Anthony Bisti, “Shakespeare’s Othello: Sinned Against or Sinning?”
William Shakespeare was responsible for creating some of the most time-honored characters
in all of literature. Richly complex, poignantly human, strikingly real, these characters have
had a profound effect on us as readers, leaving an indelible impression on our collective consciousness.
Of this formidable cavalcade of characters, few, if any, have left a greater mark than Othello,
the Moor of Venice. Like that of any richly developed literary figure, Othello’s story
is one which will inspire great debate among its readers and instill internal conflict within
individuals. What renders the Moor a deeply controversial figure is the issue of his morality
(or, some would argue, his extremely weak sense of it). Thus, we are torn; are we to pity Othello,
viewing him as a fundamentally moral being led astray by forces beyond his understanding or
control? Or, can it conversely be argued that the supposed ease and celerity with which Othello
is deceived reveals to us that his moral foundation was always a shaky one, that there was
a dark element to his persona all along? Accordingly, should we consider the character’s
dramatic fall to be a heart-wrenchingly tragic moment, or is it simply a case of literary justice
being served, the logical (and inevitable) conclusion to a good morality play?
The issue of Othello’s moral (or immoral) nature is, to many literary scholars, the
focal point of the masterful dramatic tragedy bearing his name. For the purposes of this essay,
three richly detailed and exhaustively supported essays were examined: A.C. Bradley’s “Othello:
A Noble Soul Overcome by Passion,” Don Nardo’s “In Defense of Othello” and “Morality,
Ethics and the Failure of Love in Shakespeare’s Othello, penned by John Gronbeck-Tedesco.
(Commentary from Virginia Mason Vaughn’s Othello: A Contextual History was a
late addition to the paper and will also be cited for my purposes). Each essay is strikingly
unique and strongly distinguishable, but there runs between the three a common thread, one
which binds these differing works into a common gestalt. The three scholars speak with a largely
unified voice, defending Othello and proclaiming his character to be an inherently moral and
noble one, a soul blackened only by his misplaced trust in one who has chosen to deceive him.
Additionally, the writers, (Nardo to the greatest extent), also present opposing viewpoints
for the purpose of skillful refutation, thus presenting carefully constructed and well-reasoned
For the purposes of my own essay, then, I intend to illustrate the common thread binding the
preceding three, interweaving my own commentary where effective and appropriate. Like these
three scholars, I will also play devil’s advocate for those that oppose their views,
but I fully intend for my voice to speak in accordance with Bradley, Nardo, and Gronbeck-Tedesco.
As the greater portion of this paper will be devoted to championing Othello’s morality
and declaring his virtue, I will first distill the respectable (though, as I shall opine, fundamentally
misguided) arguments to the contrary. Perhaps the greatest charge levied at Othello is his
supposed predisposition to a viciously temperamental jealousy, as Bradley acknowledged. “They
[those that revile Othello] consider that he was “easily jealous”; they seem to
think that it was inexcusable in him to feel any suspicion of his wife at all; and they blame
him for never suspecting Iago or asking him for evidence.” Although Bradley does not
elaborate on this viewpoint, other than for the purpose of refuting it, I have attempted to
personally connect and sympathize with said viewpoint. One could conceivably argue that Othello
is indeed too easily jealous and that his suspicion of his wife is virtually groundless. Although
the notion that Othello never suspects Iago and never asks him for evidence is simply wrong
(as I will later illustrate, he clearly does both), one must acknowledge that Othello holds
no tangible and irrefutable proof of Desdemona’s infidelity. Beyond that, we are further
compelled to wonder as to why he suspects his wife of sin. Desdemona (and I have yet to encounter,
nor can I conceive of, any argument to the contrary) is quite possibly (indeed, probably) the
most moral and pure-hearted female archetype since the Biblical Virgin Mary. Being that she
appears this way to us as readers, even those of us who consider ourselves “Othello apologists” fight
the urge to revile the man when he strikes this saintly women, and especially when he murders
Another prominent criticism of Othello, and one which further may help to explain why he so
willingly “allows” himself to be deceived by Iago, is that Othello is a self-deceptive figure;
such self-deception blinds him to both his aforementioned predisposition to jealous suspicion
and to his larger immorality. Fooling himself allows Othello to avoid confronting his sins. “Behind
his façade he has quilt feelings, party, probably, because of his sordid sexual adventure
with Emilia that provoked Iago’s hatred” (Nardo 185). Othello is also a man who
shields himself from his commitment of the Deadliest Sin: Pride. “He is insecure, overproud,
oversensitive, hungry for admiration, compulsively concerned with his appearance before the
world” (Nardo 185). Thus, Othello blames Desdemona to avoid blaming himself (effectively
forgetting his sin with Emilia). He also murders her to restore his wounded pride. He feels
that Desdemona has humiliated him, and killing her out of a supposed noble sacrifice makes
Othello proud of himself. “This gives him an excuse to destroy her, and to appear before
the world great and self-sacrificing. At her deathbed, pretending he has acted in a righteous
cause, he is at the apex of self-deceit” (Nardo 185).
Playing devil’s advocate once again, I concede that it is possible to take this argument
further. Although, quite surprisingly, none of these essays bring up this point, one could
argue that Othello’s final act of self-deceit is his own suicide. Ostensibly, Othello
brings the sword to his being in a heroically self-sacrificial fashion; realizing the horrible
atrocity he has just committed, Othello wishes to punish himself. However, one critical of
Othello could conceivably opine that his actions are once again catalyzed by his own sinful
pride; Othello is simply too proud to face up to punishment under Venetian law. Like
Volpone, Othello, if he must fall, will take himself down before he allows anyone
else to do so.
An additional condemnation of Othello and his supposed immorality is fueled by the issue of
his race. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare intended Othello to be portrayed as a stereotypically
immoral, even evil black male, a savage barbarian. Othello’s very color is seen
as symbolic of evil. “To a symbolist, his skin can seem a sign of darkness, and hence
be regarded as a visual emblem of evil” (Nardo 198). According to Virginia Mason Vaughn
in her book, Othello: A Contextual History, Emilia’s condemnation of Othello
during the play’s finale can be interpreted as reflective of the racism of Elizabethan
society, i.e., the racism of Shakespeare’s audience at the time he penned Othello. Emilia
calls Otehllo “the blacker devil” and “her [Desdemona’s] most filthy
bargain,” concurrently declaring that Othello is “as ignorant as dirt.” Says
Vaughn: “Dirt, filth blackness, and the devil – all are intertwined” (67).
Critics averring that Othello was seen as immoral because he is black claim that there is
historical evidence to support this claim. Shakespeare’s plays are considered to be indicative
and reflective of the Elizabethan society in which he lived, and this society, they say, was
(at least partially) a racist one. Says Nardo: “In Shakespeare’s time, Morocco
still had exotic, ‘barbarous connotations’” (198). Mason Vaughn elaborates
on this statement. She relates that in late 1600, emissaries from Barbary, led by Abd el-Ouahed
ben Messaoud, the Moroccan Ambassador, paid a visit to London and resided there for some time. “During
their six-month stay, the Moroccans were regarded with mingled curiosity and contempt” (58).
The Moroccans, like many foreigners, were disliked and mistrusted. Queen Elizabeth I, in fact,
attempted to have the Moors ousted from England (58).
Thus, these critics seem to be saying, the Moor is to be represented as an undesirable, a
foreigner lacking the sophistication of others in Venetian society. He is meant to be seen
as barbaric and violently passionate, with an inability to reason. His race literally colors his
morality, making him easily jealous, angry, and suspicious.
In examining all the arguments supporting Othello’s supposed immorality, I would acknowledge
that they are argued quite effectively and seem to be well-reasoned and thoughtfully considered.
Despite this, however, it is not particularly difficult to combat (and, I would assert, defeat)
said arguments, and Bradley, Nardo, and Gronbeck-Tedesco prove this in there respective writings
on Othello. Thus, I present counter-arguments to each of the aforementioned points:
that Othello is easily jealous, that he is self-deceived, and that he is meant to be seen as
a representation of the immoral Moor.
Bradley is, by far, the critic who most vehemently refutes the notion that Othello was too
easily jealous. Bradley asserts that Othello’s jealousy is perfectly understandable,
even condonable. “Now I repeat that any man situated as Othello was would have
been disturbed by Iago’s communications, and I add that many men would have been made
wildly jealous….No doubt the thought of another man’s possessing the woman he
loves is intolerable to him; no doubt the sense of insult and the impulse of revenge are at
times most violent; and these are the feelings of jealousy proper.” This, however, is
not Bradley’s central and essential point regarding the jealousy controversy. The scholar
contends that Othello’s emotional turmoil and psychological torment result from something
deeper and more devastating than mere jealousy. “It is the wreck of his faith and love.” Quite
simply, Desdemona’s supposed betrayal shatters Othello’s world.
Nardo posed the jealousy question to several prominent actors who had portrayed Othello, and
their collective rejection of the notion of Othello’s overly jealous tendencies gives
further weight to Bradley’s assertions. “He is not jealous [said one actor], but
when all his beliefs and knowledge are shaken, what is he to do?” (190). Said another
actor: “My view is that Othello is not essentially jealous – but emotionally
shattered by what he considers an enormous betrayal of trust” (195). Still another actor
had this comment to offer: “He [Othello] is not a jealous man. The tragedy is that of
a man whose life is hatred when he finds that all he had believed of life is proven false ‘infidelity’ of
Desdemona” (195). As Bradley points out, all of this is supported by a crucial line of
Othello’s: “If she be false, oh then Heaven mocks itself.” I offer my interpretation
of this line in summation of this point. Desdemona has seemed to be Othello to be such a pure
and virtuous figure (which, in fact, she is), such a beacon of light in Othello’s world,
a world blackened by war, violence, and personal tragedy, that her “falseness” causes
Othello to lose faith in the world, in human nature. Even Heaven is a false image if Desdemona’s
pure soul has been tainted. Thus, Othello is driven to despair and to desperate acts.
Given all of this, Bradley further refutes the idea that Othello’s murder of Desdemona
was a violent crime of jealous passion. Bradley concedes that, after he has heard the “proof” of
the handkerchief and after he has also heard Cassio “confess” to his supposed sin,
Othello does indeed descend into a frighteningly violent and passionately jealous
rage. It is through this rage that he agrees to the murder of his former lieutenant. However,
says, Bradley, “The supposed death of Cassio satiates the thirst for vengeance. The Othello
who enters the bed-chamber with the words, ‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul’,
is not the man of the Fourth Act. The deed he is bound to do is no murder, but a sacrifice.
He is to save Desdemona from herself, not in hate but in honour; in honour, and also in love.
His anger has passed, a boundless sorrow has taken its place; and, ‘this sorrow’s
heavenly: it strikes where it doth love.’”
My own thoughts again stand in congruence with Bradley’s. I feel it is crucial to remember
the moment when Othello twice kisses his sleeping wife and when he allows her the opportunity
to say a prayer (and thus purify her soul) once she awakes. These are not the actions of a
man committing a violently passionate crime of jealousy (if Othello were doing such a thing,
modern evidence about criminal psychology tells us he would perform the homicide with savagery
and celerity); rather, Othello’s actions speak loudly in support of the argument that
he is performing a noble sacrifice out of love, saving his wife from her own sin. As an actor
Nardo interviewed opined, it is also “a sacrifice to which he owes society” (192).
Othello is insuring that Desdemona will not sin against other men in the future. Thus, the
jealousy argument is defeated.
I further contend that the argument that Othello is a self-deceptive figure is equally misguided.
As indicated by an aforementioned citation, Othello’s self-deception is supposedly motivated
by his avoidance of his own guilt, guilt catalyzed by an alleged affair with Emilia. Surprisingly
(and disappointingly) the examined essays avoid any further mention of the Emilia issue. However,
I feel I must personally acknowledge this point. The issue is never resolved in the play; therefore,
as readers, we simply have no way of knowing whether or not this affair occurred. However,
we must remember that Iago is the only character in the play to allege or acknowledge the affair.
It is laughable to me that some critics would choose to trust the word of Iago! As
I will subsequently illustrate, Iago is a figure not to be trusted by anyone.
Iago’s deception of Othello greatly aids in combating the idea that the Moor is self-deceiving.
The methods by which Iago operates are ingeniously maniacal and would probably fool the best
of men. The focus of Gronbeck-Tedesco’s essay is an extensive discussion of said methods,
and it its to this scholar that I will first turn for commentary on this matter. As Gronbeck-Tedesco
insightfully points out, Iago’s greatest asset is his power of observation. Those who
speak extensively of the faults of Othello’s character are extremely misguided; above
all else, Iago most effectively takes advantage of Othello’s loving nature. Although
he had originally planned to discredit the Moor (I refer to the senate episode), Iago wisely
changes course after observing the exchange between Desdemona and Othello during the reunion
following the Cyprus battle. Iago sees the affection with which Othello regards his wife and
knows that he can use said love against him. (Othello, as he will later remark, loves too well). “The
plan is no longer to discredit Othello directly but to get him to kill Desdemona by first driving
him mad with jealousy” (263). In order to further illustrate his point, Gronbeck-Tedesco
references the following citation from the play:
The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband…..(2.1.282-85)
Furthermore, the scholar argues, Iago the character is as talented an actor as any thespian
who would play him. My personal take on Iago corroborates this opinion and speaks to his evil
genius. He is incredibly convincing with the manner in which he plants suggestions in Othello’s
mind, posing some kind of insinuating question or comment about Desdemona’s possible
infidelity and then pretending to be reluctant to elaborate further. He uses reverse psychology;
his attempts to take back his words and reassure Othello have the effect of forcing the Moor
to brood and question his marital relationship to a greater extent. Iago dangles the proverbial
carrot and finds that Othello is willing to take the bait. As Gronbeck-Tedesco writes, he effectively
ensnares Othello in his twisted game. Now that Iago has planted the seeds of doubt in Othello’s
brain, Othello must bid farewell to the tranquil mind. “What Iago says and does issues
a set of stakes and obstacles that Othello believes he must address with agency and participation
that is coherent with Iago’s own” (263).
The handkerchief episode, Gronbeck-Tedesco further argues, is a prime example of Iago’s
ability to paint a disconcerting image on the canvas of Othello’s mind, a mind which,
as Iago knows full well, possesses an overactive imagination. Simply by talking about Othello’s
handkerchief, even without physically producing the evidence, Iago forces Othello to believe
him by connecting his tale to an image with which Othello is familiar. The mentioning of Cassio’s
possession of the handkerchief further allows Othello to jump to the conclusion that an affair
is occurring. Iago’s evocation of this familiar object convinces Othello that his “friend” knows
of what speaks. “Because he is both a creature in the theatre and of the theatre, Iago
knows that evidence-no matter how concrete-seldom speaks for itself, especially in matters
of the human heart. To make it an index of guilt, Iago speaks for and with the handkerchief,
like a ventriloquist, creating the story Othello must believe…By the end of the scene,
Iago still has not produced the handkerchief, but, by talking about it, he has earned Othello’s
belief nonetheless” (267).
Thus, Iago’s skillful use of trickery and defeat enraptures Othello. However, Bradley
raises the intriguing point that Iago’s evocation of the facts, his exploitation
of reality, accomplish the same effect, forcing Othello to question the true nature
of his wife and her love for him. First of all, Iago helps Othello to realize how little he
really knows about Desdemona. “Iago does not bring these warnings to a husband who had
lived with a wife for months and years and knew her like his sister or his bosom-friend. Nor
is there any ground in Othello’s character for supposing that, if he had been such a
man, he would have felt and acted as he does in the play. But he was newly married; in the
circumstances he cannot have known much of Desdemona before his marriage; and further he was
conscious of being under the spell of a feeling which can give glory to the truth but can also
give it to a dream.”
Additionally, contends Bradley, Iago also raises the issue that Othello is a foreigner and
is “totally ignorant of the thoughts and the customary morality of Venetian women.” He
also suggests (and, as insidious as it may seem, there may indeed be some truth to it) that
Desdemona’s attraction to Othello results from Caucasian fascination to what scholars
now refer to as the Other. “These suggestions are followed by a tentative but hideous
and humiliating insinuation of what his honest and much-experienced friend fears may be the
true explanation of Desdemona’s refection of accepting suitors, and of her strange, and
naturally temporary preference for a black man.” Othello is visibly shaken by these remarks.
Some will no doubt argue that, even though Iago’s methods are formidably cunning, the
Moor is still naïve to trust the man to such an extent. The logic of these arguments is
faulty. Othello, for several reasons, has good reason to trust Iago. The first such reason
has to do with Othello’s military background and his history with Iago. Gronbeck-Tedesco
makes a convincing point regarding this subject. “To move from incident to consequence
rapidly, Othello must be willing to believe his subordinates and act on their words. No one
understands military ways better than Iago. He relies on the direct relationship between words
uttered in the chain of command and the actions of authority. It is this straightforward relationship,
so important to military efficiency, that he uses to subvert Cassio in the eyes of Othello” (264).
Accordingly, Othello will eventually learn to trust Iago and Iago alone, for it is Iago who
disrupts his trust of others important in his life. “When communication with her [Desdemona]
is made to break down, Othello’s only resource is the battle companion who seems to have
linked arms with him against an alien society” (Nardo 203). The bond Othello shares with
Iago spawns and nurtures his deep love for the man.
Had this military relationship not existed, however, Othello still would have had good reason
to trust Iago, the reason being the reputation the man has cleverly cultivated for himself. “For
his opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him: and that opinion
was that Iago was before all things ‘honest,’ his very faults being those of excess
in honesty” (Bradley). Nardo elaborates on this point, appropriately citing the play
in the process. “‘A Man he is of honesty and trust,” Othello says. ‘Honest
Iago…honest, honest Iago.’ ‘Good Iago,’ says Desdemona. ‘I never
knew a Florentine more kind and honest,” says Cassio (204). These are just a few examples
of innumerable such references in the play.
Thus, Othello was not naïve in trusting a man with such an honest reputation.
And, in Othello’s defense, the Moor, out of love for Desdemona, does indeed
question his “honest” friend, as Bradley writes. “The bare possibility that
his friend is deliberately deceiving him – though such a deception would be a thing so
monstrously wicked that he can scarcely conceive it credible – is a kind of hope. He
furiously demands proof, ocular proof. And when he is compelled to see that he is demanding
an impossibility he still demands evidence.” True, the “evidence” that Iago
presents may not hold up in court, but I assert that one can reasonably discern how it deceived
Othello. The argument that Othello was too easily deceived or that he deceived himself is thus
a weak one.
I shift now to my final refutation, this one being of the suggestion that Othello’s
race is to blame for his immorality, that he acts like a savage barbarian because he is a Moor,
and that Shakespeare intended him to be viewed in this light. It is Nardo to whom I turn for
a counterargument in this instance. The Moors, Nardo argues, were not seen as savage
and immoral in Elizabethan society. Although Nardo concedes that there were some exotic or
barbarous connotations to the Moors, the writer goes on to assert that “by 1604 its remoteness
and mystery had a kind of familiarity. Many Britons at the time enjoyed meeting and working
for the current Moorish king, whom Captain John Smith found ‘in every way noble, kind
and friendly’” (198). This citation goes a long way in refuting that Shakespeare’s
original audience would have viewed Othello as immoral because of his race. Furthermore, it
is extremely doubtful that it was the playwright’s intention for them to do so. As an
actor Nardo interviewed pointed out to the scholar, Othello certainly does not across to us
as a “savage” when viewed in association with Iago and Rodrigo. “He was more
civilized than the ‘whites’ around him” (192). Othello’s exercise of
restraint and control when disciplining his men after the nighttime scuffle or when he calmly
and sacrificially (as opposed to violently and brutally) kills Desdemona support the view of
him as civilized; Othello is no barbarian in these instances. Admittedly, Othello does indeed
behave savagely at times, especially when plotting the murder of Cassio. However, as Nardo
so simply yet effectively argues, “Could not Othello even be savage-without being a savage?” (192-93).
Accordingly, should we not consider the view of Othello as the savage, immoral Moor to be fundamentally
Thus, we can formulate a most convincing defense of Othello’s character. This Shakespearean
hero is no immoral figure whose self-deceit blinds him to his moral flaws. Rather, he is cunningly
deceived by another, and it is Othello’s trust in the supposed morality of this person
which brings his downfall. Othello’s hot-blooded, jealous nature is conjured by his deceiver,
but his act of murder is committed with a cool head and as a noble sacrifice. Finally, he is
no savage Moor; for his actions serve to stand in sharp contrast to the maniacal evil of the
one who deceives him. Othello is an inherently moral man, one who is, as the play suggests,
of a loving and noble nature. He is not full of hate; he, by his own words, loves too well.
It is his love which both compels him to commit his murder and to trust the man who leads him
down an immoral path. And, let us not forget that Othello effectively redeems himself, sacrificing
his own life to atone for his sins.
Bradley, A.C. “Othello: A Noble Soul Overcome by Passion.” Vers.
2.0. September 2002. http://web.singnet.com.sg/-yisheng/notes/shakespeare/othello_b.htm
Gronbeck-Tedesco, John. “Morality, Ethics, and the Failure of Love in Shakespeare’s Othello.
Othello: New Critical Essays. Ed. Philip C. Kulin. Great Britain: Routledge, 2002. 255-270.
Nardo, Don. “In Defense of Othello.” Readings on Othello. Ed.
Don Nardo. Portland, Oregon: Green Haven Press, 2001. 185-205.
Vaughn, Virginia Mason. Othello. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.