Iago plants the seed of doubt in Othello's mind.
The strange thing, however, is that he does not have to say much before Othello is hopelessly convinced
of Desdemona's unfaithfulness. Indeed, with absolutely no evidence, Iago has Othello eating out of his
WHY IS OTHELLO SO EASILY CONVINCED?
Othello himself provides THREE reasons why Desdemona might have proved to be unfaithful to him, and
these reasons point to psychological weaknesses within his own character:
Othello was a Moor and therefore dark of skin although by no means black. Indeed, Shakespeare
obviously confused the appearances of Moors and Black Africans, indicating that his audience too was
ignorant of the difference.
Moors would have had a difficult time in the Elizabethan mind-set and were treated with suspicion. They
were always regarded as "the other".
They were, in fact, culturally different from the other Europeans because they came from a Moslem
background and therefore had Moslem traditions, even though they had converted to Christianity.
Indeed, Moors tended to keep to themselves, maintaining their own identity and customs. There was even
suspicion that their conversion from Islam many centuries earlier had been one of convenience (to prevent
being killed) but that they remained at heart Moslem.
Second, blackness in itself was suspicious. Western society right up until the 18th century was imbued
with the idea that white was pure while black was the colour of evil.
Brides wore white. The devil was black. The black sheep of the family was the outcast. Black people
were the biblical "sons of Ham" and therefore outcasts and slaves.
A Black person was therefore not equal to a White person in Western society.
The entire basis for the plot of this play was that Othello lacked sophistication. He was not naturally
imbued with the traditions and manners of Venice but relied on others to guide him into how to act.
Once he had been removed to Cyprus, therefore, he was out of his depth. He could handle warfare and
command soldiers. Once the war with the Turks was over, however, he was expected to act as Governor
to the island but he knew not how.
He had promoted Michael Cassio to the rank of lieutenant because he could rely on the man in battle.
On the other hand, he naturally trusted Iago in matters of etiquette. The moment he landed on Cyprus,
therefore, he turned to Iago for support, and accepted his advice without question.
It is clear that Othello is advanced in years. He said so himself but, in any case, young people did not get
to command armies.
His wife, however, is young and he is afraid that her eye will be captured by the advances of any
handsome and refined young man.
In this, of course, he does not understand women but judges them as if they were men. This is
comprehensible given that Othello exists in a world of soldiers.
Men mostly look to women who are younger than themselves. It is not often that one will find men
marrying a woman who is significantly older than they.
Othello somehow believes this of Desdemona. He expects her head to be turned by men of youth,
especially by a man who enacts all the customs of Venetian society, a man such as Michael Cassio.
Cassio is not only young but he reveals all the Venetian manners and etiquette, such as his repeatedly
kissing his fingers.
In conclusion, Othello feels insecure in his marriage and will readily believe any suggestion that
Desdemona could be unfaithful. He therefore does not need much proof -- just enough to cement the
suspicions which he already harbours.
Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:
Othello to Desdemona:
"Your napkin is too little."
(He puts the handkerchief from him; and it drops.)
"Let it alone. Come, I'll go in with you."
- This "napkin" is a very important one. Why? (4)
- What, do you think, is Desdemona doing which causes Othello to push her napkin away from
- Why does Desdemona not pick up her napkin when it falls to the floor? (2)
- There is a great irony here because Othello was the actual cause of Desdemona's dropping her
napkin. Why is this an irony? (4)
"Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday."
- Comment on the significance of the words "poppy", "mandragora" and "all the drowsy
syrups of the world". (4)
- It would appear that Iago has bewitched Othello. In what way could this be said to be
"I lay with Cassio lately;
And, being troubled with a raging tooth,
I could not sleep.
There are a kind of men so loose of soul,
That in their sleeps will mutter their affairs:
One of this kind is Cassio:
In sleep I heard him say 'Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves;
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry 'O sweet creature!' and then kiss me hard,
As if he pluck'd up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips: then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sigh'd, and kiss'd; and then
Cried 'Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!' "
- Explain what is so ridiculous about this statement as proof of Desdemona's
- In many ways, Iago's description of this nocturnal event with Cassio tell us more about Iago himself
and about Othello, but very little about Desdemona or even Cassio. Explain why. (4)
- Has Iago given any proof thus far that Desdemona has been unfaithful to Othello? How then is one
to understand Othello? (4)