Othello, of the eponymous play by William Shakespeare, is one of English literature’s most profound tragic heroes, allowing his sense of ill-tempered and absolute justice to betray those most dear to his unguarded heart as mislead by the seductions and designs of Iago. Rather than guide his fierce and resolute impartiality on the wings of prudence, Othello is tragic in that he judges without a true knowledge of the case of things, confused by hearsay and slander, and thus enacts injustice rather than justice, afflicting against those he loves terrible wounds. In this manner Othello is responsible for the mistaken murder of his great love Desdemona, for having his ear poisoned by the treacherous and anarchic Iago, he judges her as unfaithful, and without the consideration of a rational council, destroys her. While deliberation and wisdom may have stayed the murderous hand, the general lacks such foresight entirely, serving as a conduit of judgment without proper reason. While a man wielding a tempered sense of justice behaves with magnanimity and is a righteous boon to his community, the soldier who judges without prudence is a dangerous force, capable of monstrous errors. While most actors have at least a minimal cultivation of prudence, an awareness of the deception and evil of the world, Othello seems to lack it entirely, and this is his tragic flaw.
Justice is the business of treating others as they deserve, from oaths of fealty between friends and lovers to the compassionate and considerate treatment of transients, to try to do what is best for those who have been entrusted to us (Plato 342e). The virtue is also the rightful foundation for consequence, as a transgression against justice demands reparation. While justice is the treating of others as they deserve, one cannot rightfully determine how and for what this must be done without exercising the virtue of prudence, buttressed by temperance, serving as a bridge between the two goods. These latter two qualities properly serve justice by ensuring that it is regulated by both rational foresight and by nuance, respectively. Pure justice tends to be both misplaced and of an improper degree without the guidance of these two virtues, lacking mercy and tenderness. If justice is properly born of this sublime mixture, it blossoms into the greatest of adorning virtues (Aristotle 1124a), magnanimity, a heroic spirit in which the just individual becomes capable of pardoning great offenses by choosing to endure their wounds rather than shield himself against them, all for the hope of reforming the mislead and ignorant to righteousness. Othello not only lacks the prudence and temperance to see the fault of his judgment levied against innocent Desdemona, but perhaps more disturbingly, he lacks the magnanimity to pardon such an offense if it did occur truthfully (5.2.90-101), choosing instead to destroy her so she might not inflict similar wounds upon the world; “else she’ll betray more men.” (5.2.6).
The first instance of Othello’s tragic failing can be observed in his secret marriage to Desdemona in act I. While Othello’s intellectual love for Desdemona is pure and just, transcending the lust of bodies, it is not sanctioned by custom or tradition, as the Moor chose to wed his wife without her father’s consent or knowledge (1.1.171-178), the Venetian senator responding with alarm and suspicions of abduction, witchcraft or rape at the prospect of such impropriety (1.2.75-94). Of Othello’s pure love A. C. Bradley claims that the Moor is Shakespeare’s most sincere character in terms of affection, marking his tragic flaw as the most profound and disturbing in the English playwright’s library, stating: “”He is not merely a romantic figure; his own nature is romantic. He has not, indeed, the meditative or speculative imagination of Hamlet; but in the strictest sense of the word he is more poetic than Hamlet. (Bradley 188).” Rather than yield to prudence and exercise discretion in tempering his love with steadiness (perhaps out of this latter feeling of romantic passion), delaying its consummation until it had been made public to the mind of the greater community, Othello imprudently ignored the de facto law of tradition, resulting eventually in the rejection of Desdemona by her family (1.3.64-67). While this event did not result in irrevocable injustice, as no innocent was slain in cold blood, it foreshadows the ending by revealing the inner disposition of the Moor general: he is capable of and willing to reject prudence and temperance for matters of unbridled justice, in matters of love and of honor. In some respects Othello is also guilty of tragic vanity, as he supposes that he is above the judgment of others, and acts without the approval of common laws, ritual and customs, instead acting as his own judge, jury and executioner, by what he must have perceived to be the decree of heaven. While a man can nominally behave in this manner without error, he must have a fine cultivation of prudence and temperance, and if within any doubt, seek the council a jury of wise and virtuous minds, else his judgments fail to be just.
Othello, perhaps out of vanity, rejects the station of his peers’ judgment, and believes himself to be the only one to be held accountable for his actions; there seems to be a distinct disconnect between his judgments and the expectations and wisdom of the greater community, as if he is capable of seeing the truth by himself alone, an insight reserved for immortals. While Othello does permit himself to be judged by the Duke of Venice for his secret wedding, declaring at a senatorial council: “If you do find me foul … /,The trust, the office I do hold of you, /Not only take away, but let your sentence /Even fall upon my life,” (1.3.130-133) it is only after the fact and arising from an oath of fealty to his lord rather than by principle of charity, when the action had already been committed, just as he later slays Desdemona and only after the fact realizes its ramifications, a fool to prudence.
It is perhaps a paradox then that Othello is on one hand indifferent to the expectations of custom and tradition, external influences which he judges to be a determinant to justice, and is also capable of being so easily corrupted by the venom tongue of Iago, who the general is unable to perceive as being treacherous and to whom he bestows honor and the esteemed mantle of an honest man (2.3.7). Iago is responsible both for turning Othello against his most trusted lieutenant, Michael Cassio, for scheming a drunken fight in which the man publically assaulted two other soldiers and subsequently denouncing his him as dangerous, unfit for duty and of a questionable confidence (2.3.222-248), and for later convincing the Moor that the lieutenant was secretly conspiring in an adulterous affair with Desdemona, at first planting seeds of doubt (ex. 3.3.37-44) and then capitalizing on them to finally pervert the justice of the general (3.3.522-533), precipitating the tragic ending.
In the first instance Iago, jealous of Cassio’s rise to the lieutenancy, felt that as he himself was a man of battlefield experience and seniority, in contrast to the seemingly untested and scholarly mettle of Michael who “never set a squadron in the field”, should have rather been elected in his stead (1.1.7-37). In order to supplant Cassio as Othello’s lieutenant and thus achieve his ambitions Iago schemed to dishonor the man, first seducing the aid of another soldier by the name of Roderigo in Act I by weaving him into an intricate web of lies involving a scheme to achieve his lusting for Desdemona, and then later convincing Cassio to drink to excess in honor of Othello’s victory over the Turks at Cyprus. With Cassio having drunk to excess, Iago loosed his henchman upon him, assaulting him and causing a public fight, to which Montano, an indifferent third party and a fellow soldier, attempted to defuse and was wounded. Rather than uncover the machinations of Iago through a prudent investigation and pardon the offenses of Cassio and Roderigo as being the product of the interloper’s deception and treachery, the general was seduced by Iago’s sophistry and consequently demoted the embarrassed and ashamed Cassio, immediately aware of his error. Herein we observe another example of a lack of both prudence and magnanimity, in the first regard unable to see the obvious truth, the authentic character of Cassio and the deception of Iago, and in the second, unable to judge with mercy toward a trusted friend and loyal servant who had failed to live up to the standards of duty and had a momentary and excusable lapse in decorum.
Of most serious account in Othello’s ill-tempered behavior was the corruption of his heart in the time following the demotion of Cassio. Iago, having marginalized his rival’s station, next set out to scheme his destruction while simultaneously proving his loyalty to Othello, by first planting seeds of doubt about Desdemona’s fidelity to the general, inferring that a distantly visible and innocent meeting of his wife and Cassio could actually be in truth a concealed affair (2.3.222-248), and later on, exploiting circumstantial evidence to reinforce his treachery, granting credence to his accusations. In act III Othello complains of a headache, overcome with cumulated stress of battle, his mixed feelings of Cassio’s loyalty and the planted suspicions of his wife, and Desdemona attempts to assuage his pain by rubbing his head with a strawberry-motif handkerchief, the first present Othello gave her, and of great importance. Othello, unable to be cured of his spiritual anxiety by any physical relief, dismissed his wife saying “Your napkin is too little: / Let it alone,” (3.3.322-323) the handkerchief falling to the floor. The handkerchief eventually made its way to Iago, who schemed to place it with Cassio, using it as evidence to suggest that Desdemona had been intimate with the disgraced lieutenant (3.3.456-488). This evidence, combined with the initial glimpse of the two together from afar, and Desdemona’s innocent pleadings for her husband to restore Cassio’s office and honor, were the three pieces of circumstantial evidence used to condemn them both to death, Othello promoting “honest” Iago to lieutenant and charging him with slaying the latter, while Othello would slay the former.
This chain of events, as convoluted as it is, is perhaps the most important and critical example of Othello’s tragic failure to exercise prudence, for in no measure did he have knowledge of Desdemona’s infidelity, relying solely on opinion which would be immediately rejected in any court of law as unreliable evidence: hearsay. Rather than process his thoughts with prudence and a tempered sense of mercy, Othello acted with hasty, irrevocable, and unbridled justice, punishing Desdemona with death for a debauchery she never partook in. While Cassio managed to survive the designs of Iago, and so live another day, the virtuous Desdemona, loyal to the general until her dying breath, declaring that “Nobody; [she herself]” (5.2.147) must have been guilty, was snuffed out from life.
Had Othello considered his situation rationally, and tempered his judgment with the mercy that a husband should feel toward a beloved wife, even a wife who had betrayed him or acted unlawfully, rather than upbraiding and assaulting her (ex. Othello strikes Desdemona 4.1.251 and 4.2 in which the general compares her to the madam of a whorehouse), dehumanizing her so as to rationalize her murder, he would not have destroyed both himself and those closest to him, nor disrupted the harmony of the state by sacrificing its most noble guardian. Prudence would have rightfully served Othello in fostering in him a healthy skepticism of the words and actions of others, not prone to simply accept what is relayed to him with naivety, but to hold the issue bare with the searing flame of reason, a bane to the absurd and the fanciful, the light bringing faculty, and to judge its merits on the basis of evidence and logic.
Ultimately Othello is about the relationship of love and justice. Winifred MT Nowottny argues that justice and love are opposed and that Othello’s error is in applying standards of judgment to love, where action should be guided by faith (Nowottny 330-44). In contrast to Nowottny’s claim is Christy Desmet who while agreeing with the former’s assertion that Othello wrongly seeks empirical evidence in a domain of opinion, responds with the argument that love and justice are not fundamentally at odds (Demset 100), citing scene IV of act I, in which Othello defends his love of Desdemona before a court of his peers. It may be that neither argument adequately elucidates the topic and that love is a healthy functioning of justice, for we should love all beings as they deserve, in order to, returning to Plato’s conception of the Republic, bring about the flourishing and wellbeing of the community. For those who we fall into romantic love, that can also be measured by justice, as the beloved is a model of the good, and our courting of it is the worship of virtue. If we do not love the good of the person, and hence do not love with justice, it is not love but base lust which we are wrapped up in the business of, and mislead ourselves into embodying a false truth.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985.
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.
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Desmet, Christy. Reading Shakespeare’s Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity. Boston:
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Plato. The Republic. New York: Penguin, 1955.
Winifred MT Nowottny, “Justice and Love in Othello,” University of Toronto Quarterly 21, no.
4 (1952): 330-44.