Recognition and Reversal: Othello
Aristotle classifies both recognitions and reversals as the greatest point of tragedy in a play or story. Recognitions and reversals are consistently used to develop character, advance the plot, and get a reaction of pity and fear from the audience. Recognition is the act of realization or knowledge or feeling that someone or something present has been encountered before. Reversals are a major change in attitude or principle or point of view. For the main character or hero/protagonist to realize everything that has happened throughout, reversals are used by the writer or writers.
Recognition is a device which helps readers to realize a reversal. Other ways in which recognitions and reversals can be used is when the audience or reader has pity for the hero. Pity is a result of a combination of reversal and recognition. Another way recognition and reversal can be used is when the reader or audience reacts to fear, a product of reversal and recognition formed into a shocking ending to a plot.
The greatest point of tragedy, as Aristotle calls it, happens when not only shock, but reversal, recognition, and pain are presented around the center of the play or story in an unexpected instant to the audience or reader at the end of a play or story.
In “Othello” by William Shakespeare, examples of recognition and reversal can be seen throughout the play as the hero/protagonist Othello, goes through a life changing experience in which he realizes things through a somewhat shaded lens. In the play, as we near the end, the proceedings change and finally Othello is able to see that he has made a mistake. In a perfect world, it would not be too late to change what the aftermath will be. But, in Othello’s case, the recognition in this dramatic play happens way too late for Othello to correct the situation. “Othello” truly offer readers evident examples of recognition and reversal.
Reversal is most evident in the final Act in Scene II where Othello kills
Desdemona. Before the murder, Othello’s love for Desdemona is portrayed in Act II, Scene I when Desdemona arrives in Cyprus, “It gives me wonder great as my content / To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy,…As hell’s from heaven! If it were now to die, ‘Twere now to be most happy, …” (Kennedy and Gioia, II. I. 176-177, 182-183). However, as the play moves further along, Iago starts to manipulate the mind of Othello and Othello’s trust in Desdemona starts to diminish. At the start of Act V, Scene I, Othello places a great deal of trust in Iago – “O brave Iago, honest and just, Thou hast such noble sense” (Kennedy and Gioia, V. I. 32-33). But in Act V, Scene II, the truth about Iago is revealed to Othello by Cassio and Emilia. Othello’s trust in Desdemona is shown throughout the play until his trust starts to wither as Iago twists his mind, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men. / Put out the light…If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, / I can again thy former light restore,…” (Kennedy and Gioia, V. II. 6-9).
The greatest recognition in Othello occurs in Act V, Scene II, lines 87-91. Othello kills Desdemona. Then Cassio and Emilia appear and reveal Iago’s evil plot and Desdemona’s innocence. Othello then realizes that he was wrong and that his trusted friend Iago has played him for a fool. Once Othello speaks of the handkerchief he gave to Desdemona as a symbol of their love, Emilia knows that Iago is the person who set up Desdemona and Othello is not the one to blame. Emilia keeps repeating the words, “My husband?” (Kennedy and Gioia, V. II. 145, 152, 156) as she makes an incomprehensibly swift journey from knowing absolutely that Iago, her dear husband, is honest and totally trustworthy, to realizing that in fact he was the quintessential villain. The most distressing recognition comes near the end of the play, when Emilia, Desdemona’s friend and ally, realizes that her beloved husband Iago is the cause of all the misery and misfortune that is killing them all. Furthermore, she realizes that she has played an unintentional part in the tragedy by following Iago’s request to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief.
It has all been a plot by Iago to destroy Othello, and this is finally revealed to everyone, including Emilia (Kennedy and Gioia, V. II. 179-182, 187-189). To see Emilia come to full awareness is to see first the emotional breakdown caused by this revelation, and then to see it begin to build, as she shows heartbreak, guilt, awareness of betrayal, and recognition of supreme cruelty on the part of someone she has trusted with her life. She finally speaks with the words, “Villainy, villainy, villainy!” (Kennedy and Gioia, V. II. 197), knowing she has to persuade everyone of Desdemona’s innocence. Recognition again occurs in Act V Scene II when Emilia hears Othello mention the handkerchief, after he has killed Desdemona: “With that recognizance and pledge of love / Which I first gave her. I saw it in his hand; / It was a handkerchief, an antique token / My father gave my mother” (Kennedy and Gioia, V. II. 221-224).
At the same time, the attending visitors and soldiers, who have been called into action by Emilia’s cries in Act V, Scene II, are also realizing the truth of these terrible events. The reversal occurs as Emilia discloses that it was she who stole Desdemona’s handkerchief, “She give it Cassio? No, alas, I found it, / And I did give’t my husband” (Kennedy and Gioia, V. II 236-237). Immediately Othello knows that Iago has deceived him, and the recognition occurs as he says, “Are there no stones in Heaven / But what serves for the thunder? Precious villain!” (Kennedy and Gioia, V. II. 242-243). Emilia cannot contain herself until she has made Othello realize fully that his murder of Desdemona was based on lies told by Iago, who stands with her, threatening her life as she shouts the truth in Act V, Scene II. Her final words come after Iago stabs her for speaking.
So, a triple realization happened all at once: Emilia’s living her own devastating heartbreak; she announced the truth for Othello; Othello immediately goes through an explosive episode once the truth is revealed, and then finally sees what deadly mistakes he has made. At the end of the final Act and Scene, after Iago had been exposed by Emilia, Othello feels remorseful about the murder of his wife, “O cursed, cursed slave! / Whip me, ye devils, / From the possession of this heavenly sight! / Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulfur! / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! O…Dead, Desdemona!” (Kennedy and Gioia, V. II. 285-290). Othello then commits suicide because of the guilt he felt, the plays final reversal.
As readers, we are distant from the situation and might think that we would understand what was really happening and alter our actions right away. Unluckily, in the case of Othello, the recognition happens way too late for him to change the sequence of events. Othello does not consider anyone but himself at the point near the end of the play. He does not contemplate to challenge Desdemona, as Iago fills his mind with false truths. Othello does not question Cassio to find out if the accusations Iago is filling his mind with hold any truth. Othello takes to mind whatever Iago tells him, and does not try to find out if what Iago is saying is actually true. These actions are somewhat out of character for Othello. Usually he is calm and collected. He is a commanding general, which demonstrates that he knows how to direct and read people and how to think things through. Overall, Othello simply makes the error of taking the false truths of what Iago says, rather than investigating it. Othello’s deep affection and love for Desdemona make it that much easier for Iago to play with his mind.
After killing Desdemona, Othello’s world falls apart in front of him because it is then that Othello realizes the outcome with his recognition of the fact that he was wrong to take the life of the one he so deeply loved based on a false truth. Othello’s world spins around him quicker than he can imagine, before it comes to an end. He has slain the woman he loved most in the world. The man he believed was his best friend twisted his mind and deceived him. All of this is more than he can bear. So, Othello gives one final speech in which he asks the men to remember him as he truly was.
Othello requests them not to “lay it on thick” what a good man he was, nor to defame his character. Othello wanted them to think of him as a man who loved too much, however irrational it might have been. Many exceptional examples of reversal and recognition are shown throughout Othello. Constant use of recognitions and reversals to develop character, advance the plot, and get a reaction of pity and fear from the audience are clearly evident in Othello. Perhaps if Othello would have taken a minute to think about the long term outcome of his actions, he might have seen that there was more than one option of action available to him. However, if Othello had chosen another option, there would have been no recognitions, no reversals, and in turn no drama in the play.
Aristotle. GradeSaver. 1999-2011. 11 11 2011.
Dictionary.com. 2011. 07 11 2011 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/recognition>. Dictionary.com. 2011. 07 11 2011 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/reversal>. Kennedy, X.J. and Dana Gioia. Literature: an Introduction to Fiction,
Poetry, Drama, and Writing. New York: Pearson Longman, 2010.
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