Othello Characters Analysis features noted Shakespeare
scholar William Hazlitt's famous critical essay about
characters of Othello.
IT has been said that tragedy purifies the affections
by terror and pity. That is, it substitutes imaginary
sympathy for mere selfishness. It gives us a high and
permanent interest, beyond ourselves, in humanity as
such. It raises the great, the remote, and the possible
to an equality with the real, the little and the near.
It makes man a partaker with his kind. It subdues and
softens the stubbornness of his will. It teaches him
that there are and have been others like himself, by
showing him as in a glass what they have felt, thought,
and done. It opens the chambers of the human heart.
It leaves nothing indifferent to us that can affect
our common nature. It excites our sensibility by exhibiting
the passions wound up to the utmost pitch by the power
of imagination or the temptation of circumstances; and
corrects their fatal excesses in ourselves by pointing
to the greater extent of sufferings and of crimes to
which they have led others. Tragedy creates a balance
of the affections. It makes us thoughtful spectators
in the lists of life. It is the refiner of the species;
a discipline of humanity. The habitual study of poetry
and works of imagination is one chief part of a well-grounded
education. A taste for liberal art is necessary to complete
the character of a gentleman. Science alone is hard
and mechanical. It exercises the understanding upon
things out of ourselves, while it leaves the affections
unemployed, or engrossed with our own immediate, narrow
interests.—OTHELLO furnishes an illustration of these
remarks. It excites our sympathy in an extraordinary
degree. The moral it conveys has a closer application
to the concerns of human life than that of almost any
other of Shakespear's plays. "It comes directly
home to the bosoms and business of men." The pathos
in Lear is indeed more dreadful and overpowering: but
it is less natural, and less of every day's occurrence.
We have not the same degree of sympathy with the passions
described in Macbeth. The interest in Hamlet is more
remote and reflex. That of OTHELLO is at once equally
profound and affecting.
The picturesque contrasts of character in this play
are almost as remarkable as the depth of the passion.
The Moor Othello, the gentle Desdemona, the villain
Iago, the good-natured Cassio, the fool Roderigo, present
a range and variety of character as striking and palpable
as that produced by the opposition of costume in a picture.
Their distinguishing qualities stand out to the mind's
eye, so that even when we are not thinking of their
actions or sentiments, the idea of their persons is
still as present to us as ever. These characters and
the images they stamp upon the mind are the farthest
asunder possible, the distance between them is immense:
yet the compass of knowledge and invention which the
poet has shewn in embodying these extreme creations
of his genius is only greater than the truth and felicity
with which he has identified each character with itself,
or blended their different qualities together in the
same story. What a contrast the character of Othello
forms to that of Iago! At the same time, the force of
conception with which these two figures are opposed
to each other is rendered still more intense by the
complete consistency with which the traits of each character
are brought out in a state of the highest finishing.
The making one black and the other white, the one unprincipled,
the other unfortunate in the extreme, would have answered
the common purposes of effect, and satisfied the ambition
of an ordinary painter of character. Shakespear has
laboured the finer shades of difference in both with
as much care and skill as if he had had to depend on
the execution alone for the success of his design. On
the other hand, Desdemona and Æmilia are not meant
to be opposed with anything like strong contrast to
each other. Both are, to outward appearance, characters
of common life, not more distinguished than women usually
are, by difference of rank and situation. The difference
of their thoughts and sentiments is however laid open,
their minds are separated from each other by signs as
plain and as little to be mistaken as the complexions
of their husbands.
The movement of the passion in Othello is exceedingly
different from that of Macbeth. In Macbeth there is
a violent struggle between oppo-site feelings, between
ambition and the stings of conscience, almost from first
to last: in Othello, the doubtful conflict between contrary
passions, though dreadful, continues only for a short
time, and the chief interest is excited by the alternate
ascendancy of different passions, by the entire and
unforeseen change from the fondest love and most unbounded
confidence to the tortures of jealousy and the madness
of hatred. The revenge of Othello, after it has once
taken thorough possession of his mind, never quits it,
but grows stronger and stronger at every moment of its
delay. The nature of the Moor is noble, confiding, tender,
and generous; but his blood is of the most inflammable
kind; and being once roused by a sense of his wrongs,
he is stopped by no considerations of remorse or pity
till he has given a loose to all the dictates of his
rage and his despair. It is in working his noble nature
up to this extremity through rapid but gradual transitions,
in raising passion to its height from the smallest beginnings
and in spite of all obstacles, in painting the expiring
conflict between love and hatred, tenderness and resentment,
jealousy and remorse, in unfolding the strength and
the weakness of our nature, in uniting sublimity of
thought with the anguish of the keenest woe, in putting
in motion the various impulses that agitate this our
mortal being, and at last blending them in that noble
tide of deep and sustained passion, impetuous but majestic,
that "flows on to the Propontic, and knows no ebb,"
that Shakespear has shewn the mastery of his genius
and of his power over the human heart. The third act
of OTHELLO is his finest display, not of knowledge or
passion separately, but of the two combined, of the
knowledge of character with the expression of passion,
of consummate art in the keeping up of appearances with
the profound workings of nature, and the convulsive
movements of uncontroulable agony, of the power of inflicting
torture and of suffering it. Not only is the tumult
of passion in Othello's mind heaved up from the very
bottom of the soul, but every the slightest undulation
of feeling is seen on the surface as it arises from
the impulses of imagination or the malicious suggestions
of Iago. The progressive preparation for the catastrophe
is wonderfully managed from the Moor's first gallant
recital of the story of his love, of "the spells
and witchcraft he had used," from his unlooked-for
and romantic success, the fond satisfaction with which
he dotes on his own happiness, the unreserved tenderness
of Desdemona and her innocent importunities in favour
of Cassio, irritating the suspicions instilled into
her husband's mind by the perfidy of Iago, and rankling
there to poison, till he loses all command of himself,
and his rage can only be appeased by blood. She is introduced,
just before Iago begins to put his scheme in practice,
pleading for Cassio with all the thoughtless gaiety
of friendship and winning confidence in the love of
"What! Michael Cassio?
That came a wooing with you, and so many a time,
When I have spoke of you dispraisingly,
Hath ta'en your part, to have so much to do
To bring him in?-Why this is not a boon:
'Tis as I should intreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing meats, or keep you warm;
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your person. Nay, when I have a suit,
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise, and fearful to be granted."
Othello's confidence, at first only staggered by broken
hints and insinuations, recovers itself at sight of
Desdemona; and he exclaims
"If she be false, O then Heav'n mocks itself:
I'll not believe it."
But presently after, on brooding over his suspicions
by himself, and yielding to his apprehensions of the
worst, his smothered jealousy breaks out into open fury,
and he returns to demand satisfaction of Iago like a
wild beast stung with the envenomed shaft of the hunters.
"Look where he comes," etc. In this state
of exasperation and violence, after the first paroxysms
of his grief and tenderness have had their vent in that
passionate apostrophe, "I felt not Cassio's kisses
on her lips," Iago, by false aspersions, and by
presenting the most revolting images to his mind,1
easily turns the storm of passion from himself against
Desdemona, and works him up into a trembling agony of
doubt and fear, in which he abandons all his love and
hopes in a breath.
"Now do I see 'tis true. Look here, Iago,
All my fond love thus do I blow to Heav'n. 'Tis gone.
Arise black vengeance from the hollow hell;
Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate! Swell bosom with thy fraught,
For 'tis of aspicks' tongues."
From this time, his raging thoughts "never look
back, ne'er ebb to humble love," till his revenge
is sure of its object, the painful regrets and involuntary
recollections of past circumstances which cross his
mind amidst the dim traces of passion, aggravating the
sense of his wrongs, but not shaking his purpose. Once
indeed, where Iago shews him Cassio with the handkerchief
in his hand, and making sport (as he thinks) of his
misfortunes, the intolerable bitterness of his feelings,
the extreme sense of shame, makes him fall to praising
her accomplishments and relapse into a momentary fit
of weakness, "Yet, oh the pity of it, Iago, the
pity of it!" This returning fondness however only
serves, as it is managed by Iago, to whet his revenge,
and set his heart more against her. In his conversations
with Desdemona, the persuasion of her guilt and the
immediate proofs of her duplicity seem to irritate his
resentment and aversion to her; but in the scene immediately
preceding her death, the recollection of his love returns
upon him in all its tenderness and force; and after
her death, he all at once forgets his wrongs in the
sudden and irreparable sense of his loss.
1 See the passage, beginning-"It
is impossible you should see this, were they as prime
as goats," etc.
"My wife! My wife! What wife? I have no wife.
Oh insupportable I Oh heavy hour!"
This happens before he is assured of her inno-cence;
but afterwards his remorse is as dreadful as his revenge
has been, and yields only to fixed and death-like despair.
His farewell speech, before he kills himself, in which
he conveys his reasons to the senate for the murder
of his wife, is equal to the first speech in which he
gave them an account of his courtship of her, and "his
whole course of love." Such an ending was alone
worthy of such a com-mencement.
If anything could add to the force of our sym-pathy
with Othello, or compassion for his fate, it would be
the frankness and generosity of his nature, which so
little deserve it. When Iago first begins to practise
upon his unsuspecting friendship, he answers-
—" 'Tis not to make me jealous,
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are most virtuous.
Nor from my own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt,
For she had eyes and chose me."
This character is beautifully (and with affecting
simplicity) confirmed by what Desdemona herself says
of him to Æmilia after she has lost the hand-kerchief,
the first pledge of his love to her.
"Believe me, I had rather have lost my purse
Full of cruzadoes. And but my noble Moor
Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness,
As jealous creatures are, it were enough
To put him to ill thinking.
Æmilia. Is he not jealous?
Desdemona. Who, he? I think the sun where he was
Drew all such humours from him."
In a short speech of Æmilia's, there occurs one
of those side-intimations of the fluctuations of passion
which we seldom meet with but in Shakespear. After Othello
has resolved upon the death of his wife, and bids her
dismiss her attendant for the night, she answers,
"I will, my Lord.
Æmilia. How goes it now? He looks gentler than
Shakespear has here put into half a line what some
authors would have spun out into ten set speeches.
The character of Desdemona is inimitable both in itself,
and as it appears in contrast with Othello's groundless
jealousy, and with the foul conspiracy of which she
is the innocent victim. Her beauty and external graces
are only indirectly glanced at:
we see "her visage in her mind"; her character
everywhere predominates over her person.
"A maiden never bold:
Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion
Blush'd at itself."
There is one fine compliment paid to her by Cassio,
who exclaims triumphantly when she comes ashore at Cyprus
after the storm,
"Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds,
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their mortal natures, letting safe go by
The divine Desdemona."
In general, as is the case with most of Shake-spear's
females, we lose sight of her personal charms in her
attachment and devotedness to her husband. "She
is subdued even to the very quality of her lord";
and to Othello's "honours and his valiant parts
her soul and fortunes consecrates." The lady protests
so much herself, and she is as good as her word. The
truth of conception, with which timidity and boldness
are united in the same character, is marvellous. The
extravagance of her resolutions, the pertinacity of
her affections, may be said to arise out of the gentleness
of her nature. They imply an unreserved reliance on
the purity of her own intentions, an entire surrender
of her fears to her love, a knitting of herself (heart
and soul) to the fate of another. Bating the commencement
of her passion, which is a little fantastical and headstrong
(though even that may perhaps be con-sistently accounted
for from her inability to resist a rising inclination
1) her whole character consists in having no
will of her own, no prompter but her obedience. Her
romantic turn is only a consequence of the domestic
and practical part of her disposition; and instead of
following Othello to the wars, she would gladly have
"remained at home a moth of peace," if her
husband could have staid with her. Her resignation and
angelic sweetness of temper do not desert her at the
last. The scenes in which she laments and tries to account
for Othello's estrangement from her are exquisitely
beautiful. After he has struck her, and called her names,
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him; for by this light of heaven,
I know not how I lost him. Here I kneel;
If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love,
Either in discourse, or thought, or actual deed,
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense
Delighted them on any other form;
Or that I do not, and ever did,
1 "Iago. Ay, too gentle.
Othello, Nay, that's certain."
And ever will, though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement, love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me. Unkindness may do much,
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love.
Iago. I pray you be content: 'tis but his humour.
The business of the state does him offence.
Desdemona. If 'twere no other!"--
The scene which follows with Æmilia and the song
of the Willow, are equally beautiful, and show the author's
extreme power of varying the expression of passion,
in all its moods and in all circumstances.
"Æmilia. Would you had never seen him.
Desdemona. So would not I: my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns,
Have grace and favour in them," etc.
Not the unjust suspicions of Othello, not Iago's unprovoked
treachery, place Desdemona in a more amiable or interesting
light than the conversation (half earnest, half jest)
between her and Æmilia on the common behaviour
of women to their husbands. This dialogue takes place
just before the last fatal scene. If Othello had overheard
it, it would have prevented the whole catastrophe; but
then it would have spoiled the play.
The character of Iago is one of the supererogations
of Shakespear's genius. Some persons, more nice than
wise, have thought this whole character unnatural, because
his villainy is without a sufficient motive. Shakespear,
who was as good a philosopher as he was a poet, thought
otherwise. He knew that the love of power, which is
another name for the love of mischief, is natural to
man. He would know this as well or better than if it
had been demonstrated to him by a logical diagram, merely
from seeing children paddle in the dirt or kill flies
for sport. Iago in fact belongs to a class of character,
common to Shakespear and at the same time peculiar to
him; whose heads are as acute and active as their hearts
are hard and callous. Iago is to be sure an extreme
instance of the kind; that is to say, of diseased intellectual
activity, with the most perfect indifference to moral
good or evil, or rather with a decided preference of
the latter, because it falls more readily in with his
favourite propensity, gives greater zest to his thoughts
and scope to his actions. He is quite or nearly as indifferent
to his own fate as to that of others; he runs all risks
fo a trifling and doubtful advantage; and is himself
the dupe and victim of his ruling passion-an in-satiable
craving after action of the most difficult and dangerous
kind. "Our ancient" is a philosopher, who
fancies that a lie that kills has more point in it than
an alliteration or an antithesis; who thinks a fatal
experiment on the peace of a family a better thing than
watching the palpitations in the heart of a flea in
a microscope; who plots the ruin of his friends as an
exercise for his ingenuity, and stabs men in the dark
to prevent ennui. His gaiety, such as it is, arises
from the success of his treachery; his ease from the
torture he has inflicted on others. He is an amateur
of tragedy in real life; and instead of employing his
invention on imaginary characters, or long-forgotten
incidents, he takes the bolder and more desperate course
of getting up his plot at home, casts the principal
parts among his nearest friends and connections, and
rehearses it in down-right earnest, with steady nerves
and unabated resolution. We will just give an illustration
One of his most characteristic speeches is that immediately
after the marriage of Othello.
"Roderigo. What a full fortune does the thick
If lie can carry her thus!
Iago. Call up her father:
Rouse him (Othello) make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets, incense her kinsmen,
And tho' he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies: tho' that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on it,
As it may lose some colour."
In the next passage, his imagination runs riot in the
mischief he is plotting, and breaks out into the wildness
and impetuosity of real enthusiasm.
"Roderigo. Here is her father's house: I'll call
Iago. Do, with like timourous accent and dire yell
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is spied in populous cities."
One of his most favourite topics, on which he is rich
indeed, and in descanting on which his spleen serves
him for a Muse, is the disproportionate match between
Desdemona and the Moor. This is a clue to the character
of the lady which he is by no means ready to part with.
It is brought forward in the first scene, and he recurs
to it, when in answer to his insinuations against Desdemona,
"I cannot believe that in her-she's full of most
Iago. Bless'd fig's end. The wine she drinks is made
grapes. If she had been blest, she would never have
And again with still more spirit and fatal effect afterwards,
when he turns this very suggestion arising in Othello's
own breast to her prejudice.
"Othello. And yet how nature erring from itself—
Iago. Ay, there's the point;—as to be bold with you,
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree," etc.
This is probing to the quick. Iago here turns the character
of poor Desdemona, as it were, inside out. It is certain
that nothing but the genius of Shakespear could have
preserved the entire interest and delicacy of the part,
and have even drawn an additional elegance and dignity
from the peculiar circumstances in which she is placed.—The
habitual licentiousness of Iago's conversation is not
to be traced to the pleasure he takes in gross or lascivious
images, but to his desire of finding out the worst side
of everything, and of proving himself an over-match
for appearances. He has none of "the milk of human
kindness" in his composition. His imagination rejects
everything that has not a strong infusion of the most
unpalatable ingredients; his mind digests only poisons.
Virtue or goodness or whatever has the least "relish
of salvation in it," is, to his depraved appetite,
sickly and insipid: and he even resents the good opinion
entertained of his own integrity, as if it were an affront
cast on the masculine sense and spirit of his character.
Thus at the meeting between Othello and Desdemona, he
exclaims—"Oh, you are well tuned now: but I'll
set down the pegs that make this music, as honest as
I am"-his character of bonhommie not sitting at
all easy upon him. In the scenes, where he tries to
work Othello to his purpose, he is proportionably guarded,
insidious, dark, and deliberate. We believe nothing
ever came up to the profound dissimulation and dextrous
artifice of the well-known dialogue in the third act,
where he first enters upon the execution of his design.
"Iago. My noble lord.
Othello. What dost thou say, Iago?
Iago. Did Michael Cassio,
When you woo'd my lady, know of your love?
Othello. He did from first to last.
Why dost thou-ask?
Iago. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.
Othello. Why of thy thought, Iago?
Iago. I did not think he had been acquainted with it.
Othello. O yes, and went between us very oft—
Othello. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern'st thou aught of
Is he not honest?
Iago. Honest, my lord?
Othello. Honest? Ay, honest.
Iago. My lord, for aught I know.
Othello. What do'st thou think?
Iago. Think, my lord!
Othello. Think, my lord! Alas, thou echo'st me,
As if there was some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shewn."—
The stops and breaks, the deep workings of treachery
under the mask of love and honesty, the anxious watchfulness,
the cool earnestness, and if we may so say, the passion
of hypocrisy, marked in every line, receive their last
finishing in that inconceivable burst of pretended indignation
at Othello's-doubts of his sincerity.
"O grace! O Heaven forgive me!
Are you a man? Have you a soul or sense?
God be wi' you; take mine office. O wretched fool,
That lov'st to make thine honesty a vice!
Oh monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world!
To be direct and honest, is not safe.
I thank you for this profit, and from hence
I'll love no friend, since love breeds such offence."
If Iago is detestable enough when he has business on
his hands and all his engines at work, he is still worse
when he has nothing to do and we only see into the hollowness
of his heart. His indifference when Othello falls into
a swoon, is perfectly dia-bolical.
"Iago. How is it. General? Have you not hurt your
Othello. Do'st thou mock me?
Iago. I mock you not, by Heaven," etc.
The part indeed would hardly be tolerated, even as
a foil to the virtue and generosity of the other characters
in the play, but for its indefatigable industry and
inexhaustible resources, which divert the attention
of the spectator (as well as his own) from the end he
has in view to the means by which it must be accomplished.—Edmund
the Bastard in Lear is something of the' same character,
placed in less prominent circumstances. Zanga is a vulgar
caricature of it.