Virtue, Imagination and Human Perception
Othello is a tragedy. But what qualities does it possess to qualify it as such? The key difference between comedy and tragedy is the ability to reconcile and tolerate the inevitable foibles of the human condition. In Othello nothing is tolerated, and nothing is reconciled. Instead, Iago provides the spark and fuel to ignite a fire that ultimately consumes all the characters. While Iago’s responsibility for what occurs is undeniable, however, the subsequent events would not have been possible had a social structure enabling such a consuming fire not already been established. The tragedy of Othello occurs when the supposed virtue of the principal characters unravels into evil, enabling Iago’s plan to flourish. That virtue, however, was already unstable before Iago’s intervention.
Immediately before committing suicide, Othello likens himself to “the base Indian” who threw a pearl away (5.2.356). This is significant because at this moment, Othello is recognizing himself as the ignorant barbarian that Venetian society always believed he was. Another potential phrasing of the line, based on the folio, is “Judean,” replacing Indian. By likening himself unto a Jew rather than a barbarian, there is a greater sense of malice afoot—perhaps alluding to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. In either phrasing, however, Othello is condemning himself, whether as a barbarian or simply a debased human being. Both phrasings serve as a confirmation of what, one might suppose, the prevalent society may have always suspected. Othello always was an outsider. Despite that status, however, and the accompanying haze of suspicion such status brought, Othello had constructed an image of himself as a man of virtue. A courageous, noble, brave warrior and a protector of Venice. Whether or not the virtue was real or imagined is peripheral to the discussion since regardless of Othello’s true nature, his outward appearance was certainly a construction necessitated by the attitudes of Venetian society at the time. As witnessed by the response of Brabanzio to hearing his daughter had been taken by Othello, and the frequency with which Othello is referred to as “The Moor,” the people had an expectation of what a Moor was to be—a barbarian, an ignorant beast. In order for Othello to overcome that expectation he had to create an almost superhuman construct of himself. Even a man who truly was virtuous, if faced with the same cultural obstacles as Othello, would need to create an especially extraordinary exterior projection to compensate for the inherent disadvantages he had to face. In short, Othello’s virtue was, at least in part, imagined—a fact of which he was painfully aware.
Similarly, the virtue of Desdemona was something that had to be maintained at all cost. As Desdemona herself laments after hearing of Cassio’s presumed fate, shortly before Othello kills her, “Alas, he is betrayed, and I undone. (5.2.83).” Desdemona is “undone” because her virtue had been destroyed (of course, she’s also about to die). Importantly, however, Desdemona never actually did anything to destroy that virtue. Instead, in this instance, virtue is something external; more a perception than a reality. Her husband Othello no longer believes that Desdemona is virtuous and so, that virtue has been destroyed, she has been “undone,” and death follows. The key to the unraveling of the virtue of both Desdemona and Othello lies entirely, in fact, within the realm of perceptions and their inherent unreliability: The perceptions of Othello, of Desdemona, and of the prevalent society of Venice.
An individual’s sense of perception is inherently flawed. Turning to the concept of radical doubt, how do we know what we think we know? The people of Venice thought they knew what a Moor was and yet Othello defied those expectations. Othello, meanwhile, knew who he himself was at a deeper level, and also what he thought Venice thought he was. The construct of virtue that Othello created for himself was based in part on what he perceived to be the expectations of the Venetians. Pushed to its logical destination, everything Othello and the other characters did was based upon suppositions and perceptions of others. Iago poisoned that stream of perception. Once Iago introduced concepts of infidelity to Othello’s perception, everything took on different meanings. Desdemona’s supposed betrayal of him challenged Othello’s own internal sense of strength and virility and began to eat away at the construct of virtue he was seeking to sustain. Circumstantial evidence, such as the handkerchief, became irrefutable evidence when seen through the tinted lens of Othello’s enraged perceptions. The result was a crisis for Othello as he tried to reconcile his own construct of reality and himself with the constructs he perceived that Venetian society held of him, and well as his perceptions of Desdemona. Unable to reconcile the different constructs, Othello completely unraveled and retreated to the base level of the prevailing society’s expectation of him: the ignorant barbarian. His perception—or imagination—defeated reason. Everything Othello had worked to establish suddenly evaporated. His status as an esteemed warrior paled when viewed in contrast to his existence as “the base Indian” throwing away a pearl. His descent from virtue was the substance of tragedy and the consequent corruption the very nature of evil. Aristotle decreed that tragedy occurs not when someone who is completely virtuous falls through no fault of their own. Tragedy occurs when someone who is imperfect falls not by depravity but rather, by their own frailty or imperfection. Their hamartia, or tragic flaw. Othello was not purely virtuous—which is not to say he wasn’t a good man. However, he was not perfect. In order to survive as an outsider within the Venetian culture, Othello had to imagine a construct for himself that was perfect and beyond reproach. When challenged by reality and unable to reconcile the discrepancies in his life, the virtue of Othello unwound and disaster became unavoidable.
Ultimately, Iago was successful because his plan hinged upon the inevitable flaws of human perception. Once doubt was introduced into Othello’s already fragile perception of his life and relationships, the inevitable consequences were set in motion. Just as order invariably seeks disorder in the universe, the human mind inevitably seeks similar disorder. Othello could not reconcile the disparate perceptions he was faced with and in response retreated to his basest level of jealousy and violence. Despite his best efforts, the initial skepticism of Venetian society was validated as virtue was corrupted into evil and Iago emerged victorious.
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