word “monster” encompasses all the flaws of man: cruelty, jealousy, suspicion and irrationality. Repetition is therefore a clever technique used to reinforce the idea of humanity’s inherent evil, constantly comparing it to an unrestrained monster. Othello’s death is also a tragic moment, where the hero of the narrative is reduced to one who “foams at mouth and… breaks out to savage madness”. His ending forces the audience to consider whether this state of chaos and “irrational passion” (according to Axel Kruse) is in fact representative of the final illness of humanity itself. This concept of mankind’s intrinsic sin suggests that Othello is merely a victim of something greater and more powerful than himself, an evil that can be found in all people and is not just particular to Othello.
Shakespeare also portrays Othello as weak in character, in that he succumbs to his doubts, acts irrationally and has a strong capacity for violence. By allowing the tragic hero to have quite obvious flaws, Shakespeare is demonstrating Othello’s ability to run ahead of his tempter because of his own hubris, rather than purely being a victim of humanity’s inescapable evil. This is evident in the play when Othello, referring to Iago’s accusations of Desdemona’s betrayal, says, “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove”, followed shortly by Othello stating, in the same scene, “’Tis destiny unshunnable, like death”. Here, Shakespeare uses contradiction to enforce Othello’s rapid ability to descend into suspicion and malice. Originally, Othello is logical and wise in that he refuses to make accusations without substantial evidence. This statement however is shortly followed by Othello’s demonic accusation of Desdemona’s disloyalty. This rapid transition in Othello’s faith and security implies that his downfall can be partly blamed on his own inability to control his suspicions. Shakespeare uses simile in Othello’s speech, comparing Desdemona’s betrayal with death. This diabolic comparison is significant because it originated from Othello’s own doubts rather than Iago’s convincing. Othello’s capacity to abuse and undermine Desdemona with no proof of her suspected crimes is an example of his own distrustful personality, as opposed to the inherent nature of mankind.
Shakespeare also considers the possibility of Othello’s past influencing his character, especially regarding relationships. Early in the play, Othello describes his childhood of military training and experience on the battlefield saying, “little of this great world can I speak more than pertains to feats of broil and battle”. Othello himself acknowledges his naivety when it comes to domestic life because of his harsh upbringing. Othello describes in detail his meetings with “Cannibals that eat each other and the Anthropophagi, men whose heads to grow beneath their shoulders”. Shakespeare uses hyperbole in order to enhance the audience’s understanding of Othello’s brutal past in order to somewhat explain his misunderstanding of his domestic situation and justify his quickness to anger and violence. By exploring Othello’s past in such depth, Shakespeare suggests that Othello has cause to run ahead of his tempter, as he has been raised in a militant manner that encourages and demands distrust and doubt. Shakespeare explains that, to some extent, Othello is a victim of not only humanity’s inescapable capacity for destruction, but also of his own past.
Shakespeare explores racial prejudice as an explanation for Othello being both a victim of society and himself. There is some irony in the play in that Othello can seem to be at once the most heroic of men for rising to a position of power and influence, despite the racial discriminations of the era, and also as a “monster in hiding reveals himself in his threats to tear his wife to pieces”. This is an extract from Axel Kruse’s essay, where he explores Othello’s capacity to play both victim and villain simultaneously. Kruse articulates the ability for Othello to run ahead of his tempter because of his constant struggles against being viewed as an outsider, a threatening “figure of weird ugliness”. However, Shakespeare contradicts himself in that, while he advocates Othello’s ability to overcome racial prejudice, also blames Othello’s faults on his ethnicity. Emilia, enraged by Othello’s crimes, says of Desdemona, “O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil”. Shakespeare is using metaphor here to highlight Othello’s flaws and compare and credit them to his skin colour. The reason for this may be that he sought to justify Othello’s actions by blaming his inferior ethnicity, a stigma of Shakespearean times. Shakespeare may also have wanted to satisfy the demands of an Elizabethan audience who despised racial difference in society and wished to see such stereotypes exhibited in theatre. By blaming Othello’s downfall on his ethnicity, Shakespeare is claiming that Othello’s irrationality in running ahead of his tempter is partly because he is a victim of his own skin colour.
Shakespeare establishes early on in the play that Iago is Othello’s tempter, the manipulative character who sparks Othello’s doubt. Before Iago’s intervention, Othello was seemingly totally captivated and in love with Desdemona. However, Iago’s manipulation is extremely subtle, and it almost appears that, rather than Iago encouraging Othello’s rash actions, Othello himself is responsible for his own downfall. While Iago is the first to vocalize a suggestion of Desdemona’s disloyalty, it often seems that Othello is in fact the original source of his own distrust, and hence runs ahead of his tempter, Iago. This is evident where, upon Cassio leaving Desdemona’s side, Iago says, “I like that not”. Without further explanation, Othello immediately understands this to mean that Cassio and Desdemona have an illegitimate relationship. Axel Kruse’s paper furthers this idea, stating, “the implication is that some kind of suspicious jealousy is present in Othello’s mind from the beginning”. Kruse highlights a highly significant aspect of Act 3, Scene 3, where Othello says of Iago, “By heaven, he echoes me”. This is following an extraordinary conversation between Iago and Othello where it appears that Othello is almost talking to himself and furthering his own feelings of doubt rather than Iago planting the ideas in his mind. Kruse questions whether, at this point, Iago is replacing Desdemona in Othello’s mind and seducing him into a state of chaos. However, while Iago admits to playing the “demi-devil”, it seems more that Othello runs ahead of Iago in that it is Othello who establishes himself as jealous and revengeful.
Shakespeare establishes Othello as a victim, of both human nature and his suffering under a prejudice society. Yet Shakespeare also manages to convince his audience that, while victimized, Othello can still be blamed for running ahead of his tempter, his tempter being both Iago and human evil itself. Othello’s flaws come to light far more rapidly than would be natural under the circumstances, and it is therefore clear that Othello is responsible for his weakness in character, and ability to run ahead of his tempter.