Othello: Not Wisely, but Too Well

Joe Masters

William Shakespeare presents an excellent leader but a poor reasoner in Othello. The eponymous hero has strength, charisma, and eloquence. Yet these ideals of leadership do not bode well in real world situations. The battlefield and Senate are, at least in Othello, depicted as places of honor, where men speak truly. In addition, the matters of war and state are relatively simple; no one lies to Othello, all seem to respect him. He never even has to fight in the play, with the enemy disappearing by themselves. This simplistic view does not help him in matters of the heart. His marriage is based on tall tales and pity and his friendships are never examined; he thinks that anyone who knows him love him. Thus the ultimate evaluation of Othello must be that, although he leads well and means well, he lacks good judgement and common sense. This becomes most plainly obvious in his final two speeches, where even though the play ends properly, and in a dignified way, Othello never fully realizes or takes responsibility for what has happened.

These two last orations of Othello are noble in speech and purpose, but lack comprehension. He uses the first to attack himself for his horrible deed; certainly this is the first reaction of anyone who has wrongly killed his beloved. He delivers condemnation upon himself with eloquence and anguish. The latter speech he gives in his final role as a leader, directing the men who remain about how to deal with what has happened and showing them he has purged the evil.

In his initial self-loathing and remorse at realizing the truth of Desdemona's innocence, Othello is genuinely anguished. "This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, / And fiends will snatch at it." (V.2.325-326) It is clear that he is in torment because of her death, and because he himself did the deed. For the first time, it appears that Othello is at a loss with what to do with his power: "Do you go back dismayed? / Man but a rush against Othello's breast / And he retires." (V.2.320-322) Giving up is hardly Othello's style, but this is how a noble and true man should react when he has mistakenly killed his wife. However, Othello's words give a deeper insight into how he still misunderstands the situation. "Who can control his fate?" he asks, which gives pause to a theory of pure nobility. Placing responsibility in the stars - he calls Desdemona an "ill-starred wench" - is hardly a gallant course of action. (V.2.316, 323) It is beyond a doubt Othello's fault that all of this wreckage befalls him, and his still has not had a moment of recognition of his failures at reasoning and understanding.

Indeed, it is Othello's final soliloquy that ultimately seals his fate as a man who lacks critical thinking skills. This is because these are his final words, and they deal with fact, not emotion. He addresses the reasons behind his downfall, and decides how he wants others to see him, in terms of the story and how he takes responsibility for it. It is a noble speech, and a dubiously noble ending, but still, like Othello, flawed.

The setting for Othello's final moments onstage is critical to how it is perceived by Othello, the other players onstage, and the audience. It lends credence to the nobility of the situation, and adds to Othello's misguided self-perception. The experience, in itself, is perfect. The day is slowly breaking as the first strands of light are filtering through the shutters on Othello's bedroom windows. Othello has moved out of the darkness he was sitting in when he began his first speech, and while standing in light, speaks of how he has been enlightened of what occurred. He holds back the company of men who seek to take him to prison or worse with a hand and "Soft, you." With this he also silences the sounds around him, and delivers a noble address, in the light, standing tall. It is an ending suitable for the most dignified of men.

And yet, for all the splendor, glory, and excellence of tongue, his final words show that he does not quite understand himself or what he has done. His goal is to tell the emissaries from Venice what has happened, but he lacks