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What Is Othello’s Tragic Flaw?

The extravagant language and literary techniques used in Shakespeare’s Othello enhance the settings, characters, and themes. Othello, an intricate tragedy about good versus evil, loyalty, love, sexual jealousy, and appearance versus reality, is told in the first-person point of view. The play is entitled Othello and the plot and action encompass him, thus supporting his position of protagonist. The play takes place during the Renaissance in Venice, Italy and in Cyprus over three days. The opening scene of Othello is very dramatic as it begins in the middle of a disagreement or argument between two of the characters, Iago and Roderigo. Iago is a corrupt individualist who bitterly despises Othello, and his villainous scheme for revenge results in the deaths of Othello, Desdemona, his own wife and Roderigo, a suitor of Desdemona.

There is suspense as Iago and Roderigo talk of two men. One who is named and another who is referred to as ‘he’ or ‘him’. This creates an enigma or feeling of suspense as the audience wonder who ‘he’ is. The reason being that Iago presents ‘him’ in a negative way, “…he, as loving his own pride and purposes…”. This shows Othello or ‘he’ to be boastful and perhaps even egotistical and full of pride. The enigma continues when Iago says, “I follow to serve my turn upon him”. The audience finds this chilling and wonders how this storyline will develop and how Iago will take revenge on Othello. In the time this play was written, even the Queen was xenophobic, “(banishing) the great number of niggers and black moors which are crept into this realm…who are fostered and relieved here to the great annoyance of her own liege people, that want (lack) the relief which those people consume.”

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Queen Elizabeth 1’s proclamation of 1601. Therefore the term ‘Moor’ used for Othello throughout the play may have or not shocked the audience, as it is a racist remark. One of Othello’s focal flaws would be his colour. One could argue is Othello is a racist play? This play does conform to the stereotypical image of a Moor; the play opens with racist language, ‘Moorship’, ‘the thick lip’, ‘Old black ram’. At the start of the play when he is seen as heroic and noble, he is seen as being ‘more fair than black’, however when he kills Desdemona he is the ‘blackest devil’. On the other hand, Shakespeare has dealt with the issues of race and has written about it, he challenges stereotypical labels such as ‘Moor’ and exposes racism. However, Othello clearly feels himself to be an outsider, “your great business”. “Your” implies that he does not feel himself to be part of Venice, he does not say “we”. Iago expects this feeling Othello has very cleverly by appearing as a world-weary man, knowledgeable of Venice and Venetian women.

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Othello is a prestigious character, ‘Valiant Othello’ and is respected by the senators for his valiant service in the war. Othello seems to have a good deal of ‘self-knowledge’. This is revealed through his calm assurance when faced with Brabantio’s fury as he had “stolen” Desdemona from him. Othello Marries Desdemona, a Venetian white woman, who is also the Senator (Brabantio’s) daughter. “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them”. He is accustomed to commanding others, “keep up” is addressed not only to them not under his orders but also to an older Venetian Senator with power “as double at the Duke’s”. He also is willing to stand up in front of the Senate and announce his love for Desdemona and how it was founded. “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them”. This shows that he is under no illusions as to why Desdemona first fell in love with him because he had such an exciting life.

It is only when Iago starts to work on him that Othello begins to doubt Desdemona, this is when he begins to lose his self-knowledge and confidence, thus helps to increase his level of tragic flaw in the play as he becomes totally dependant on Iago. Only Iago views Othello stereotypically, as animalistic and a ‘foolish outsider’. Iago leads him “through the nose” like a stupid animal, an “ass” and is able to control Othello like a puppeteer. Iago continually plants thoughts of sexual jealousy and suspicion in Othello’s mind and is always trying to convince Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful and is having an affair with Cassio. In the play’s climax in Act III, scene three Iago’s believable words and fictitious incidents finally convince Othello that his wife is disloyal to him. Here Iago starts to unveil his malicious plan and Othello comes to completely trust the deceitful Iago and distrust his own honest wife.

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“What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust? I saw it not, it harmed not me…” He has come to question himself for being so blind to Desdemona’s affair, the questions he poses to himself show that he has lost faith in his own judgment. This makes Othello approach the situation differently from how he would. Othello has many qualities that contribute to his overall worth, one of those being his trustfulness. Here Othello says that Iago is a man of honour and trust, “I do know our country disposition well”. He is implying that Othello is innocent and does not understand the ways of the world. Othello, therefore, listens because he is “Honest Iago” whom everyone trusts. Iago plays on this reputation of his in order to convince Othello that Desdemona is false. Othello’s blind trust in Iago as well as his feeling of being an outsider is worked on by Iago to bring about his tragic flaw. Conversely, it is also a tragedy due to the reduction of a nobleman into a savage, the murder of an innocent woman, Desdemona and the fact that in the end, there is no real motive to Iago’s evilness in bringing about the tragedy.

Iago can be seen as the ‘evil character’ within the play, his reasons for revenge are petty, and none are adequately explaining his hatred for Othello. Othello was a nobleman, one who had grace with the ladies but also possessed all the virtues of a military leader that he was. He was a general experienced in battle. He showed his reliability and was respected for the person he was. His heroic personality is what drew Desdemona to him. The tragedy that follows Othello’s nobility was his reduction from a righteous man, to a wreck that could not control himself. Before so calm, his speech so musical and measured, “Were it my cue to fight I should have known it without prompter”. This line is in regular iambic pentameter revealing a “tranquil mind”. However, after Iago’s “medicine” had begun to work on Othello his speech patterns broke down. “Pish! Noses, ears and lips! Is’t possible? Confess! Handkerchief! O devil!”

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This line does not even make any sense, it has no rhythm and is broken up into exclamations revealing his disordered mind and the depths to which he has sunk. He begins like Iago to use animal imagery “goats and monkeys” and reverts to violence, he also hits Desdemona. His self-mastery has deserted him totally. He has become an Elizabethan stereotype of a barbaric Moor who talks of magic. Another factor that adds to Othello’s tragic flaw is that Desdemona is so totally innocent of the crime she has been accused of. This is shown in the way she cannot even bring herself to say the word “whore”, that Othello has accused her of being. “Such as she said my lord did say I was”. Othello kills this na�ve, innocent, good woman who he still loves passionately. “This sorrow’s heavenly; It strikes were it doth love.”

The ending of the play highlights the fact that Iago’s destruction of Othello and Desdemona was so totally pointless. He never gave a real intention, only vague suspicions that “twixt my sheets he’s (Othello’s) done my office” and because Othello promoted Cassio above him. Iago does not seem to get any pleasure from the outcome of his plan, although this may be because he has been found out. The death of these two noble, basically good people, and Emilia, seems by the end to have been for no reason at all, Othello demands one but Iago only replies “What you know, you know”.

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What Is Othello's Tragic Flaw?. (2021, May 08). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from